After Divorce: Clearing the Hurdles
August 1985

“After Divorce: Clearing the Hurdles,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, 50

After Divorce:

Clearing the Hurdles

“I thought divorce would solve all my problems,” says one recently divorced man. “But it didn’t. It only changed the nature of my problems.”

The trials which face divorced Latter-day Saints are as varied as the people themselves, for no two people respond exactly the same way to a given situation. Some are forced to move to a new location and find a new job. Many struggle to survive on a smaller income. Learning to fill a new role as a single person or a single parent is a traumatic experience, and feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, rejection, and depression often beset the newly divorced.

Divorce is painful. And it usually creates as many problems as it solves. The ramifications of divorce are so wide, in fact, that the General Authorities counsel us to turn to divorce only after all other possibilities have been explored and exhausted. But when divorce is the only way out of an impossible situation, what can a person do to cope with the challenge? Following are some suggestions by divorced members of the Church who are successfully surmounting these hurdles to happiness.

Being Spiritually in Tune

Separation from a spouse often means the disruption of other human ties. Families are split apart, friends are left behind—some of the most important and cherished relationships may be lost. But there is one relationship that need not—should not—change: The Lord is always with you and will help you with your problems as you learn to live close to him.

One woman tells how drawing close to the Lord helped her to deal with the pain of her divorce: “My time alone was a great period of spiritual growth. I had no one to turn to, no place to go, except on my knees. I prayed as I had never prayed before. I fasted faithfully, meaningfully, and often. I read and studied the scriptures from cover to cover for the first time in my life. On my knees, I experienced complete dependence upon God. And he was there. He heard my humble pleadings. He put his arm of love around me. He forgave me of my sins and showed me a better way. I was amazed at the happiness, success, and opportunity that came into my life.”

“I have found the greatest sense of peace and of worth in the temple,” says a divorced brother. “It lifts me spiritually. It gives me purpose in my life. I feel I am doing something worthwhile for someone else, and at the same time I come away replenished, with a brighter direction to my own life.”

If you will pray, study the scriptures, and follow the guidance of the Spirit, even in this time of personal turmoil you will feel the sense of peace that living the gospel brings.

Learning to Forgive

Divorce often creates feelings of bitterness. These feelings are not unusual, but peace will come to you only when you learn to forgive both your former mate and yourself. President Gordon B. Hinckley, in counseling us to ask the Lord for strength to forgive, cites the Savior’s example. On Calvary, in his most terrible hour, the Lord cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.) President Hinckley points out that “brooding [over past wrongs] becomes as a gnawing and destructive canker.” He asks, “Is there a virtue more in need of application in our time than the virtue of forgiving and forgetting?” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 62.)

For many divorced people, bad feelings persist long after the divorce itself is final. Untruths told by a former spouse can be especially painful. Resist the temptation to quarrel or to tell family and friends about your former spouse’s mistakes in an effort to “get even” or to justify your position.

“I finally decided,” says one divorced man, “that everything does not have to be ‘set right.’ Sometimes it is impossible. We are what and who we are. Our true friends and family know us well and will not believe idle gossip. The better way is to ‘let it go’—as chaff in the air. Attempted answers only nurture the tale and require a greater accusation next time. It takes two to make an argument. When one is silent, there is no dispute. Far more is accomplished with a smile and a soft word.”

Elder Marvin J. Ashton has given this counsel: “We need not quarrel or compete. … We need not spend our time in retaliation. … How disarming it must be to [one’s] enemies [and the Adversary] to see the valiant moving forward with poise and dignity under all challenging circumstances. … Doing the will of God on a daily basis leaves no time for contention or confrontation.” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 60.)

“I find it helpful,” says one woman, “to pray away my anger. I pray for the spirit of the Holy Ghost to prompt me to say the right thing even when I don’t have time to stop and think what to say. I find I end up swallowing a lot of words that don’t need to be said.”

One divorced sister recognized the canker of resentment and bitterness growing in her life and decided to work actively at overcoming it. On the inside of her closet door, she put a list of things she wanted to accomplish each day. Among the usual reminders of diet, exercise, and scripture reading was the admonition to refrain from saying unkind things about her former husband. Each morning she prayed to ask for help from the Lord in her task of forgiving. Each night she privately “graded” herself and reported her progress to the Lord in prayer. Sometime later a man said to her, “My wife tells me you never say anything bad about your former husband.” She smiled inwardly. With the Lord’s help, she was succeeding in her battle against bitterness.

Keeping a Positive Attitude

One day a daughter, in an effort to bring her mother out of the despair that had filled her life since her divorce, pointed out that, with the right attitude, life can be exciting—whether we are single or married. The mother confesses that her daughter’s words and the love with which they were spoken changed her life.

She says, “I dried my tears, fixed my hair, dressed in my best, and began to put one foot in front of the other. Soon my feet were walking the halls of academia, opening my mind and heart to new and exciting studies. My feet strolled along sandy beaches, and hiked among autumn hills. My feet danced, water-skied, and played tennis. They took me to visit the sick, the shut-ins, the hospitalized, the bereaved, the lonely. I learned that life could be different and still be wonderful. It was all in my attitude.”

Strengthening Your Self-image

Many divorced people experience feelings of guilt and rejection. As one woman put it, “I think divorce is the most devastating form of personal rejection, and I have been very hard on myself for making so many poor choices in my life.” Often the divorced agonize over the past, thinking, “If only I had reacted differently …” or “If only I had not married him (or her) …”

Elder Neal A. Maxwell cautions us about chastising ourselves for past mistakes: “Some of us who would not chastise a neighbor for his frailties have a field day with our own. … We should, of course, learn from our mistakes, but without forever studying the instant replays as if these were the game of life itself.” (Ensign, Nov. 1976, pp. 13–14.)

One woman decided to cultivate a good self-image. Rather than dwelling on her problems and her shortcomings, she concentrated on the things she liked about herself. She began to cultivate new interests, to further develop her talents, and to serve others. And she found that her attitude made all the difference. She made friends and began to enjoy life again.

Making New Friends and Keeping the Old

It is often difficult to feel included when all your friends seem to be busily occupied with raising children in seemingly happy marriages. But you need friendship and concern from family and friends. One divorced sister found that, along with maintaining contact with old friends—many of whom were married—it was helpful for her to make new friends. She found a great deal of support from other women—especially other single women who shared many of her concerns.

It is easy to resist social activities. Most people find it difficult to begin to make friends, to date, to make conversation again. If you are one who has leaned on a more outgoing spouse in uncomfortable social situations, you may find it particularly difficult to attend social activities alone. But, with the proper attitude, such activities can be rewarding.

“Young Special Interest dances were a terrible challenge for me,” says a mother of two preschoolers. “It was so difficult to begin man-woman and dating relationships again. I soon learned that my attitude was the most important thing I could take to the dances. If I went each week expecting to meet ‘Mr. Right,’ I could be disappointed. But if I went to get away from the pressures of the routine of life, to have fun, to help other people, then I could relax and enjoy myself. My new-found friends and I ended up going to the dances in groups, laughing and talking as we drove. … We shared common problems and insights. Sometimes we shared baby-sitters.”

Making new friends can be difficult. It may involve approaching a neighbor who has been too busy with her young children to extend a hand of friendship. It may include volunteering to help with refreshments for a ward activity. It may even involve visiting with the bishop to make him aware of your special needs. But with the Lord’s help, you can do all these things—even though they are hard.

One divorced woman remembers, “I needed friends. After a serious assessment, I decided no one wanted to see me angry or to watch me weep. They loved the happy, enthusiastic person they had known. I put on my smile, tried to be more concerned about them than about myself, and my friends rallied.”

Alleviating Loneliness

Perhaps the most universal problem of divorced people is loneliness. “Sometimes I feel so lonely I can’t stand it,” says one brother. “Even when I am in groups of people I feel lonely, isolated, different, out of the mainstream of life. I had no idea divorce would leave me with this feeling.”

We all tend to see situations strictly from our own point of view. Only when we try to see things from another perspective can we obtain a broader, more accurate view—an eternal perspective. This is especially important for those facing as personal a trial as divorce.

“It helps me to realize that loneliness is not reserved solely for the divorced,” affirms a divorced man. “Fourteen-year-olds can feel lonely. The new family on the block can feel lonely. The new worker in the office or the unemployed can feel lonely. The elderly—and married people of all ages—can feel lonely. The missionary, the student, the serviceman away from home for the first time—all can feel lonely. But loneliness is something we can control; it is a state of mind. And we must not equate loneliness with worthlessness.”

“I decided to use my time alone to be more industrious,” says one brother. “I knew if I tried I could be a more valuable employee. I decided to leave my troubles behind when I went to work, and instead put my energies into going the extra mile in giving greater service both in my work and church position. It has paid off.”

Service to others can also help to ease the pain of loneliness. “When I feel lonely,” says one sister, “I try to think of someone else who is lonely, too. Then I challenge myself to help them, cheer them up, and see that they have a good day. Every time I follow this plan, I forget about my own loneliness.”

You need not be conquered by feelings of loneliness. If you live worthily, you can feel the comforting influence of the Holy Ghost. The Spirit can be an invaluable friend in helping you through “dark times.” He will comfort you and give you assurance of better times to come.

Making It as a Single Parent

Many divorced people carry a double burden—adjusting to a new role as a single person and providing physical and emotional support for their children. The children especially need love and acceptance during this difficult time, and they need to know that they are not to blame for causing the divorce.

Be honest with them about the situation. “My first and most immediate problem,” relates a divorced mother of six, “was telling the children. I knew my children well enough to know that if their father and I didn’t talk with them about our divorce, the older teenagers would assume their own explanation—or hear one from someone else; the middle children would blame themselves; and I feared the tiny ones would feel abandoned, unloved, and unwanted.

“I felt it would be ideal if their father and I could sit down and discuss it with them together, but there was no unity left in our marriage, so I pondered what I might say to them alone. Without going into lengthy details, and trying to be as objective as possible, I decided to tell them the truth, explaining that both of us had faults. I told them when their father would be moving, where, and when they would see him again. I was quick to reassure them that we both loved them very much, that they were not the cause of the breakup, and that nothing they could do would change it.

“I tried to answer all of their questions as honestly as I could, and I talked about our situation openly with them. I affirmed to them that their father was still a good person. As occasions arise, I tell them about his good qualities, the happy memories, and the good parts of our marriage and family life. I want my children to grow up as whole, loving human beings. I want them to obey the commandment: ‘Honour thy father and thy mother.’” (Ex. 20:12.)

Children should not feel they are required to choose sides. They are a product of both the father and the mother, and as such, retain traits from both. If they reject one of their parents, they are rejecting part of themselves. If one parent tears down the other parent in front of the child, he or she is tearing the child in two. Children should feel free to be with and love both parents.

Looking Forward, Not Back

Above all, you need to look forward. You must not let discouragement overwhelm you. Our Father in Heaven loves you and is aware of your needs. You have a living prophet. By following his counsel, you can learn to meet all your challenges. In a talk given to Young Special Interest and Special Interest members on New Year’s Eve, 1975, President Spencer W. Kimball said:

“As I see the letters that cross my desk, I realize it takes two people working hard at it twenty-four hours a day to make a marriage. It takes two people to break up a marriage. Each of you should look into your own hearts and lives and actions and determine your specific contribution to the breakdown of your marriage, and then alter your pattern of living to conform to the standards the Lord has set for us. Be honest with yourself. …

“If you have not already taken these steps, beginning with deep introspection and soul-searching on your part, do so immediately so that you can be an effective worker in the sight of the Lord.

“When this has been accomplished, then I recommend that you forget yourself. Yes, I know you are lonely. I know you feel unloved because you don’t have a special someone by your side. I know you have problems providing a living for yourself and your family. I know it is not easy to rear children alone. But you will be blessed and grow and develop if you use your own personal resources—your imagination and creativity and all of the abilities and attributes which are God-given within you. You can be self-reliant and successful.”

What Each of Us Can Do to Help

Divorce is never an easy situation. Many divorced people feel lonely because friends who do not know how to deal with the situation feel uncomfortable and therefore ignore it. What can we as members of the Church do to help divorced members?

A middle-aged father says, “After my divorce, my family was very helpful. I appreciate the tact and restraint they used. They knew me and my former spouse well enough to enumerate all our faults and to outline a plan for our future living, but they didn’t. They gave me counsel only when asked. They called and invited me to be with them often enough that I didn’t feel alone, but they left me in charge of my own life.”

A mother says, “My brother and a cousin were valuable financial advisers. One sister helped me to write a resume and took particular interest in my employment prospects. Another sister’s telephone calls came just at the moment I needed them the most. Family gatherings were still held on rotation basis in my home, but ‘pot luck’ eased my financial situation.

Another woman confides: “It has helped me so much to have my former husband’s family remain loving, accepting, and supportive. One day my father-in-law called on the telephone and said, ‘We know what you must be going through, and our hearts go out to you. If you and the children ever need us, we want you to know that we are here.’ He didn’t pry; he didn’t counsel; he just offered much-needed Christlike love.”

Ward members can also do much to help. They can include divorced members in their activities. They can help with advice about home and car maintenance. Bishops can care for the concerns of the divorced members in their wards by providing a strong support system through good home teachers and visiting teachers. One bishop suggests the following guidelines for home teachers of divorced members and other single people:

1. Call and make an appointment before you go so that the person you visit will be at home and ready to receive your visit.

2. Go with your companion.

3. Always prepare and present a spiritual message.

4. Always have prayer with them.

Similar guidelines should be followed by visiting teachers.

“I have been grateful to my home teachers and their wives for going the second mile with us,” one divorced member says. “Their wives call and invite me to ride with them to priesthood parties and special ward functions. They see that my children have escorts to daddy-daughter dates and father-son outings. Occasionally they include us in a family home evening. Sometimes they take my boys on hikes. Their monthly messages are filled with the inspiration and guidance we need to strengthen our lives.”

Other members of the ward—particularly visiting teachers—can offer similar friendship and assistance. One sister remembers an empathetic woman in her ward who had been through a divorce and was her greatest help and support. “I knew it was not a good idea to tell my troubles to everyone, and yet I needed one person in whom I could confide my deepest feelings, fears, and frustrations. In her wisdom, she knew when just to listen, when to encourage, when to lift, and when to let me gather my own strengths and lift myself.”

A Relief Society president confides that one day she called a divorced sister on the telephone and said, “I don’t know anything about divorce; would you be good enough to call a lady in our ward who is newly separated from her husband and visit with her?” She said the divorced sister was most willing to assist someone else just as she had been helped.

“I am grateful for the ward members who called me, just to chat, knowing that I must be having lonely moments,” says a divorced sister. “Others sensed that my social life was limited and sought ways to include me with rides to the temple, a luncheon, an extra symphony ticket. Some offered to baby-sit so that I could go out.”

The key is to reach out. You may feel awkward at first. But divorced brothers and sisters often feel awkward in their situation, too. By reaching out to them, you can not only render needed assistance, but also form lasting friendships that will bless both of your lives. As one divorced sister put it, “My ward members made me feel ‘no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.’” (Eph. 2:19.)

  • Mary Jane Knights served on an ad hoc committee that studied divorce in the Church; much of the information in this article came from that survey. Sister Knights serves as Primary president in the Holiday (Utah) Third Ward. Now remarried, she and her husband, Wilford, are the parents of six children.

Illustrated by Don Weller