Divorce Needs

A look at the emotional, practical, and spiritual needs of people going through divorce

by Connie M. Valentini

Fifty percent of marriages today will end in divorce. Because these numbers are consistent for both Christians and non-Christians, the church must learn to respond lovingly to this group of hurting people. Divorce is profoundly painful, and a better understanding of the difficulties and needs of a divorced person will provide us with the sensitivity and wisdom required to be effective ministers of God’s grace and mercy. Here are a few of the main needs a person faces during a divorce:

Need for Understanding

Numerous problems can contribute to a couple’s divorce: patterns of conflict, addiction, abuse, the trauma of an affair, stressful events that impact the marriage, neglect and/or emotional distance within the marriage. The reasons for a divorce are important as you seek to minister to a hurting divorced person. 

Spouses often experience long-standing private difficulties in their marriage long before the public event of a divorce. It is important to take the time to listen and understand the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage. Only when you listen can you offer the kind of emotional and spiritual support that your friend needs. 

In some cases, he or she might be verbalizing his or her experiences for the first time, and coming to terms with many new or unfamiliar feelings. For example, a spouse who has suffered many years of physical and emotional abuse may be overwhelmed by the feelings of anger that she suppressed during the marriage. In this case, listening to the anger can be a vital step in helping this person in the recovery process.

What you can do:

  • Ask your friend going through a divorce to tell you what he or she has been learning through this experience.

  • Don’t give advice while you are seeking to understand your friend’s difficult choices. Try not to display shock or judgment if your friend conveys painful details from his ordeal.

  • Convey a commitment to confidentiality so that your friend feels safe to share honestly about her experience.

Need for Grieving

People suffer many losses when they get divorced: the loss of a best friend and companion, financial security, a home, shared friends, daily time with children, and—perhaps most importantly—a particular vision of the future. These losses all lead to a deep sense of grief, not unlike the grief that people experience following a death. There is no way to fill the emptiness that divorce creates, but being present in the midst of your friend’s sadness can be a source of comfort and strength.

While a period of grief and sadness is expected, unremitting sadness and symptoms of depression can be serious. Symptoms of depression include sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating and completing daily activities, loss of appetite or weight, and thoughts of death or suicide. If you notice these symptoms, it is best to give a referral to a professional psychologist or psychiatrist.  

What you can do:

  • When you spend time with your friend who is getting a divorce, make mental notes of his or her physical, mental, and emotional health.

  • Encourage your friend to journal his or her feelings of grief, which can be a good way to understand and move through the difficult emotions.

Need for Acceptance

Divorce often results in feelings of guilt, rejection, and shame. Nearly all people, Christians in particular, will struggle intensely with the decision to divorce because of the cultural and spiritual stigma of failure attached to it. Be sure to show your friend non-judgmental acceptance, which will provide a healing message that he or she is still deeply loved and valued. This love and acceptance from others—especially those within the church—can be a deeply reassuring comfort, and a step toward experiencing God’s forgiveness.

What you can do:

  • Offer to pray with your friend, particularly if you sense that shame and guilt are an encumbrance for her.

  • Have some Scripture at hand to read with your friend to remind him of God’s forgiveness and grace.

Need for Relationship

Many divorced people experience a deep sense of alienation from others. This is particularly true for Christians. They might perceive that their divorce is such a stain of failure that others simply can’t relate or no longer wish to associate with them. By reaching out to a hurting divorced person, you can help him or her feel connected and loved. 

Be sensitive, though, to the potential discomfort a recently divorced person may feel in spending time with other married couples. Sometimes this can highlight the state of his or her recently severed relationship and prompt feelings of sadness or loneliness. With this in mind, an offer of time from a same-sex friend can be especially effective.

What you can do:

  • Invite your friend to do something that does not involve serious conversation, such as browsing through a bookstore or seeing a movie.

  • Consider asking your friend to help you in some way, such as a project around the house or a ministry at church. Being offered an opportunity to care about others can help him or her feel worthwhile and important. 

Need for Tangible Support

We have certain cultural traditions that we practice after a person dies: a time of visitation, a funeral, bringing food to the grieving family, and phone calls to keep in touch. But there are no recognizable rituals to acknowledge the event of divorce, nor are there prescribed responses to minister to those who have undergone a divorce. Yet divorce can include a significant time of stressful transition, disorganization, and deep grief that can be alleviated through the loving support of others.

What you can do:

  • Call your friend regularly while he is going through his divorce. Give him a chance to talk about the details of the events transpiring and offer your support.

  • Bring over meals and offer to babysit if your friend has children.

  • Offer to help with reorganizing or packing if your friend needs to move.

Need for God’s Forgiveness

Christians who divorce are often quite troubled with their need for forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Most Christians clearly understand that God despises divorce (Malachi 2:16), but they are often so broken and fragile that they feel too unworthy to embrace the grace that God offers all sinners. 

This is where the church can communicate God’s redemptive love and his capacity to restore us to wholeness. Spending time together in prayer and speaking God’s truth can be a healing balm over the wounds of failure and loss.

What you can do:

  • Each time you visit your friend, express your confidence in God’s forgiving character and ask for a specific request you can pray for.

  • Consider whether your friend would benefit from a formal time of healing prayer with a pastor or prayer minister. Experiencing compassion and forgiveness from a church leader can be a powerful representation and encounter with God’s love.

Need for Hope

Divorce causes grief over the loss of a particular future and a fear about what the future will now hold. Your divorced friend needs a renewed sense of hope for her future, with trust that God will provide for her needs. You can communicate through prayer and conversation that God has not abandoned her because of divorce, but that he still desires to bless her life. 

What you can do:

  • Encourage your friend to join a church-based, divorce recovery group as a way to grow and learn with others who have gone through similar difficult experiences.

  • When you see your friend acting hopeless, remind her of her many strengths, and the fact God will remain faithful to her.

—Dr. Connie M. Valentini is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in the Chicago suburbs.

From smallgroups.com, copyright 2007 Christianity Today Intl.