Tracy M’s current post at By Common Consent, On Being a Single Mother in the Church, is provoking a lot of introspection, as well as sympathy, about how we interact as church members, both in official discourse and personal relationships, when the reality of someone’s life does not match the shiny ideal of the storybooks. Much of the discussion there has been about how we speak and teach and comment during church talks and lessons.
This all reminded me of perhaps the most difficult lesson I have ever been asked to teach in church – the Teachings for Our Times Relief Society lesson based on Elder Dallin H. Oak’s April 2007 Conference talk, “Divorce.” I looked for and found my old notes for this lesson, and have decided to post them here for evaluation. Other than cleaning up some typos and adding HTML coding, these notes are what I taught from – I haven’t polished anything to respond to comments on Tracy’s post.
Use this as an object lesson, if you want to: be as candid as you care to be about what works and what doesn’t, what would have inadvertently hurt you had you been a member of the class, or how you would adjust the lesson to take into account your own situation or some point about which you are particularly sensitive. If you have been following the discussion at BCC, it might be more relevant to post some of your comments there rather than here. [Update: Comments on Tracy's post have been closed, so please comment here, although you still ought to read her post if you haven't already read it.]
This is a lesson I have looked forward to teaching about as much as YOU [direct comment to last week’s teacher] looked forward to teaching your lesson on chastity. At least with that topic, we could all agree that there was an eternal standard of what was right and how we should live – my assignment this morning could be a little different in that regard.
I’ll admit right at the top what you already know – I am not an expert on either marriage or divorce, of course. I’m completely aware that should I say anything that you personally disagree with, the easiest thing in the world will be to dismiss my statement because I have never been married and don’t know what I’m talking about. I have, however, had experience with divorce as an innocent bystander.
There is probably no one in this room who has not been touched by divorce – either you have been divorced yourself, or your parents were divorced, or you’ve helped your sister or your son or some other very important person through a divorce. Because of that, there may be a tendency to feel you are being personally attacked if I or a class member says something that touches close to home. You may want to defend yourself – your divorce was different, your daughter had to divorce her husband because he did this and he did that.
I’m going to ask you all for your cooperation today, in being careful how you share personal experiences. We know – Elder Oaks acknowledges – that there are justifiable reasons for divorce, and the last thing I want to do today is put anyone here on the defensive. Please avoid explaining the circumstances of any divorce you may have been involved with, and especially avoid listing the faults of any person who is to blame for a divorce. Please.
Regardless of the sensitive nature of the topic, and regardless of the inexpertise of your teacher, an apostle of Jesus Christ is so concerned about divorce that he addressed the subject over the General Conference pulpit. Our stake and ward leadership is concerned enough about divorce that they chose that talk for discussion in Relief Society and Priesthood meetings. If we truly sustain our leaders, we owe it to them to consider their concerns seriously. So today, please, let’s talk about principles and ideals, and not be hurt or offended.
And to the other single sisters in the room, I’ll ask that you, too, listen and take part. This isn’t just another lesson on marriage with no immediate application to our lives. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t, or won’t, be deeply affected by the divorce of someone. We have an interest in encouraging and supporting healthy marriages, if for no other reason than that we have no choice and no control, no real right to be involved in someone else’s decision to divorce.
Elder Oaks acknowledges up front that “divorce touches most families in the Church,” that ideal, happy couples and families are not so nearly universal that we can afford to pretend that divorce does not exist. He acknowledges that divorce evokes strong feelings from each of us, depending on how we may have been touched by it.
Without getting personal and identifying our own experiences, what does Elder Oaks mean when he says that some of us see ourselves or our loved ones as victims of divorce?
What does he mean when he says some of us see ourselves or our loved ones as beneficiaries of divorce?
Elder Oaks acknowledges, early in his talk, that “when a marriage is dead and beyond hope of resuscitation, it is needful to have a means to end it.” In other words, he recognizes that in some circumstances, divorce is inevitable.
However, he also notes that “some look back on their divorces with regret at their own partial or predominant fault in the breakup.”
He also acknowledges that “All who have been through divorce … need the healing power and hope that come from the Atonement. The healing power and that hope are there for them and also for their children.”
Let’s discuss the Atonement in connection with divorce. What does Atonement have to do with divorce?
[Be sure to bring out not only forgiveness for contributing to the divorce, but also the healing promise that sometime, somehow, all things will be made right
Luke 4:18: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised]
You’ll remember that before his call as an apostle, Elder Oaks was a lawyer and a judge, and he often looks at gospel issues in terms of public policy and legal issues. He points out that almost universally in American and European nations in the past, societies had such a strong interest in preserving marriages for the good of the people and the nation, that laws reinforced the stability of marriages. In our U.S. culture, what are some of those laws that were in effect, say, fifty years ago?
[Impossibility or difficulty of divorcing
Establishment of fault as prerequisite to divorce
Tax laws that favored families over singles (mention bachelor laws)]
Elder Oaks points out that today, many of those laws favoring families have been weakened or eliminated – [list how: nearly all nations have divorce laws now, many of them no-fault; marriage penalty in U.S. taxation].
He notes that “it can be easier to sever a marriage relationship with an unwanted spouse than an employment relationship with an unwanted employee.”
I believe this is a key portion of Elder Oaks’ talk. Why would he have noted so strongly the role of society and public policy in the availability of divorce?
[I think he wants us to realize where our ideas come from – if we share the notion that divorce should be easily available, that marriages are disposable, he wants us to realize that we have absorbed those ideas from an uninspired source, not from the gospel. The gospel standard has not changed: families are eternal units, children have claim upon both their parents, neither man nor woman can be exalted without the other]
“Looking upon marriage,” he says, “as a mere contract that may be entered into at pleasure … and severed at the first difficulty … is an evil meriting severe condemnation, especially where children are made to suffer.”
Speaking to church members who may be contemplating divorce, Elder Oaks says:
“I strongly urge you and those who advise you to face up to the reality that for most marriage problems, the remedy is not divorce but repentance.”
Without being too personal, speaking only in generalities, what situations or behaviors might Elder Oaks have been speaking about when he claims that repentance, not divorce, is the appropriate remedy?
He goes on to say, “Often the cause is not incompatibility but selfishness. … Divorce is not an all-purpose solution, and it often creates long-term heartache.”
Again without being too personal, what could be some common outcomes of divorce that involve heartache?
[loneliness, income drop, complexities of child custody, effects on children]
Elder Oaks advises couples with marriage problems to seek the counsel of the bishop.
We recognize that very few bishops have extensive professional training in marriage counseling. Elder Oaks knows that. Why would he counsel such a visit as the first, most important step in salvaging a marriage?
“Bishops do not counsel members to divorce, but they can help members with the consequences of their decisions.” What could he be speaking of there?
Elder Oaks quotes a bishop who had had extensive experience in counseling members with marriage problems. Of those who eventually divorced, he said:
**Universally, every couple or individual said they recognized that divorce was not a good thing but they all insisted that their situation was different.
In general – not being defensive about situations you have been involved with – what gospel principles might a bishop discuss with someone who insisted that their situation was different?
** Universally, they focused on the fault of the spouse and attributed little responsibility to their own behavior.
Are there gospel principles that have an application there?
** Universally, they were looking back, not willing to leave the baggage of past behavior on the roadside and move on.
What gospel principles?
** Part of the time, serious sin was involved, but more often they had just ‘fallen out of love,’ saying, ‘He doesn’t satisfy my needs anymore,’ or, ‘She has changed.’
** All were worried about the effect on the children, but always the conclusion was ‘it’s worse for them to have us together and fighting.
Contrasting these ideas that led to divorce, in that bishop’s experience, were these: “The couples who followed this bishop’s counsel and stayed together emerged with their marriages even stronger. That prospect began with their mutual commitment to keep the commandments, stay active in their Church attendance, scripture reading, and prayer, and to work on their own shortcomings. They ‘recognized the importance and power of the Atonement for their spouse and for themselves,’ and ‘they were patient and would try again and again.’”
Elder Oaks advises those who think that their spouse is entirely to blame not to act hastily, that circumstances change, and that one study found “two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce reported being happily married five years later.”
This is one point in the lesson where I welcome personal experience. Those of you who have overcome rocky periods in your marriages may have advice you can share with the rest.
Elder Oaks introduced his talk by saying he spoke “out of concern, but with hope.” He does warn, though, that hope is not always rewarded. He says, “We cannot control and we are not responsible for the choices of others, even when they impact us so painfully.” He is speaking here about not being able to control a spouse’s painful struggles with pornography or the long-term consequences of childhood abuse. We need also to be sympathetic to children and other family members who are not in control of a couple’s decision to divorce. How might we support each other when we find ourselves in these roles?
Elder Oaks concludes with advice to the unmarried: “The best way to avoid divorce from an unfaithful, abusive, or unsupportive spouse is to avoid marriage to such a person. If you wish to marry well, inquire well.” From your experience, what areas of inquiry should a potential marriage partner investigate?
[Pres. Spencer W. Kimball: “Two individuals approaching the marriage altar must realize that to attain the happy marriage which they hope for they must know that marriage ... means sacrifice, sharing, and even a reduction of some personal liberties. It means long, hard economizing. It means children who bring with them financial burdens, service burdens, care and worry burdens; but also it means the deepest and sweetest emotions of all.”]