What do divorced Catholics need from their friends?

The Catholic Church takes the sacrament of marriage seriously.
Because this is so, it also takes abuse seriously, and never requires
spouses and children to silently endure abuse in the name of the sanctity
of marriage.

But those who do leave marriages, or those who are left, are often treated like second-class citizens by their fellow Catholics. Many separated Catholics say it feels like their faith community cares more about the idea of marriage than they do about actual people. A spouse who leaves is often shamed, even blamed, accused of “breaking up the marriage.”

But in cases of abuse or severe disfunction, the one who left did didn’t break up the marriage. The abuser broke it. The one who leaves is simply dealing with the pieces of something already broken. Separated and divorced Catholics don’t need judgment or condemnation. Here’s what they do need:

SERVICE. Managing a household solo can be a crushing burden.
They’re suddenly drowning in obligations, and will need help doing the work of two.

We can offer help with car maintenance or laundry, home repairs,
cleaning, child care, or carpooling. Some people simply need help learning how to do things their spouses used to handle. If we’re good at budgeting,
managing debt, writing résumés or navigating legal matters, we can
offer our expertise. 

MONEY. Many women, especially, have given up schooling and
careers to raise children, and simply don’t have the means to survive on
their own. Divorce also often brings huge legal expenses, especially if there’s a custody battle.

If we can’t contribute large amounts of money, even small cash
gifts or gift cards can make bright spots amid trauma, especially around
holidays.

THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. By the time a long-suffering
spouse finally resorts to something so drastic and disruptive as
separation, they have probably been sacrificing and struggling for years
to fix what was wrong, probably in secret, probably blaming themselves.
They may not be ready or willing to share the details of what went
wrong, but that doesn’t mean they have made a frivolous or selfish
decision.

We should never make reflexive glib suggestions like “Have you tried a novena?” or “Every marriage has rough patches.” And no consolation or healing will come from pronouncements like like “God hates divorce” or “Your children will suffer so much.” We’re likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It is best to imitate Christ and lead with sympathy and compassion, rather than judgment.

COMPANY. Separation is lonely, and single parents, especially, crave
adult companionship. Many separated people say they feel like they lost
their friends as well as their marriage. We shouldn’t stop inviting people
into our lives or activities just because they are no longer part of a
couple. Because we or others might feel a little awkward at first, is no
reason to withdraw hospitality that is more desired and needed than ever.
Separation is lonely, and single parents, especially, crave adult
companionship.  We should keep inviting and including people, even if
it feels a little awkward.

Similarly, we should never exclude their kids out of some ill-
formed idea that the family is somehow tainted by divorce, or
because we don’t want to have to explain it to our own kids. We can
remember to invite their kids along for Christmas cookie baking, trick-
or- treating or other activities that make childhood fun, and that may be
more but can be more than a struggling single parent can manage. Give
them a chance to feel normal and happy again. 

Separated or divorced people may also want support at court
proceedings, and they may need a companion during custody pick-ups to
prevent an abusive ex-spouse from harassing them. Drop in, check in,
hang out. Don’t let them feel forgotten. 

A LISTENING EAR AND AFFIRMATION. Even if we’re not
comfortable taking sides. when a couple splits up, someone who has suffered a devastating rupture needs to be built up, and needs to know that their friends and family believe they can build a good new life.

Affirming statements like “I know how strong you are” or “You know
better than anyone what really happened” or “You are holding things
together so well” can be very powerful, especially to someone whose
marriage was full of insults, denigration and manipulation. 

TRUST. Separated people may be needy, but they are not threats.
Rotten as it sounds, it’s fairly common for married women to act as if separated women are now gunning for their husbands. In
reality, especially if there has been abuse, the last thing a newly
separated person wants want right now is another man.
They’re trying to survive, not poach. Of course, amid the emotional
vulnerabilities that accompany these circumstances, clear and strong
boundaries must be maintained, but these occasions can also lead to deeper and more meaningful friendships.

GENTLENESS. Even if the marriage was miserable, ending it is
often painful. Someone who’s lost a spouse to divorce may truly be in mourning – if not for the spouse as a person, then for their former life and hopes. Divorce often feels like a personal and spiritual failure, even
when it’s nothing of the kind. We should act with tenderness, as we
would if there had been a death. 

CONFIDENTIALITY. No gossip, no pressure. The ex-spouse is the one who should decide how much information is public. If we’ve been entrusted with inside information about what went on while the marriage fell apart, we must keep that trust and not share the information. If we don’t have inside information, then we have nothing to say to others besides encouraging them to offer their support.  

A divorced person doesn’t owe us an explanation or require our
approval of what they chose for their own lives. We can let them know
we’re ready to listen if they want to unload, but that we don’t require them to divulge anything at all.

RESPECT. Not all newly-divorced people are in crisis. Some are ready and eager to begin their new lives on their own, and they find it annoying to be met with pity and condescension at every turn. If a separated person says they’re happy, you can believe them (while still being ready to offer help if it’s needed). 

***

This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in Parable magazine in 2019. 

Image by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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21 thoughts on “What do divorced Catholics need from their friends?”

  1. I attend the parish I do because it is broken. Healthy parishes seem to have little room for middle aged and order divorced men. Married women don’t want us around to give their husbands any ideas. Married men don’t want us around because they don’t want us getting ideas about their wives. “Stranger Danger” is now in our public forum that anything might be misconstrued as inappropriate. So I attend a parish where there’s lots of room for stray, single men to wonder in and then wonder out without burdening anyone with conversation. The priest and announcements and activities are for the married and families.

  2. This article and many of the comments assume a particular divorce scenario in which a woman leaves an abusive man as a last resort. It treats this as if it were the norm. I am a man who was unwillingly divorced by an unfaithful wife after decades of trying to make it work, trying to be a better husband as if some unknown shortfall on my end caused her to cheat. She worked when the kids got old enough. Very little of the money made it to the household. Then there was the fortune in hidden credit debt with nothing to show for it and no explanation of where those tens of thousands of dollars went. My ex played on the very scenario used in this article to try to destroy my reputation before filing for divorce, that she was the poor victim of an abusive alcoholic who strangely had no memory of the abuse because he blacked out. Of course, it was all lies for image management. The first time she accused me of this was two weeks before asking for a divorce, citing the previous night where I had two beers while watching TV then went to bed. She said it had been going on for decades. This was gaslighting, and a veiled threat to lie in court to get what she wanted. And so I was booted from the house I bought and paid for, and she moved loverboy and his kid into the house. I lost everything except my car and had to start over again after fifty. I didn’t fight it because her lies would have cut off access to the kids had it gone to court. Because I am a man, and former military, people believed her lies because it fits the narrative. I retained only two friends out of a wide social circle. When I attempted to talk to a priest about it the first words out of his mouth were to ask me what I did to bring this on. No doubt there are women who leave abusive relationships, but it’s not the norm. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4012696/ . It states “Domestic violence
    Domestic violence was cited as a contributing factor to divorce by 23.5% of participants and by at least one partner from 27.8% of couples.” Regarding infidelity, it states this was “endorsed by 59.6% of individuals and by at least one partner in 88.8% of couples.” The most frequently cited cause is lack of commitment, cited by at least one participant in 94.4% of couples in this study. In other words, they just didn’t feel like staying married after a period of time. Many of these contributors overlapped. The narrative that we hear in Catholic circles is that it was a long-suffering wife who finally escaped from her abusive husband when this is a distinct minority of cases. My wife used this common narrative to gain sympathy from her friends and blackmail me in the legal arena when it was actually her own infidelity and lack of commitment that caused the divorce, as is the case in a large majority of cases in the United States. What better way to do image management than to play into the popular narrative and disparage the innocent spouse?

    1. Grumpy I am so sorry for your situation. It sounds terrible and I know enough other, similar cases. Women are equally apt to be abusive and not honoring their marriage or spouse. Some examples I know about:

      My grandmother had serious mental health issues and was mentally and physically abusive. She beat my quiet, mild grandfather multiple times and was erratic and crazy. They divorced and remarried a few times before he left.

      A friend divorced his narcissistic wife after she forged his signature at a sperm bank and conceived a child without his consent.

      I worked in a factory where I saw a lot of same sex violence between female couples.

      We do do well to not sex stereotype when looking at the propensity to sin. I hope you can rebuild your life and find someone loving to share it with, if that is your wish. You are brave.

    1. Yes! It becomes more complicated if they try to marry again. But simply being divorced is not a sin and is no reason to refrain from receiving the sacraments.

  3. Giving women cover for divorce by labeling their spouses as abusive.

    Mevin Udall said it best when asked how he know so much about women “I think of a man and I take away reason and accountability.”

    You nailed it, Ms. Fischer.

    1. Aside from the misogyny in Phil’s post, I too think the word abusive is way overused and the victim card has become an easy way out of accepting responsibility. And in my experience women can be and are just as abusive as men, but I rarely hear a man call his ex-wife emotionally abusive.

      That said, I find the posts here from Catholic women who’ve found themselves in divorce situations both sad and horrifying. I don’t think I’ve been as shocked by internet reported Catholic behavior since I found out some Catholics don’t think women should wear pants and I’m pretty sure that was like a decade or more ago.

      A divorce is a death of sorts. I thought the generally accepted response when someone tells you they’re divorcing is simply to say, “I’m so sorry.” Maybe it’s just the death of the illusion of a marriage that never was, but it’s a death nonetheless and sympathy should get offered. Going beyond that when you don’t know the particulars is rude and possibly cruel.

      1. the difference is that usually women are powerless in either a physical or financial sense.

        Women in catholic families tend to stay home so they do not have money of their own.

        Women are generally weaker than men so they are more vulnerable to violence.

        Do men get abused? Absolutely! do they have more of a means to escape? yes

        1. You know that’s the kind of thing we hear all the time and you may very well be right but it’s just not a situation I’ve ever seen up close. My grandmas and my mom were all devout Catholics and worked nearly their entire lives. Nearly all the moms with kids in our parish school work as well. My sisters and sisters in law, with varying degrees of devoutness, have mostly earned incomes throughout their marriages. I haven’t really worked for money for many years but I’d have lots of options if (God forbid) my husband suddenly became abusive.

          My mom, my sisters, my brothers, my daughter, and at least two friends would put me and my kids up for a few months til I could get on my feet and my husband and I certainly would do the same for them. Heck, even Anna Duggar has siblings who claim to be willing to take her and her kids in. Family and friends can provide power!

          Perhaps there is a subset of Catholics in the ultra traditional long denim skirt wearing community who have no paying job and no family or friends to whom they could turn in a crisis but then I would posit that the abuse of that woman didn’t begin within the marriage but somewhere much earlier.

          1. A lot of women in abusive marriages come from abusive families, because we recognize love as what is familiar.

            I have no education and zero family. My earning power is minimum wage. You’re very fortunate to have such loving people around you whom you know would help.

            1. I’m very very sorry. I do realize how blessed I am. I guess my point was that I’m not so sure the Church can fix with bandaids (food, clothing, shelter) what is a much deeper problem for many abused spouses. No doubt such assistance is vital but in my mind intensive therapy is needed to really remedy the situation.

            2. Also, rightly or wrongly, I detected a hint of Catholic bashing in JTs response to me and I wanted to point out that most Catholic moms do in fact work and are not powerless. Abusers are gonna abuse and if religion is their tool it’s a reflection on them not the Church.

        2. Abuse comes in many forms. My ex-wife was guilty of parent alienation. One therapist I discussed this with considered parent alienation one of the worst forms of abuse.
          Women tend to be far better at whining, nagging, degrading verbal assaults than men. Check some Jordan Peterson comments on that. Men superior in physical combat.
          Neither gender shines, in general. Each couple has one or stinkers who contribute to the failure, but some contribute more. For my anulment, the priest representing me and the head of the tribunal agreed that had my ex cooperated, she would have been changed with “working against the union”.

          As usual, the norm for Father’s day is I won’t expect to hear from my children. Or on Christmas, or my birthday, or any other occasion.

      2. Something that I’ve found true is that someone can both be a victim of abuse, and still benefit from a thorough examination of conscience to figure out how they ended up in an abusive situation. It’s tricky to describe how this works without sounding victim blame-y, but personally I found equal peace from both knowing that my ex lied to get me into the marriage and was abusive, AND knowing that I had my own insecurities and failings that got me into this spot. The seeds of a divorce (and sometimes an annulment) are always found on both sides, but in cases of irreconcilable, unapologetic abuse or fraud, I think it’s pretty clear which “seeds” were ultimately poisonous to the formation of marriage.

  4. The judgment is just brutal. Being rebuked by all the Catholic friends whom the abuser has appealed to in hopes of shaming the wife into staying – awful. The smear campaign of being painted as reckless, unforgiving, selfish, wayward, etc – maybe even a golddigger for expecting any kind of child support or marital settlement. I don’t want to and shouldn’t have to justify, argue, defend or explain to fellow Catholics. Nobody divorces an abuser unless it’s the only option left… because the abuse doesn’t stop, but it changes shape. And it is an intense, profound suffering to endure your children’s vulnerability with a man who now has them alone. Family court is a joke – it’s designed to protect the abuser. Catholic women who have lived out traditional roles and have very few resources or help at hand DO NOT choose divorce out of selfish relief. It’s often to merely survive and in hopes of not further damaging their children’s faith and future by letting them witness a toxic marital dynamic.

    Abuse is not always loud and violent. Sometimes it’s covert and controlling. Neglect is just as harmful and damaging, yet it’s even more difficult to explain. It would be SUCH a relief if the response upon hearing about a wife filing for divorce was, “I’m so sorry you had to make that decision.”

    NOT:

    “I had no idea you were having problems!” Yeah no kidding, we don’t advertise the humiliation of abuse. “Have you been to Retrouvaille?” We are way past RV.

    “But what about your kids? How can you destroy their family?”

    “Oh. Um, wow.” *walks away, actively avoids ever speaking to me again*

    “I’m on the side of the marriage. Not on your side, not on his side. If he stops whatever it is, will you put aside the divorce?” You mean like all the other hundreds of times I’ve put aside the idea of divorce because I hope that this time he’ll change?

    “You can be de facto excommunicated for divorcing without cause. Are you sure you have cause?”

    “I’m not helping you (with any practical concerns) because I won’t contribute to making it easy for you to divorce him. Divorce is a sin. God hates divorce.”

    “Oh, he drained the bank accounts? Have you called Catholic Charities?” Yes. And they have a months long waiting list because they serve the whole community, and aren’t prepared to help a middle class stay at home mom who has no idea how any public or private aid works and needs immediate help. Also, the parish has a $25 gift card for groceries and nothing else to offer.

    Speaking of parishes, why are there no divorce ministries that aid women through this terrible experience? In all of these newer, beautiful buildings, why isn’t their a respite room for a mother in the parish who just filed for divorce and is afraid to be home when her husband gets served? Or when she’s had to call the police and nothing happened so he’s still home, and she doesn’t feel safe? How much more comforting would it be that she could call her pastor and say, can I spend the next day or two in the respite room with my kids? …instead of traumatizing them with a visit to a shelter? “Hey kids, we are going to spend the night at church for a couple days!” is a lot less terrifying.

    It’d be really nice if there was more of an effort to extend charity in the realm of practical help (moving, household maintenance, etc) from actual parishioners. So many parishes do wonderful things for outside needs and organizations “for the needy.” Well, I guarantee there are plenty of needy women in your parish. Start asking.

    1. Wow wow wow. Thank you So so much you beautiful understanding empathetic soul. That’s all I have right now and I know I will have more later. God bless you.

  5. Advice that I would give my friends? Don’t treat those of us going through a divorce and/or a separation as if were some disease that you’re going to catch. Many of us never dreamed for a moment that we would be here, and all of us are committed to the sacrament of marriage. Unfortunately, if we’re going through a divorce and/or separation, it’s because we saw no other option and are desperately trying to save ourselves and/or our children. Treat us as you would any mother/wife going through a crisis. Ask what you can do to help. Don’t make assumptions, don’t listen to the abuser, and do whatever you can to support our families in crisis. Much like the widows Christ mentions in the gospel, we are truly in need.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is exactly what I experience even 8 years after the divorce. I have many children and homeschooled them even after the divorce. From the loneliness and isolation to the exhaustion of never ending work, chores and eulogizing the life you wanted, *sigh*. The holidays are really, really hard. Money is always tight and often the abusive spouse just keeps coming at you. Some Catholics feel like divorce is “catchy.” Women don’t want you around their husbands or even their families. Men folk avoid you because they don’t want to appear as if they are flirting (also they don’t want their wife hanging out with a single person), but my children, especially boys really need the example of good men and families. Priests act as if talking to you is a scandal, so spiritual direction is gone. Sometimes family abandons you too for the same reasons. I would add also that friendships suffer because there is no time to nurture them. Most times I sit alone when I take my children to events. You would think I am a harlot, right? No. I am a devout, prayerful, Catholic trying desperately to keep my children in the Church and to help them to get to Heaven.
    (By the way, another thing NOT to tell me or my kids is that “Divorce is child abuse”. Perhaps this is good for pondering in marriage prep class but, priests, do NOT tell this to the kids of a person in my situation. The divorce is what stopped the abuse. Telling them this forces the child to choose between the Church or their parent and, having experienced and seen real abuse, they will definitely choose the parent! Ugh! I am trying to keep them in the Church!)

  7. Outside my immediate family, two of the people with whom I am closest are divorced Catholics. Both were blindsided when their marriages fell apart. I’ve found I’m incapable of remaining neutral. Even many years later, I’m still angry and can hardly be polite when I run into their exes.

    This article is an interesting view. I don’t think either of my friends feel outside the Church but now I think I will ask them. One is an Extraordinary Minister and the other participates in parish activities with me (women’s guild and trivia nights, etc.)

  8. I especially echo the parts on continuing the friendship. My mom had to divorce my mentally ill father in the 1970s and she went into a long wilderness after that. Friends woulda mainly socialize in married couples and now she was outside that Noah’s ark. It’s only been in her 70s as women have widowed where those friendship groups have reformed. She’s even been invited or a widows breakfast group after Sunday Mass as an honorary widow.

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