Supporting families through separation and divorce

2 December 2019

Family breakdown is sadly very common and can happen to any of the families we serve. Learning to walk well alongside those going through divorce or separation is a powerful gift to the families involved.

Here we share a few approaches that can make a huge difference in the life of a family walking through transition and struggle.

Create windows into the ups and downs of marriage

Churches aren’t always very good at talking about the difficult aspects of relationships. And this, combined with our desire to celebrate the wonderful gift that marriage is, can mean that admitting to a less than perfect marriage may not feel easy in church circles. At big events, leaders present on stage with their loving spouse; some churches seem only to have leaders who are happily married; leaders use analogies from their family life which can leave the impression that it’s pretty perfect. Which means that if your marriage isn’t great, church might not feel the best place to talk about it or seek help. Chances are for many Christians that it’s their non-Christian friends who know the truth about a struggling marriage, not their church. When we are real about the struggles of marriage, people can feel confident to find help, talk about their struggles and learn from others how to be married well. So what might help us create windows into the ups and downs of marriage?

  • Be aware of the impression you’re giving. Marriage is a wonderful gift from God and is to be celebrated and aspired to. But it’s also tough. Things go wrong. We go wrong. And church can be a place which honestly talks about that. So do find ways to talk appropriately and honestly about the realities of the nitty gritty of being married, which will include failure, struggle, tension, and solutions.  It may also include the question of who God is in the midst of struggle when marriages are irreparable through abandonment, infidelity, or all the other reasons families breakdown.
  • Don’t be flippant or unthinking. We often use light-hearted stories as illustrations or encouragement, but do make sure that they aren’t misleading or give credence to the myth that proper Christians will have great marriages. Think about how what you’re sharing might come across to someone who is struggling in their marriage. For example, I recently heard a well-known Christian leader encouraging parents that we all fail with what they described as their ‘worst parenting fail ever’: allowing their 18 year old son to go to Glastonbury the weekend before his final A level because they hadn’t looked at the exam timetable properly. As I heard that, I died inside. I remembered having a screaming row with my partner in front of my kid culminating in slamming the door in her tear-stained face as I stormed out.  After hearing that leader’s ‘parenting fail’ there was no way I could confess to mine in that church now, ever.  If we want parents to feel able to talk about their real family life and get help, they need to feel free to share the horrible moments of family life in an environment where they don’t feel judged.
  • Offer marriage support. Before, during and after marriages. You may run courses, or a pre-marriage group, or have groups that form to do that well. But let’s make marriage something that we know needs maintenance and help and encouragement and can talk about it in those terms.
  • Don’t forget the fullness of who people are. It’s easy when something as devastating as divorce happens to forget that these people are completely normal human beings as well: dog-walkers, bakers, cyclists, crafters, grandparents, readers, DIYers … some of the time they will be focussed on their new predicament but will also welcome just being one of the gang.

See the big picture

There’s no one pattern of what happens when a relationship breaks down: it’s usually protracted and full of emotion, affecting a range of people in different ways.

  • It’s not just the partners who are affected. Their kids will need loving through this: but so might their grandparents and other extended family members (particularly if one side of the family ceases to have regular or easy access to the children). If both partners are members of your church, your congregation will be dealing with the impact of the breakdown too: giving support may feel like taking sides; who carries on going to homegroup; how do we try not to be judgemental? There are some ideas for parents to help coach their children through this new season here.
  • Be aware of the cycle of grief. Typically, people who are going through separation or divorce will also experience the cycle of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Recognising where someone is in the cycle (but recognising that they will repeat stages and even the whole cycle as situations change) is helpful when you are supporting them. It will help you understand their behaviour, emotions and responses. By and large, it’s necessary to go through the stages in order to fully process and accept the new scenario. In order to allow people time to do this well, they may need to have time off from their church responsibilities (although some may want and need to carry on serving): time to be and time to adjust.
  • There are huge variables, and people might not be talking about all of it. Even the best managed marriage breakdown is difficult and painful. At the very least, you have lost a dream, and no longer have a soul mate and friend. But most are much worse. There will almost certainly have been arguments and there may have been real or threatened violence. The children may or may not be aware of what’s gone on, and may have been forced to see a beloved parent in a whole new light. Children may have suffered emotional or physical abuse, or have effectively become a weapon, contact denied or abused.  There may be third parties and the beginnings of new relationships. There will be financial implications, people may be moving house or giving up or starting work.

Offer what help you can

  • Love, not judgment. Many Christians in this situation are deeply embarrassed and ashamed: of themselves, of the failure of their marriage, of the events that have happened. They are hard on themselves, feel that they have let their kids and their families down, and may find it difficult to believe they are worthy of being part of church, particularly if they have had leadership responsibilities. They are also probably fearful that they have damaged their children and ruined their lives. Even if there are hard truths to face, even if they have behaved badly or are culpable for the failure of the relationship, the first thing they need to hear is that they are loved, that God loves them, that their sins do not put them outside their community or its love. Truth will need to follow and there may be some hard decisions to come, but these need to be in the context of a real and demonstrated love and humility from the church.
  • Emotional support. Separation and divorce are so messy and churches will naturally want to offer emotional support. Not everyone will need or want it; some may just need a sounding board and some may not be ready. You may have a strong pastoral system set up for just this sort of situation or run divorce recovery groups. You may want to signpost to other organisations. You may find that people are already plugged into strong home groups or friendships within church where they will find support; however, if both partners are part of your congregation, bear in mind that this may not be so straightforward. You may also want to ask if they would like you to offer support to their children, which might be as simple as briefing their group leaders or suggesting that the parents give the children permission to talk openly to one or two trusted individuals about things (if they want to). You might also be able to help the parents support their children emotionally.
  • Practical help. Again this will vary wildly according to the make up of the family and the situation. A parent left alone with tiny children may need babysitters or another pair of hands on a shopping trip. Car maintenance or DIY might have been the other partner’s area of expertise and might just prove too difficult for an emotionally and physically exhausted newly single parent. You might have people in the congregation who can help unpick the legal necessities, or someone who can wade through the financial details. Church might be a safe neutral ground for children to meet the other parent in disputed separations. Even on a Sunday morning, just having a second pair of hands or a friend to sit with in church might make all the difference. Children too young to shop on their own might love having a conspiratorial friend taking them out to buy dad a present or mum a bunch of flowers.
  • Spiritual help. Christians who are separating or divorcing will have the additional complication of trying to work out how to do this well as a Christian. What part does forgiveness play? What does the Bible say about divorce and remarriage? How can I be full of grace and mercy when my heart is seething with anger? Can I be in a position of leadership? None of these are easy questions to answer. Perhaps the best place to start is by helping them to see and hear God. Prayer ministry of the sort recommended in Parenting for Faith for kids who find it hard to connect with God also works well with adults. It might be helpful for them to explore Bible stories which shed light on God’s attitude towards their situation: for example, Hagar and Ishmael, the woman caught in adultery, Jacob’s differing attitudes towards Leah and Rachel. Parents may want to use similar ideas with their children as they come to terms with the devastating changes in their lives.
  • Truth. Sometimes we all need help to recognise truth: whether this is about behaviour or responsibility or the impact of their decisions, churches can gently help people see more clearly and find a way forward. It is important to differentiate between absolute truth (God loves you despite your sin / adultery is always wrong / revenge is God’s prerogative) and the truth as you see it (in this church we believe that for the time being you shouldn’t be in a position of leadership / it feels a little early to be embarking on a new relationship / it may be better if for the time being if one of you chose to worship at a different service or a different church).

The article How to keep God central in a blended family (written by Lucy Rycroft for Premier NexGen) might be of use.

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Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash