Over the past thirty years, approximately 40% percent of marriages in the United States have ended in divorce.1 In the wake of this staggeringly high statistic is a trail of pain and suffering that has negatively impacted hundreds of thousands of souls. I sincerely hope that the information that follows provides some encouragement, and guidance to those seeking to recover from the painfully difficult process of divorce.
The Orthodox Church’s View of Divorce
The Orthodox Church does not promote divorce. Orthodox theologians maintain that marriage is not simply a relationship we enter “until death do us part.” They assert that love relationships, like marriage, transcend death and people continue a relationship with one another even after death.
In spite of the Orthodox Church’s strong stance regarding the eternal nature of marriage, She acknowledges that some marriages cease to be viable places in which those involved can “…work out (their) salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). With deep sadness, the Church recognizes that some marriages die, and that broken and seriously dysfunctional relationships are destructive to the well-being of the spouses and children involved. In these cases, the church permits its faithful to exit an inherently destructive situation.
The Painful Path toward Divorce
Divorces don’t simply happen. Thanks to some excellent research, today we know that divorces are preceded by a lengthy, painful and predictable period of conflict that places spouses on a very slippery slope toward marital meltdown. During this process, negativity in the form of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling begins to slowly saturate a couple’s exchanges. These toxic interactions slowly poison a marriage with emotions like anger, resentment, guilt, shame and loneliness. In time, mutual trust, understanding, friendship and love are seriously undermined.
Many spouses who get caught on this slippery slope admit to beginning marriage as soul mates. In time, they feel more like roommates and eventually end up feeling like cellmates. After months or even years of living in a relationship saturated with emotional negativity, due largely to a couple’s inability to resolve important issues, one or both spouses eventually disconnects emotionally from the marriage and seeks legal counsel. By the time the civil divorce is finalized, spouses are often emotionally, spiritually, and financial depleted. If children are involved, the couple will more often than not remain conflicted for years. It is no wonder that divorce is considered among the most significant stressors affecting adult health and well-being, second only to the death of a spouse.
God’s Love for You
If you are suffering or have suffered through the divorce process, you have likely experienced a myriad of mixed feelings ranging from exhilaration and hopefulness, to crippling anger, resentment, sadness, guilt and shame. This emotional response is a common and normal part of the process.
One client with whom I worked following a lengthy, contentious divorce process stated, “In my head I know I was doing the right thing, but in my heart it was harder to accept what happened. Lately I’ve felt considerable amounts of guilt and shame, often questioning if I am lovable…I know God considers me worthy of love, but in some of my lowest moments when feelings of guilt and shame overwhelm me, I question everything.”
Another stated, “Some days I’m so angry with her for breaking up the family. I’m suffering, and our children are suffering. I don’t think she cares. She’s off having a grand old time with her new boyfriend…. All this makes me feel like God is somehow punishing me for something.”
Divorce has a way of making people question everything about themselves. Regaining perspective, finding a healthy, holy love of self, and a deeper awareness of God’s undying love are crucial to recovering from divorce. Authentic recovery usually includes the following “spiritual steps.” These steps involve a slow, deliberate process toward restoration. As difficult as this spiritual work may be, healing and a broader, holier perspective are gained from the effort.
Take a step toward God and seek to reconnect with Him, however inadequate you believe your efforts to be.
When taking the first step, identify and acknowledge your own sins rather than your partner’s.
Confess your sins in the sacrament of Holy Confession.
Seek to repent from your past mistakes – remorse should lead to a change of behavior.
Receive and accept God’s mercy, forgiveness and unconditional love.
When taking these steps, most people require some help. As a result, you might consider participating in a divorce support group that has a decidedly Christian orientation. Many groups are available online and in all likelihood, in your local community.
Together with a support group, an optimal approach would also involve your priest’s support and guidance. If he does not provide spiritual counseling supplemental to what he offers in Holy Confession, then consider a professional couples’ counselor who either has a Christian orientation or is comfortable working with religious populations.
In your efforts to take these steps you will be taking a proactive approach toward healing, rather than a passive one. Finding motivation will not be easy at times when doubt and sadness ensue; however, continuing on in the midst of these struggles will produce spiritual rewards indispensable to your recovery. Quoting from one client who recovered from divorce, “If I could share one piece of advice with those caught in the divorce process it would be that they hang in there. With God’s help, the support of trusted loved ones and some outside help, it gets better.”
Like a Death
Because the divorce process saturates people with emotions such as frustration, anger, resentment, guilt, shame, anxiety and symptoms of depression, many divorced persons compare divorce to an unexpected death. This comparison is especially true of the partner who did not initiate the divorce process and did not want it, even though the initiating partner often experiences similar visceral reactions and feelings.
Divorced couples experience the loss of a relationship that likely began as amiable, viable, and hopeful; and so the ceasation of this union is a death - a sad ending on many levels. A spouse I counseled explained it this way: “Some days I feel so lost. My emotions range from anger to depression. I’m short with the kids and I don’t want to get up in the morning. It’s terrible. It’s sort of like someone died, but they didn’t die…. I’m going to a funeral every time I meet with my attorney.”
The Grieving Process
A healthy, holy grieving process is often associated with divorce recovery. Like the death of a loved one, the recovery process from divorce requires you to get in touch with ambivalent feelings and grieve the loss. Many people have difficulty with this step. A woman I counseled stated, “I know that the divorce was inevitable. He simply couldn’t be trusted. I’m glad I’m free of his verbal abuse and controlling and manipulative ways. Still, sometimes I really wish it didn’t have to end. There is so much that I miss about being married to him.” Another woman vigorously objected when I suggested she take time to unpack her repressed emotions and lament her sins. “How do I do this? The kids need me. I have to get up and go to work every day…. I feel like I need to attend to their needs right now and my needs have to come second.” Another male client stated, “It’s been almost a year since the divorce, and I haven’t shed a tear. All I really have felt is numbness. I guess that’s not too healthy. I want to cry, but the tears just won’t come.” In these instances, all three persons needed to grieve their loss. With additional counseling, they eventually did grieve and felt its cathartic, restorative effects. If you are like these people and you have not grieved the loss of your marriage, I would suggest you find a way to do so.
The grieving process is different for each person. In some cases, it will be short in duration and in other cases it will take more time. Whether the process is short or long, it cannot be rushed. So, give yourself permission to grieve through the entire process. An occasional release of some emotion is simply not enough. Recovery from divorce requires people to take a deliberate, intentional approach toward grieving and healing.
On average, researchers suggest that it takes people five years to recover from the emotional impact of a divorce. An e-mail respondent wrote, “The civil divorce took about a year. It’s been three years since I received my divorce and I’m still fighting with my emotions. Without warning, some days I still feel some anger and on other days I’m in the dumps.”
Elizabeth-Kubler Ross, a pioneer in the hospice movement, identified the following stages of grieving and recovery. I have often used them in conjunction with the work I do with people who are struggling through the emotions experienced in divorce. They have proven helpful to them and should prove helpful to you. In most cases, people do not seamlessly pass from one stage to another. Sometimes they are caught within one or more of the following steps simultaneously:
Denial. When the “d” word (divorce) is broached, the person who does not want the divorce has a very hard time accepting it. He or she believes that their partner will change their mind. In some instances this happens, but in most cases, once a person has decided to divorce, their resolve is firm.
Anger/Resentment. Once the person who does not desire the divorce understands that their partner does not intend to return and work on the marriage, the non-initiating partner experiences high levels of anger and resentment. These emotions are extremely toxic and pervasive – often affecting their interactions with the initiating partner and others.
Bargaining. In the midst of the anger and resentment, it is not unusual for one partner to try to bargain with the other partner. In these instances, the partner being left behind might make promises and try to strike bargains to convince his or her partner not to leave. In most cases, these efforts fail.
Depression. When a person realizes that there is nothing he or she can do to prevent the divorce, the partner being left behind will generally experience symptoms of depression. The person who decides to leave also may have these symptoms due to regrets, feelings of failure, or sadness over causing pain to their ex-spouse. In these instances, many benefit from interventions beginning with a physical exam with a trusted physician. Medication may be helpful, as well as psychotherapy and spiritual counseling.
Acceptance. After a lengthy period of struggle, which often requires cycling through many of these steps, most people will accept the losses and pain and begin piecing their lives back together. It is at this point when many begin to accept the emotional divorce.
The Stigma of Divorce
Despite the high divorce rate and the fact that divorce in our society is viewed as an acceptable way of exiting a dysfunctional marriage, some divorced persons still attest to experiencing varying amounts of social stigma. This is especially true for people in high- profile positions, those who are conflicted because of their religious beliefs, and persons influenced by subcultures that condemn divorce.
The reality and pain of the stigma attached to divorce is exemplified in the following excerpt from an E-mail I received from a Greek-American woman: “It’s been almost two years. At first I didn’t know how to face my family and church family. It was very awkward. I felt people were judging me; I also felt embarrassed and like a failure. People didn’t really know what to say to me, and I had a hard time explaining what happened. Before the divorce, we were role models in our community. That changed during the separation and especially after the divorce. It was very awkward. But thankfully, as time passed, things got better and people were more understanding, but from time to time, I still feel some twinges of embarrassment and awkwardness when I meet people I haven’t seen since the divorce.” As her observations suggest, social stigma is a reality in many sectors of our society, and divorced persons still encounter judgmental attitudes during their efforts to recover. Often, Greek Orthodox Church communities are no exception.
As people recover from the painful effects of divorce, they are better able to handle the social stigma. After some considerable work with a client whose second marriage ended in divorce, he stated the following: “Since my first wife died from cancer, when people asked if I was married, I would tell them I was a widower and didn’t allude to my second marriage, which ended in divorce. I no longer do that. I simply tell them that my second wife left me and I’m divorced…. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m still concerned with what people think about me, but not nearly as much. So, if people ask, I just tell them that I’m divorced.” It takes time to get to this place. If you are not there, do not become discouraged. As you intentionally expend the time and energy to recover from divorce, like this man, you will be able to cope with the stigma associated with divorce.
Sometimes it is shame and remorse over one’s personal contribution to the marriage ending which intensifies the experience of social stigma. The Church has a powerful, healing remedy for this in the Sacrament of Holy Confession. A mysterious grace is imparted to a person when he or she takes responsibility for their sins committed in thought, word or deed, and confesses such to a priest. God’s mercy is poured out and the soul of the person is freed from the bonds of shame - if she can accept His abundant forgiveness and forgive herself as well. In this healing Mystery, “anything that is clearly revealed becomes light” (Eph 5:14), through which darkness of shame and guilt disappear.
People who do not take the time to prayerfully process a divorce are generally destined to relive their mistakes if they remarry. These people generally end up on the same slippery slope that led them toward marital meltdown the first time. Taking time to evaluate what went wrong and how you contributed to the divorce is time well spent. This is furthermore why self-examination and Confession can be so valuable.
One E-mail respondent shared the following with me after a lengthy E-mail exchange during her recovery. “I’m so glad I took the time to look at my sins after the divorce. Mind you now, it wasn’t easy. For the first six to nine months after the divorce I was fixated on him and what he did to me. Then my therapist came along and challenged me to look at my shortcomings. At first, I resented this, but in time I realized it was sound counsel. I still remember the verse you quoted from Scripture when I asked you for a second opinion: ‘…first take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the sliver out of your neighbor’s eye’ (Matt 7:5). I took my therapist’s advice and your second opinion to heart and began looking at my mistakes…. Swallowing humble pie and looking at my mistakes wasn’t easy, but I won’t be as likely to make them again if I remarry.”
A handful of sessions – perhaps six to eight – with your pastor or a couples’ therapist should be sufficient to help you broaden your perspective of the events that led to the divorce, prayerfully process some very toxic feelings that can inhibit the recovery process after a divorce, and mitigate fears related to remarriage and another divorce. In addition, the Sacrament of Holy Confession can be utilized as often as one senses the need to unload their transgressions and strive toward repentance.
Almost all parents who are fatalities of divorce have heard that they should insulate their children from their conflicts. Unfortunately, research suggests that in a significant percentage of cases, parents end up demonizing the other parent.
Some burden their children by placing them directly in the middle of their arguments, often forcing them to take sides. Parents who are fatalities of divorce engage in these and similar, unhealthy tactics because they are angry with one another and fearful that their relationship with their children will be irreparably compromised. If you are tempted to engage in any of these unproductive strategies, for your children’s sake, flee from these temptations. These destructive traps will ultimately end up making you feel worse about yourself and will harm your children. The following guidelines should prove useful in your efforts to help your children during and after the divorce process:
Avoid the temptation to use the children as a bargaining chip to obtain leverage during and after the divorce. This is not conducive to children’s best interests.
To the best of your ability, keep children as well insulated as possible from the emotional fallout that occurs between the two of you during and after the divorce.
Despite your best efforts to insulate your children, you cannot protect them from all the hurt that accompanies divorce. Like you, your children will struggle with the painful process of grieving the loss of their family unity. Engaging in consistent, compassionate communication is the best course of action to help them work through the negative residual effects.
In your efforts to deal with the fallout, be prepared to answer your children’s questions in an age-appropriate manner, and make certain they know they can come to you with their issues and problems. If they do not come to you, do not assume they are not suffering; they are. Go to them.
Repeatedly assure your children that they are not responsible for the divorce. Many children silently suffer with the belief that they have caused the breakup of their parents’ marriage.
Reassure your children that God and you will always love them and be there for them. This consistent, unending, dependable stream of love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor. 13:7).
Despite your best efforts, your child may need additional assistance working through the emotional fallout associated with the divorce. Professional counselors who are trained to work with children and their families can make a difference. When seeking professional help, always consider a therapist’s training and experience. Asking a few simple questions like: How much of your caseload involves children and their families? How much experience do you have working with children whose parents have divorced? Are you comfortable working with religious populations? If the therapist’s answers do not satisfy you, continue your search. Marriage and family therapists, social workers, clinical psychologists and professional counselors who utilize “play therapy” and also work with parents are well equipped to help.
After struggling for years through a very contentious divorce process, one mother’s remarks illustrate how parents can compound the pain and suffering that accompanies the divorce process. “He’s turned my two girls against me and convinced them that I am an evil, loose woman. My oldest has been especially brainwashed. He’s used the Bible like a sledgehammer to break up any meaningful connection between us. After obtaining counsel from a very conservative religious group, my daughter’s father has convinced my two girls that divorce is wrong and that I am living in sin because I remarried. They don’t care that he was physically abusive and highly manipulative. They don’t care that I worked to put the food on the table for years and he stayed home doing nothing. They just think that I’m a sinner – even after I got a church divorce. It’s been a real nightmare. I haven’t had contact with them in months…. The worst is that I believe these kids – now twelve and fifteen – will grow up really, really damaged.”
There are many books written from a child’s point of view that chronicle the pain and suffering that children experience. A resource I often recommend is: Elizabeth Marquardt’s book entitled, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce. Reading such resources can help parents become sensitive to the ways children process divorce, and thus arm them with insight and compassion.
Life after Divorce
In order to regain perspective and some emotional, psychological and spiritual stability, you must walk through the stages of grief in the process of divorce, painful as it may be. I have asked a number of people who passed through this process to respond to the following question: “Is there life after divorce?” Here are some of their comments.
“I never thought the pain would end. Slowly, as I did my part and confessed my sins and sought a better life, I was able to dig myself out of the pain and suffering. If you’re going through a divorce, hang in there. It gets better.”
“I never thought I could show my face at church again. It was amazing how much support I got when I did. Not from everyone mind you, but from a select few. I never expected comfort and support from some of the people who approached me. It was great. It helped a lot.”
“The old adage, ‘Time heals all wounds,’ applies here. Tell them it will take time and some considerable effort. If you do your part, it gets better.”
“In time you gain perspective and see things as they were rather than in a skewed perspective. In the beginning I thought it was all her fault. In time, you’ll see that you did some things, and she did some things that killed the marriage. Once you get past some of that and gain a better perspective, your view of the future begins to change – it gets better.”
“Is there life after divorce? Absolutely! Sooner or later you stop feeling sorry for yourself and you stop wondering about what could have been and you start looking at life after divorce. That’s when life gets exciting.”
Getting Back Into Good Standing With the Church
As you may or may not know, when Greek Orthodox Christians divorce, they lose their good standing in the church and must obtain an Ecclesiastical Divorce in order to regain it. As stated in the 2017 Yearbook (p. 274) published by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, “Orthodox Christians…who have obtained a civil divorce but not an ecclesiastical divorce may not participate in any sacraments or serve on the Parish Council, Archdiocesan District Council, Metropolis Council or Archdiocesan Council until they have been granted a divorce by the Church.” This process varies from one Orthodox jurisdiction to the next. Please check with your priest if you are not part of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He will be in the best position to outline what is required of you after you obtain a civil divorce.
The process of obtaining an Ecclesiastical Divorce is not complicated. However, when Greek Orthodox Christians find out that this additional step must also be negotiated, many are not interested in revisiting the painful circumstances surrounding their divorce. Some even resent this requirement. Here are some typical reactions.
“I have to do what? That’s not fair. I don’t want to go back and rehash everything with my priest. It will be painfully embarrassing.”
“I won’t do it -- plain and simple. I would think that the church would be more understanding and not require this.”
“I don’t want to air my dirty laundry in front of my priest. I’m afraid the priest will tell others what happened.”
“Alright, but I’m not happy about the fact that a tax is attached to this process!”
Despite these and other visceral reactions that some Greek Orthodox have about obtaining an Ecclesiastical Divorce, the Church has sound reasons for requiring Her faithful to take this step. Most significantly, it affords Her faithful the opportunity to prayerfully put closure on a painful chapter in their lives. Up to this point, divorced persons have found closure legally, emotionally and psychologically. However, many fail to obtain closure spiritually and ecclesiastically. This step permits Greek Orthodox Christians the opportunity to regain good standing in the Church and to restore their relationship with God. All too often, many neglect to consider the value of repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness. These steps are as important as, if not more important than, any others in the recovery process after a divorce.
The statement, “We are all a work in progress,” is a fitting end to this article. No matter where you are in the divorce process, remember that everyone is a work in progress. Our loving God does not wish that we remain mired in the destructive emotional, psychological and spiritual fallout associated with divorce. That is ultimately why, in the words of some fathers of our church, ‘He took on flesh and became like us that we might become like Him’. Indeed we are all sinners and we all make mistakes that we regret, but we are also God’s children. So the Church, in the spirit of God’s restorative message, allows for the blessings of a second chance.
What has happened cannot be undone. However, while you struggle to recover from divorce, learn from your mistakes, ask God for mercy and forgiveness, and embrace the undying, unconditional love He has for you: to God’s glory and our salvation. Amen.
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT