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Untying the Knot

How do we care for families affected by divorce?

November 26, 2015 by Colonel Bob Ward and Major Amy Reardon


In this series, Colonel Bob Ward, who retired in 2013 as the territorial commander in Pakistan, and Major Amy Reardon, corps officer at Seattle Temple in Washington, U.S.A., discuss issues of the day.

DEAR BOB,

When I was a young woman, I went through a divorce. I never dreamed divorce would happen to me. Although I was glad to be out of an oppressive, harmful relationship, I felt a deep sense of shame. And there were other feelings I didn’t anticipate: resentment toward women who were loved and valued by their husbands; having no one to share moments of pride when my son reached a milestone; vulnerability in a myriad of situations—Was the plumber ripping me off? Did men assume I was desperate because I’m divorced? Divorce is devastating and impacts every corner of life.

For me, if the painful marriage followed by the emptiness of divorce wasn’t bad enough, the misunderstanding of the church just about did me in. Many things can lead a couple to divorce. In my opinion, what leads to the divorce should inform the church’s response. Was there an affair, and, if so, did it come out of the blue, or was there already a deep rift in the relationship? Was it a drifting apart, or did one person suddenly and inexplicably want something different? Was there physical or emotional abuse? Was there mental illness that became unbearable?

Whatever the reason, both people should be treated with love and grace. In the church, it is very easy to welcome repentant sinners while penalizing wounded saints. Even if the leadership of the church responds appropriately (as mine did), it is important that corps members try to do the same. But when the details of divorce are private, how do we know how to respond?

So here is my question: When something dramatic and life-altering happens to a member of the corps, what is the role of the corps body? Since we live in community together, how much do we need or deserve to know? And if details aren’t forthcoming, how should fellow soldiers approach the people involved?

AMY


DEAR AMY,

In some ways, the loss and pain of divorce can be as traumatic as grieving a death. You’re left dealing with the legal and financial fallout, facing huge questions—What happens to the children? Do we need to sell the house? How will my friends, family and church community respond?—while trying to recover from the shock of rupture, perhaps with little support. What is worse, many people choose sides and lay blame.

Canada relaxed its divorce law in 1985, adopting a “no-fault” approach. Since then, the number of divorced people within society, church and the ranks of The Salvation Army has significantly increased. Our family gatherings include parents and children affected by divorce, putting flesh and blood to this issue. Some members of our church, including uniformed soldiers, have been divorced, sometimes two or three times. At officer gatherings, we worship and fellowship with those who are divorced, sometimes with their former spouse in the same room. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and in service.

This would not have been the case when I started out, but divorce has become part of the family, so to speak. It’s no longer helpful to view it as the enemy. So in answer to your first question, the church (along with The Salvation Army) should assume a significant role in caring for families affected by divorce. In principle, our Army makes provision for members and officers who have been divorced. This provides scope for ministry to and by those who are divorced. No one needs to feel a door has been slammed in their face.

But I acknowledge that the Army is still feeling its way through the issue. Our position statement on marriage is unequivocal: “The Salvation Army believes marriage is the covenanting together of one man and one woman for life in a union to the exclusion of all others,” concluding, “The Salvation Army affirms that marriage is the basis of sound family life and foundational to a healthy society.”

The loss and pain of divorce can be as traumatic as grieving a death

Our position statement on the family affirms the traditional concept, but also provides room for continuing ministry to those who have been affected by divorce: We seek “to strengthen marriage and enrich family life, extending appropriate ministries of a caring Christian community to all people in all types of family relationships.”

Trying to catch up with the current realities of family life does not excuse heavy-handed response to divorce by various representatives of the church who support marriage at all cost. Yes, we should support family life, but we can’t cut the cord when a marriage fails.

This challenge becomes more evident when those involved in a divorce are active members in their congregation and share common friends and relatives. Your own experience shows that more intentional work needs to be done to encourage compassionate responses to people who have been divorced, and to develop practical ministries. Otherwise there is no safe or appropriate place for those who need to tell their story and receive support as they recover from this traumatic experience.

The circumstances leading to divorce belong to both spouses and need not become general knowledge, except to people in a position to offer counsel and support. Sometimes it is difficult to sort the friends from the gossipers!

I am glad you met Rob, remarried and have a lovely family and meaningful ministry. Someone did something right along the way.

Scripture reminds us that we have both a message and a ministry of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). When it is impossible to reconcile two individuals to each other, we should still be able to pave the way for each to be reconciled to the church and the hope that can give them. I suggest this is how members of a corps should approach those who have experienced the trauma of divorce.

BOB


DEAR BOB,

Thank you. I am glad I found my husband, Rob (a good Canadian!), and have just celebrated 20 years of marriage this summer. God has been good to us.

I appreciate your tender approach to the subject of divorce and your desire to reconcile people. One thing you’ve said, however, really troubles me. You said that divorce isn’t the enemy of the family, but part of it. I can’t disagree that divorce is normal, but I would have to say that it is still the enemy of the family. Families were not meant to be split apart. I don’t mean to imply that it is never necessary. But every time it happens, it is a reflection of the fact that this world and the people in it don’t always function as God intended.

Even when divorce is the only reasonable option, it hurts. Kids struggle to relinquish the dream of a happy family. Their home life may have been filled with strife, yet they fantasize about their parents staying together in marital bliss. A person leaving a bad marriage can still be devastated by the loss because, generally speaking, the relationship was initially built on love. Even a spouse who has been victimized in some way may grieve for what their partner could have been, for what they once believed they would have together.

The feeling that surprised and overwhelmed me when my first marriage ended was that a mystical union had been cleaved apart. I believe I was outside God’s will when I married, and we were never happy. But when the vows were made, something supernatural occurred. I didn’t really understand how much marriage binds two people until mine unravelled. Now I know what covenant means.

What is most critical for the church is prevention. I don’t mean we should prevent people from exiting toxic marriages. I mean we should do our best to prevent them from entering such marriages in the first place. Maybe we should ramp up our pre-marital counselling, and formalize couple-to-couple mentoring. These things are often done on an ad hoc basis, rather than intentionally. We might also educate people about how much divorce hurts, regardless of the fact that it is commonplace.

AMY


DEAR AMY,

I agree—divorce will always hurt, and in more ways than most understand. I hope more misguided marriages can be prevented through good counselling. Can counselling overcome the sense of optimism at the beginning that “love will conquer all”? Can we buck the trend where couples subconsciously change the traditional words of the marriage vows to “so long as we both shall love”? I hope that seeing engaged, married and divorced couples as part of our church family will open up a more fruitful and intentional source of support and guidance through the various challenges marriages face.

Happy anniversary!

BOB

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