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Be a Divorce First-Responder

Because we speak and write about divorce, people often ask us if we can help counsel a loved one thinking about getting divorced. When we ask the concerned friend or relative if he has tried talking with the couple or the unhappy spouse, usual responses include:

“I can’t talk to them about their marriage. That would impact our friendship.”

“I don’t know what to say. How would I even start? I’m not good at this kind of thing.”

“There was infidelity (or, alcoholism, porn, narcissism); it may be hopeless.”

Their anxiety, confusion, and fear are real. Believe us, we get it! Just thinking about getting involved still makes both of us cringe. Writing about Christ’s teachings on divorce and decrying its fallout is one thing, but actually talking to someone on the verge of ending what has become, for one or both spouses, a miserable marriage? Most of us would rather get our teeth drilled.

However, in the past few years of diving into the devastation that visits divorcing couples and their children, we are convicted that every one of us has to be prepared to say something. One of us (LeeAnne) has been so moved by the pain she has seen that she routinely calls or meets with people—even total strangers!—to encourage them in their vows. Some no doubt think she has some special ability. She doesn’t. She’s just exercising a virtue that we all are called to have: courage.

Scripture says that we are not to be busybodies (2 Thess. 3:11), idly involving ourselves in other peoples’ business. Sometimes, though, friends or family members open up to us and ask for our advice. We don’t have to know all the answers, but we should be ready to speak the truth in love and solidarity (Eph. 4:25). God may be calling us to be “first responders” to those suffering from our divorce-affirming culture.

Before we can go forth, we must have conviction in the truth. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:15-16). The Catechism tells us that divorce is a grave offense against the natural law; it is immoral because it introduces disorder into the family and into society (2380-2400). It brings grave harm to the deserted spouse and to the traumatized children. The Church teaches that marriage is indissoluble and that even in those narrow circumstances where we may tolerate a civil divorce, a couple’s sacramental bond remains. The Catechism even calls divorce a contagious “plague on society.” This certainly should convict us!

What do we say? Well, let’s start with some things we shouldn’t say:

  • “You deserve to be happy!”
  • “He (she) will never change!”
  • “Life is too short to be married to someone like that!”
  • “God would never want you to be miserable!”

This kind of well-meaning but false support happens all the time. Friends do it, family members do it, even priests and counselors do it. Yet these are all temptations for unhappy spouses to ignore or deny the lifelong nature of the marriage bond, which is not truly in the best interest of them or their kids.  Yes, where a spouse or children are in danger, help them get to safety! Never counsel someone to remain in a threatening situation. But—and let us be clear on this—most painful marriages are not of the dangerous variety.

So, what are some things we can say or remember when presenting the truth in love?

  • Tell them you’re sorry and ask what is wrong. Be prepared to hear horrible things they have said and done to one another. Most of us can be just awful sometimes; every marriage consists of two sinners.
  • You don’t have to solve their problems. People can be terribly inconsiderate, controlling, selfish, suspicious, and unforgiving. You can tell them the truth without getting too involved in all their issues. “It sounds like you are not treating each other well. This can get better.”
  • Don’t avoid saying what they may not hear anywhere else. For example: that marriage vows matter, that they are permanent, that they are for our good, and that God will help us and give us the grace to heal relationships. Show them exactly what the Bible and the Catechism say about divorce.
  • Remind them of the normal differences between men and women, and that we are supposed to have different natures and contribute different things to the relationship. This is not inequality, it is complementarity.
  • Remind them that difficult times are baked into the wedding cake. Marriage doesn’t owe anyone constant happiness. Furthermore, difficulties strengthen us, bring us to the Lord, point out our own weaknesses, help us understand sacrifice and suffering, and show us the path to holiness. A big part of our life’s mission is to embrace suffering instead of always avoiding it, to teach us how to swallow our pride, to embrace our crosses, and what it means to be self-sacrificing and long-suffering.
  • Be frank about how divorce harms children. Other people may be telling them that children are better off in two “happy” homes than one unhappy one, but this is a lie. Are they aware of the profound loss of stability and identity their children will feel upon the dismantling of their family? Or the abandonment, lack of attention, anxiety, risk, and danger that come with the parents’ new dating partners? Do they want their children to learn that love can disappear without warning, or that conflict leads to permanent separation because it did for their parents? How about the anger boys often develop, or the desire girls often have to find “love” in all the wrong places?
  • For kids, divorce is not a once-and-done event. At each holiday, each milestone, each sporting event, each choir concert, and sometimes each suitcase-packed weekend, children will endure the suffering of their parents’ divorce. It never ends, and it is never what the happy online photos seek to portray.
  • Explain that many people later regret their divorces and what it does to their children and their own financial and social stability.
  • Encourage them to distance themselves from anyone driving a wedge into their marriage. Their duty is to God, each other, and their children—not to divorce-affirming friends. It is crucial that they seek support from those who will encourage them in their vows.
  • Offer them hope! Exhort them to take divorce off the table and start afresh with a firm commitment to this marriage. They can stand their ground for their vows, and they will start to see change. Ask if they can remember when they first met, dated, and gazed into each other’s eyes on their wedding day. Challenge them: “What if you just decided you were all-in for this marriage? What if you took divorce off the table? God will give you the grace to heal if you stick around long enough and row together in the same boat for the same goal.”

Every situation is different, of course, but in all cases, the important thing is that we offer our friends truly helpful support, the kind that encourages them in their marriage. Let’s pray for these couples and remember what a first responder does: stops the bleeding, establishes a pulse, then moves people to get more extensive help to diagnose specific problems and begin treatment.

Let us also pray for the courage to take every opportunity God gives us to help our friends and to honor the Lord’s plan for marriage and family.

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