“For I hate divorce, says the Lord the God of Israel” (Mal 2:16).
If you are a faithful woman or man, who has somewhat surprisingly found yourself navigating the tough waters of divorce, then you know better than most just why the Lord said this. Why he could find no better word to use than hate. Let’s face it, when two people go up to the altar to profess their marital vows…they are both broken. We are all broken. The institution of marriage is good, beautiful, and perfect; just like God himself. Our free will is often far less than this. Our hopes and dreams are pure and intentional, and God continues to bless this through our bonds and the brokenness. Hope does not die, because hope is in God. It is because of the covenantal goodness of marriage, the Lord says that he hates the destruction of it, which brings violence to the soul!
I will not pretend to know about divorce personally, and I am thankful for that. But I have been asked many tough questions from those who are hurting and healing through the brokenness of their own marriage. I will also spare you the details about the ethics of proper divorce and annulment.
What I do want to share is an encouraging story, from a single mother of five beautiful children, who is in the spiritual trenches, healing from her divorce. I want to share this, because it’s important for all of us, especially in the year of mercy, to equip ourselves with the right tools to help our hurting and broken sisters and brothers. Remembering that by the grace of God, we may find ourselves blessed in our vocation, fighting for our marriage together, or even healed from past brokenness. Whatever our state, the witness of those divorced Catholics among us; returning to a life of chastity, gaining the full load of support of the family, and seeking to give and receive forgiveness, is undeniably important to all of us.
Here is what Michelle has learned through her divorce experience:
I am a single mother of five beautiful children. My oldest is 22 and my youngest is 12. I have passed the diaper, potty training and dressing stage. I no longer need to brush anyone’s hair or teeth, rock anyone to sleep or wipe noses. The hefty physicality of chasing toddlers has long passed, and has been replaced by the emotional, psychological and spiritual work of guiding, healing and protecting their minds and souls.
A few years ago, my family fell apart. It was heartbreaking to learn that another woman had taken my role, as companion to my husband. At first, I was consumed with anger; a dark, violent, desperate anger, that needed to appropriately be expressed, acknowledged, and worked through. After the anger and numbness, came the panic. Suddenly, articles and statistics about drug use, promiscuity, and high school dropouts began to taunt me, as we transitioned to a single family home. How on earth was I going to combat the world’s dark influence, as well as their own father’s public scandal…alone? I was terrified. After many good cries, I began to recognize the first truth: I wasn’t alone. I had family and friends, a good Catholic school for my children’s formation, and more importantly I had the Holy Family.
Clinging to the Holy Family in times of darkness and doubt helped to fight the continuous spiritual battles. Then came the smaller battles of simple logistics. How do I answer my children’s questions in a helpful and charitable way? I knew what I wanted to tell them about their father and the other woman, but how would this help them heal? After consulting many priests, an excellent counselor, hours of prayer and reflection, I finally developed and have held to a plan of action, and a philosophy that has greatly benefitted our family.
Validate Your Child’s Feelings!
This is by far the most important advice I can give any single parent. We chose our spouses, right or wrong, but our children were given two people to love them unconditionally. Suddenly one of those people has decided that they want something other than what they thought (and vowed) they wanted. By that parent’s choice, they assert that their needs are more important than those of their children. A child can innately sense that the dissolution of their parent’s marriage and their family unit is unnatural, and this can cause deep wounds and insecurities in the child.
The world will try to tell your children to adapt. They will be told to “shrug it off,” that it “happens all the time,” and that it’s “not about them.” But it is about them! It’s about all of you. Many women want to tell their children that “He didn’t leave you, he left me.” The problem with that statement is that he did actually leave the child. He left the house. At night he is no longer there to tuck them into bed. (My children had to face the facts that he may be tucking someone else’s children into bed.) Daddy won’t be there if a burglar breaks in, or to protect them from other harms or fears. The reality is that they have been left too.
That being said, your children need to express their own anger and sadness in a healthy and safe way, so that it does not become self-destructive. Validate their reality, in the same way you must allow yourself to do. Do not undermine your child’s pain and dignity, by brushing it under the rug.
Don’t Lie to your Children
I was told ad nauseam to never say anything negative about my spouse to my children. While I can respect the theory behind the statement, responding with, “Your father and I both love you” is only going to go so far as an answer. Depending on your child’s age, they don’t need all the inappropriate details, but they do need the truth none the less. They have the right to know why their lives have been completely dismantled. They need honest answers that will help them process and forgive, rather than conjure self-blame.
But how do you tell them? Give yourself time. Pray. Seek council and ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words. Answer with love and mercy. Be a teacher, and teach by example! This is the moment to show our children what, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” actually looks like.
It will be a painful talk, but can also be a powerful witness of both strength, humility, and the need for Christ. Love and respect them enough to be honest, speaking truth with compassion for your spouse. Remember to pray for your spouse alone and together as a family. Teach your children to pray for them with great love! Finally, teach them that we must own our sins.
Do not go inward! Whatever you do, don’t do it! Your children need you now more than ever. As difficult as it may be, you must be fully present for them. Draw close to support systems, and have fun with your children despite the circumstances! Try to laugh as a family much more than you cry. Let them talk your ear off. They need to talk. Stay connected.
Ease up on the Arbitrary Rules
This time of transition is not one to worry about how many green beans they are consuming. Rather, be sure to keep your focus on the necessary concerns. Your children need to be saturated in love, so say “yes” whenever possible and limit nagging. Remember that God’s plan for them will not be altered by a couple Twinkies.
Ease up on Yourself
After the bottom fell out of my home, I grabbed my kids and headed for a visit to my parents house. While there, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend 24 hours at a nearby Benedictine Abbey. In a conversation with one of my childhood priests, I was given some of the most important advice I have ever received. He said, “You are now a single parent. You will fail. Two parent homes fail regularly and you are now a one parent home. You need to decide where you are unwilling to fail…To put it simply: No one has ever been denied entrance into heaven for wearing dirty underwear!”
I cannot articulate the weight that these words lifted off my shoulders! Decide what is important and let the rest fall as it may.
Help your Children Hold onto the Church with all They Have!
Bring your Faith into the forefront of the family. Drench them in the Love of Christ. They may struggle with feeling unworthy and unloved. Let them know often just how well-loved they are by their heavenly Father.
The Church provides us with the healing graces through the sacraments. Take them to Mass and confession frequently. Adoration is a wonderful place to sit and emotionally purge. Make sure they understand that God hears them and wants them to come to Him with all their pain and needs.
If you can, find a good spiritual director to counsel you as a family. This could be a priest, faithful lay woman, or even someone who has experienced and properly healed from a divorce, and is in a place to offer spiritual direction. This may sound strange, but it is extremely important for a woman in this situation to be prudent, in not looking to the priest as an emotional replacement for her spouse. This is important in protecting the dignity of the priesthood, as much as your children and not building an emotional dependence.
Scale Back your Priorities
You are one person taking on the job of two, don’t forget that! Forgive yourself for being “less than perfect.” You cannot possibly be in two or more places at the same time. Reach out to others and don’t be afraid to ask for help or accept offers. To help ease the load, cut out unnecessary obligations. Little Johnny does not need to play every sport this year (or the next few). Quit the volunteer work for now. Your home needs your undivided attention.
Keep it Together…
This is tough. It is most especially painful to watch your child’s world falling apart, and therefore important that they see your strength, knowing they can rely on you. The bathroom is a good and private place to weep. Take advantage of your girlfriends, they are good sounding boards. Also, make sure to rest when you can. You will be more likely to unravel if you’re physically exhausted. If you feel any bit of depression coming on (which often occurs), don’t waste time feeling guilty for this normal reaction, and find the help you need right away. You must be healthy if you are to lead your children. Seek counseling and spiritual direction. These things will not only help you, but they will be good examples for your children as well. If they see you getting help, they are more likely to get it for themselves.
Don’t Become a Robot
Don’t confuse yourself, your children, or anyone else by pretending that everything is “hunky-dory.” This is simply not an appropriate or healthy response. There is nothing wrong with allowing others to see your pain and your hurt. Just remember that it is part of the climb, and the end goal is stability, healing, and freedom. A few tears or voiced frustration, and allowing yourself moments of weakness, will not compromise your strength for them. They will also be less embarrassed when they emote. The key is to also allow your children to see you doing the work of healing. You don’t want to encourage self-pity and wallowing, so a healing plan should exist. Nothing fancy or formal. Sometimes it may only be a long shower and a nap, other darker times may require a trip to adoration or a call to a priest.
Ultimately, there is no fool-proof equation to navigate such a tragedy as divorce. Each spouse and each child will react and need something different. For me, it’s just when I think I understand them, that they need something new. Stay alert, be a good example, and live your faith abundantly!
Connect and Read More on this topic at BlessedNotBroken
- Detaching with Love: 5 Audio CD Set; A Retreat with Fr. Emmerich Vogt, OP
- Book Suggestions:
- Interior Freedom by Fr. Jacques Phillippe
- Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life
- Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships
- Boundaries After a Pathological Relationship
- Boundaries with Kids Participant’s Guide
- Rebuilding After Divorce: Making Your House a Home (Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide Series)
- Michelle’s Blog: Blessed Not Broken
You may also enjoy:
Aleteia's Kimberly Cook talks to Johnson about his faith journey, and how he and his wife Abby, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director, became advocates for life. Doug Johnson is a stay-at-home dad and husband of pro-life speaker and advocate, Abby...