“After Divorce: Help for Latter-day Saint Men,” Ensign, Aug. 2003, 58–63
“I was dying emotionally, and everything that mattered to me had been changed in a way I had no ability to control,” said one Latter-day Saint man after his divorce. “I felt helpless and lost. Ordinarily stable and unemotional, I found myself waking up at four o’clock in the morning and physically shaking. I closed my door at the office and cried uncontrollably for half an hour at a time.”1
In my work as a professional therapist, I have found that the above description of a Latter-day Saint man’s journey after divorce is all too typical. Yet few would know it. Often men keep such feelings inside and suffer in silence. They experience confusion about marriage, they grieve over lost and altered relationships, and some even wonder if the Lord cares for them. Their suffering is real.
The challenges divorced men face in the aftermath of divorce are not often discussed. Yet there is much they can do to respond to their challenges within a gospel framework, making healing possible.
Many divorced men report experiencing a deep sense of personal failure and feel they have lost everything important to them. This sense of loss is frequently manifested by anxiety, depression, and guilt. Men in general are expected to bear their struggles in private, partly because society views outward emotional expression by men as being incompatible with masculinity. As a result, men are less likely to ask for or receive emotional support. Frequently others automatically assume the men are responsible for the divorce, particularly if they do not have custody of their children. This often increases divorced men’s feelings of failure and alienation from others.
Though the gospel offers many wonderful resources, some Church settings may seem awkward both for the brother who is divorced and for other members of the ward. One man described the following situation:
“I will never forget the ward social a week or so after we made the decision to separate. We went together—one of the last times we tried that experiment—but separated at the door, and for the rest of the evening, she was surrounded by sympathetic, nurturing sisters. And I was alone. A few of the brothers spoke to me about sporting events or news of the day. …
“Although that evening is the most poignant in my memory, it simply encapsulates for me the total experience of the next two months.”2
While social support may be difficult to find, such support is an important part of the healing process. Frequently others do want to help; they just don’t know how. Often the fear of being intrusive prevents them from reaching out.
Divorced men can do much to allow others to help. If you have been divorced, consider the following:
Meet with your bishop. Share with him your concerns and difficulties. Seek his counsel about how you should be involved in the ward. Let him know you want to follow the Lord’s counsel, and ask him to assist you in seeking it. A priesthood blessing can help provide hope and peace.
One recently divorced brother received a beautiful blessing from his bishop that gave him specific advice, as well as comfort and assurance of the Lord’s love. He said he was directed in the blessing “to schedule family home evenings at my home, to conduct personal priesthood interviews with my children, and to begin each visit with my children in prayer. I had thought my children might be resistant to having two family home evenings or might object to personal priesthood interviews or even prayers. They were not.” This man’s children valued his efforts to follow the bishop’s counsel and provide spiritual direction in their lives.
Meet with your quorum or group leader. Share with him what you feel comfortable sharing, asking him to keep confidences. Jointly determine what you might do to help in the quorum or group. Service can provide a wonderful opportunity to look beyond your own situation and improve your perspective. It may even be helpful to have periodic interviews with your leader to discuss your needs and to solicit his counsel.
Seek help from home teachers. Home teachers can be an excellent source of support, encouragement, and practical help. One brother was blessed with home teachers who became his close friends. He stated: “There were frequent phone calls, frequent visits. Once the quorum president called to ask if I had been home taught the previous month. I responded, ‘Which visit should count as a home teaching visit, and which message should count as the home teaching message?’ My home teachers had met with me on six different occasions that month, two at their request and four at mine. How blessed I felt to be the recipient of such kindness and concern during my time of need.”
Seek the Lord’s help. There is no difficulty too small or too large to warrant the Savior’s concern and help. Make your prayers personal. Read the scriptures as if the Lord were talking to you. Listen for answers to your questions and prayers; then act on the answers you receive.
A brother who sought guidance from the Lord stated: “I wanted to know and do the Lord’s will. I allowed Him to talk to me. I heard Him speak to me through the scriptures. I felt His love. For the very first time, I felt the blessings of the Atonement in my life, and I knew the blessings were real.”
Following divorce, being a father can be more difficult in almost every way. In nearly three-fourths of all divorces, mothers gain custody of the children. Fathers are frequently relegated to visitor status, and they may feel less effective as parents. The limited time they have with their children may be more focused and less relaxed. For example, fathers may spend more time solving problems and less time simply enjoying the company of their individual children.
In addition, divorced fathers may feel uncomfortable when returning to the home where the mother lives. There may be an awkwardness about negotiating visitation times, and sometimes one may feel unwanted and in the way.
One divorced father said, “It’s strange to come to your former home and knock on the door instead of just walking in.” These types of trying situations can contribute to many men spending less and less time with their children. Research suggests that about 50 percent of children lose contact with their noncustodial parents (usually fathers) within five years of the divorce.3 This happens in families even where divorce has been fairly amicable. In other divorce situations, anger, blame, and conflict between a divorced couple can erode relationships between fathers and children. In such cases, the heartache does not end when the divorce is final; it simply continues.
Despite the discomfort involved, it is crucial that divorced fathers remain involved in their children’s lives as much as possible. Wise mothers will encourage this involvement. Structure your schedule so that you spend time with each child individually as well as with all of the children together. As you make the effort to spend time with each of your children, you will have more opportunities to listen to them, to learn of their concerns, and to develop close relationships with them.
Your children will also benefit when you refrain from criticizing your former spouse in front of them. Be courteous and civil to your former spouse, and make sure your children see this. Such behavior will make them less likely to feel torn between their parents.
If a divorced couple has dependent children and the mother is not employed, frequently the father carries the bulk of the financial responsibility for two households. Sometimes second or third jobs become necessary. My experience in working with divorced Latter-day Saint men suggests that while there are exceptions, most are concerned about financial support and are willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary for the family.
Be realistic about finances with your former spouse and children. A budget may be more important than ever. You may want to schedule regular, positive discussions about finances; such discussions should focus on solutions rather than problems. If needed, obtain professional financial advice. The bishop or your quorum leaders may be able to help you in locating ward or stake resources to assist with financial planning.
The frustrations and hurts associated with divorce can leave deep wounds in individual lives. Yet the Lord has commanded all to forgive. Recall Doctrine and Covenants 64:9–10:
“Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.
“I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.”
If your actions have contributed to the divorce, you may need to repent of any wrongdoings. The repentance process can be painful, but once you have repented fully and obtained the Lord’s forgiveness, remember that you are also obligated to forgive yourself. Do not forget the lessons you have learned from your experiences, but allow yourself to move forward rather than being mired in the past.
The path to forgiveness can be difficult and heartwrenching; yet it unclutters the soul of resentment and pain. Forgiveness is the crowning part of true healing—the balm of Gilead applied to our wounded souls.
For the Latter-day Saint who has experienced divorce, there is no greater gift than the Atonement. Invite its blessings into your life. The Savior will help you put your life together again. There is no burden He cannot lift, no tears He cannot dry, no pain too great for Him to help you bear. His grace is sufficient. His love can sustain you. His arms can embrace you. And in those times when you are unable to walk, He will carry you. In a personal way, you can come to know and feel His love. Like Nephi of old, you can be encircled in the robes of His righteousness (see 2 Ne. 4:33).
Ask the divorced member how you might be helpful. Take your cues from him; do not assume you know what is best for him. Let him decide.
Help the divorced member feel included in the ward and in your social circle. Encourage him to be involved in the ward by inviting him to attend ward or social activities with you. Sit next to him in Church meetings.
Avoid judging the divorced member; leave that to the Lord. Be supportive of the member’s efforts to find healing in this difficult situation. Reach out, welcome, and love as the Savior would.
Ask him how he is doing, and be willing to listen if he wants to talk. But do not pressure him to disclose more than he is comfortable with, and don’t center all your conversations around the divorce. Do not feel you need to offer advice unless he asks for it.
If you are in a position to do so, ensure that he receives regular visits from caring home teachers.
Provide opportunities for service. Helping others is a good way to get outside of oneself, and such activities frequently result in increased feelings of self-worth.
Pray for inspiration to know how to help the divorced member. Encourage him also to pray so that he may receive Heavenly Father’s guidance and feel His love.
More on this topic: See S. Brent Scharman, “When You Don’t Have Custody,” Ensign, Apr. 2002, 58–63; Jeffrey R. Holland, “An High Priest of Good Things to Come,” Ensign, Nov. 1999, 36–38; Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Conversation with Single Adults,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 58–63; Don L. Searle, “No Longer a Husband,” Ensign, Feb. 1988, 24–27.