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
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
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
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.