Surviving Divorce

“Surviving Divorce,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 13–14

Surviving Divorce

A divorced Latter-day Saint tells how he regained his self-confidence and hope—by helping others.

Right after my divorce, I found myself with a whole catalog of regrets. If only I had done this, if only I had said that. My wife had known me better than any other person in the world—and she had decided I wasn’t worth keeping as a husband. That’s pretty depressing. And I found myself wondering if I really was worth anything at all. From my perspective now, I know that I was going through a stage that comes to most divorced people. But at the time I didn’t know anybody else who had been divorced, and I felt totally alone. I had to spend a lot of time alone—and I got pretty tired of myself after a while.

The biggest problem I had to overcome after my divorce was recovering my confidence—first in myself, then in other people. These days the world seems to look at divorce almost as something casual; but until my wife announced that she wanted to leave me, it didn’t really occur to me that divorce could happen to me. Or how terribly wrenching the experience could be, how my life could be turned upside down overnight.

Anger, Bitterness, Despair

As soon as word got out that my wife and I had separated, I was released from the bishopric; and even though I was immediately given another calling—inservice leader for the Sunday School—I couldn’t help feeling lost. I’d been cut off suddenly from my normal family life, and now my accustomed activities of the ward had changed too. I had been close to the center of things, and suddenly I felt like I was out on the fringes, looking in.

It was at this time that I had to struggle against feeling like a terrible person. My feeling of despair over losing my wife was reinforced by the way the members of the Church treated me. They didn’t try to hurt me, I know. But all of a sudden they avoided me. My wife and her new husband attended a different ward—sometimes I wished I could, too. I went to meetings alone, I sat alone, I left alone. People glanced away when I looked at them. Few even said hello—almost no one ever said more than that.

It was as if divorce were a contagious disease, and if they came too close to me, they’d catch it.

We used to go out to dinner with several other couples. Of course they didn’t know which of us to invite—surely they couldn’t invite us both. And so they invited neither of us, and my social life came to a dead halt.

This was a time of spending long lonely nights walking around town or crying in my pillow—all the old cliches are absolutely true. But then I began to feel really bitter. What right did she have to leave me? Sure, I had made some mistakes, but I’d been a pretty good husband, too, I told myself. I started getting defiant.

And I felt that way about other Church members, too. What right did they have to avoid me because I was divorced? It wouldn’t have taken much for them to help me—just to talk to me, normally, about the things they had always talked to me about, instead of merely saying, “Hi, how are you,” and then hurrying away to find somebody else to talk to. Someone who wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

That was the time when I might have left the Church. When you’re really feeling bitter about everything, feeling mistreated, feeling unjustly judged, that’s the time when you can start hating everything and everybody. Where at first I had kept thinking, “Boy, I’m a rotten person,” now I was thinking, “I may be a rotten person, but at least I’m not as rotten as them.” It’s really an ugly frame of mind to be in. It can drive you away from everybody.

But I had a testimony, I knew the Church was true, and so I began to take a cold hard look at what was happening to me. Sure, I had lost my family, I had lost a lot of friends. But nobody was deliberately trying to hurt me—except my wife, sometimes, who was going through a bitter period herself. And when I forgot my emotions and looked at the situation, I still had a lot going for me.

I still had that good job, and my career still showed a lot of promise. I still had all my talents and abilities. I was still a basically nice person, and I had a lot to offer. So I started to look for opportunities. I started really working at making new friends.

That’s hard, when you’ve been married. Couples get used to talking to each other, to falling back on each other in social situations. You may spend the evening with George and Edna, but if they don’t like you, you always have your wife. Now I didn’t have my wife, and I had to learn how to cope with social situations all over again. It was hard. It was frustrating. But I could do it.

What finally pulled me out of my negative feelings was getting active in the Special Interest program. I have a strong testimony of that program. Nobody needs help like single people who wish they weren’t single. And yet nothing can help them more than the simple act of helping others. It wasn’t so much the kindnesses other people did for me that made me happier. It was the kindnesses I was able to do for other people. After a while I began to really think of all those single brothers and sisters as a kind of family, as real brothers and sisters. I began to think of all their little children, those poor kids who had lost one parent, as my own children. So I became an uncle to about a dozen kids in our ward. It was great.

It’s not a perfect substitute. I still get a lump in my throat when I think of my little boy. I still cry myself to sleep some nights, and take long walks at night, and have bitter feelings and resentful feelings. I sometimes still feel that I must be a very bad person, or that the Lord doesn’t love me. But those feelings don’t last, now. I have people who need me, and people I need.

How to Avoid Divorce

I don’t want to sound preachy or anything, but I wish I could warn married people that marriage just can’t be taken for granted, not for a minute. I loved my wife. But love alone doesn’t keep a marriage working.

Watch for danger signs. In spite of what all the movies and books say, women don’t often get upset for no reason. There’s usually a cause. The cause may not be you or anything you did, but there’s a cause. And it’s a husband’s duty to help his wife feel happy and satisfied. That means taking time to listen when she wants to talk. It even means taking time to help her want to talk when she doesn’t even know she wants to talk. This applies to women whose husbands are unhappy, too.

And that talking—that isn’t something you just turn on when you’re afraid there might be a problem. You’ve got to keep talking all the time. At one crucial point, my wife and I spent months never talking about anything more important than our son’s toilet training and what color of drapes to buy for the living room. And yet when we first fell in love, we used to spend hours talking about art and philosophy and our dreams and hopes. Somewhere along the line we forgot how to dream and hope together.

Another suggestion for husbands—this is a list of things I wish I had done: treat your wife like an equal in the marriage. True, your roles in marriage are different. But being husband doesn’t make you better than your wife. No sensitive, talented, self-aware person can stand very much of being treated as if she weren’t bright enough to understand something, or as if she weren’t dependable enough to be trusted with anything, or as if she weren’t wise enough to make a contribution to the important decisions. After enough blows to her self-esteem from the person who is closest to her—it’s no surprise that a woman treated that way will want a change. It’s just as possible to exercise unrighteous dominion in the home as it is to exercise it in the Church. And its effects are just as negative.

I have to face these facts about myself and what they did to my marriage. But I’m trying. And that’s half the solution, trying. I feel like at least I’m moving, and when you were as low as I felt, any direction seems to be up, as long as it’s tied to the gospel and to good people who can help build you. They help build me even while I’m helping build them.

I’m basically happy again. That’s how far I’ve come since the divorce. And I can see why my wife did some of the things she did and not feel bitter about her. But I’d rather we’d never divorced at all. That would have been best—if my wife and I could have worked it out. We might have made a go of it, if both of us had been committed to solving the problems. But by the time I realized anything was wrong, she felt that I’d never change.

But I refuse to give up. What’s happened is over—but I’ll build again. Build better next time, more carefully. Maintain the relationship once it’s built.

I refuse to give up on my chances for happiness!

Illustrated by Bob Simmons