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“Divorce”: A Lesson Plan to Scrutinize

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 03, 2011

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.]

Divorce

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.’

Gospel principles?

** 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.

Gospel principles?

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.”]



50 Comments »

  1. Good lesson for an unmarried woman. (Tongue firmly planted in cheek. Also note that this is said by unmarried man)

    Comment by Jacob M — May 3, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

  2. As one who has been divorced I can say I have healed from it but that isn’t to say I don’t have concerns and issues with the Church, I do. I was reading the other day 2 Nephi 2 where the first 3 verses fit my life completely, in my case just really, extraordinarily bad advice from leaders about marriage and to get married all the rest of it. Then the Lehi talks about about the atonement and how Christ can overcome all problems if we use our agency to let him. I can say that has happened for me, as I say I am not out of the woods yet but I think i way farther down the road then I would have been if I continued on the way I was going and that would have led to spiritual ruin.

    Comment by Cameron — May 3, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  3. Thank you.

    I think because I’ve invited people to be entirely candid, I won’t respond to specific comments for fear I might become defensive. Do know, though, that I’ll be eagerly reading all comments.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 3, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

  4. Ardis, what I’m thinking about is that you were my support person to help me through my divorce. I’m still grateful to you.

    The healing that Elder Oaks talks about is real. More than I imagined before. This is a good lesson to talk about.

    Comment by Carol — May 3, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

  5. I’ll confess that Elder Oaks’s suggestion of the best way to avoid divorce (“marry well”) reminds me of the sure-fire winning stock market investment strategy of Will Rogers:

    “[B]uy some good stock and hold it ’til it goes up; then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.”

    Comment by Mark B. — May 3, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  6. As a divorced person, I honestly believe that divorced people won’t be completely, truly accepted in the Church until we have GA’s who have been divorced. Does anyone know of any? I don’t, but would be very happy to be corrected.

    (To disclose my position: I’ve been separated 9 years this month, and divorced now for 7). At the time of separation, there is a 2 year waiting period here before you can file for a mutual consent divorce. I did find it difficult that a separated but not yet divorced person can’t attend SA events, at a time when they need friends and socialising and the opportunity to mix with others who understand what they are going through. It also upset me to learn that a divorced person can’t serve as a temple worker for 5 years after divorce, irrespective of which spouse was at ‘fault’. I found it then difficult to reconcile those rules with the counsel that divorced members were treated no differently in the Church. These days, I’ve too much on my plate to occupy me than dwell upon the above, but then, they added to the emotional upheaval at a deeply difficult time.
    Hope this makes sense :-)

    Comment by Anne (UK) — May 3, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  7. “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?”

    From my experience it is because most bishops are experts in one thing: Repentance. Most marriages can be healed when two repentant hearts seek the healing power of the atonement. The biggest obstacles I encountered were not financial troubles, or external pressure. They were simply sin, and an overpowering unwillingness to repent and forgive.

    I could drone on, but I won’t….

    Comment by MMM — May 3, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

  8. Good point Mark, none of us can predict the future, especially the future arc of any human life.

    But couldn’t we all also agree that the road to wealth is not paved with penny stock certificates for hidden gold mines in the Wasatch mountains?

    I hope I can teach my children that past performance when it comes to marriage really can be a predictor of future results.

    Comment by KLC — May 3, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

  9. And Ardis, your notes are impressive. I like how you approached a personally difficult topic with honesty and charity for the audience and for the speaker.

    Comment by KLC — May 3, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

  10. Good notes about a great talk, for an all too common problem in the church. It’s just one of the elephants in the room, I dare say.

    I wonder how much more healing would take place if all lessons started from the scripture in Luke that Elder Oaks referenced:

    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.

    Through an odd quirk, I am actually teaching our ward’s relief society this Sunday on Mother’s Day about (cough, choke…)Missionary Work from the gospel principles manual. I am thinking I will start with this scripture.

    I really appreciated both this talk, and your approach to teaching it. Thanks for sharing, Ardis.

    Comment by kevinf — May 3, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

  11. I will just echo what MMM said about bishops and repentance. I found during my tenure I could do little about the root causes of divorce, but just about everyone needed the atonement in their lives, both to be forgiven and to learn to forgive. I came to a much better understanding of the whole principle of the atonement, and tried to teach it as much as possible. Some marriages were saved, others ended in divorce. As bishop, pretty much all you can talk about to these folks is the atonement, repentance, and forgiveness. For all the nuts and bolts of relationships, there are professionals for that, and we should never hesitate to recommend that process to people in these situations.

    Comment by kevinf — May 3, 2011 @ 4:47 pm

  12. How I feel is this. You are a very good and sensitive person doing your best with an impossible topic.

    What I think about Elder Oaks talk. In my experience, ‘selfishness’ or ‘sin’ was not the root cause of divorce – at least between two relatively mature people. Usually divorce is not even contemplated until one side, and sometimes both, have sacrificed and given and given until they are spiritually desolate. Usually the person who sacrifices most is also the “bad” one who takes the step of divorcing.

    When Elder Oaks wife recoils at his touch for years. When she sits stony and unmoved as he lets her see his tears roll again and again. When they have a discussion about gay marriage, and though he basically agrees with her, she refuses to speak to him for three weeks, except to tell him what an awful person he has become. When she then barely speaks to him for a year, during which she wont as much as walk side by side with him through supermarket, and at the end of the year she announces to him she thinks of herself more as a man than as a woman. And he can barely attend church because any talk about family burns his ears and brain and heart with a dull fire. And he is so lonely he wants to throw himself off a rock. And the pain is more, because she has been his friend, and he cares about her, and doesn’t want to cause her pain. But she cannot match her nature to his, nor he to hers. He is certainly _not_ going to label her an abuser for resting on the foundation she brought with her. And a moment comes when there is simply nothing left to try, and a line is crossed over which you cannot cross back and live. Then he can give me a lecture about selfishness and abuse, and what is and is not an appropriate divorce in the eyes of the ‘Brethren’.

    I do not want support. I don’t want any hint that people think my pain can be soothed with well intentioned platitudes. I want people to shut up, and in no way massage my pain. And I want to be seen as just another person passing through what God bloody knows is called the vale of tears for a reason. At most, I want someone who knows who can tell me to look to Jesus and live.

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — May 3, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

  13. One of the most difficult things I did as bishop was to face one member of a couple who was unhappy in his or her marriage.

    I relied heavily on the counsel that as a bishop I should not counsel who should marry or who should divorce; these are personal decisions left solely to the individuals involved.

    But the atonement was (and is) the universal balm. It was remarkable to relearn that lesson each time I taught it.

    Comment by Paul — May 3, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  14. I remember this lesson in RS. It really was a toughie. I even said completely the wrong thing as a comment, something about how I had a lot of friends that I worked with who would talk about divorce as a viable option when things got tough, and even before they got married, and how if my husband and I had split up when things got a little rocky for us, we would have really missed out because things did get better and we were really happy and stronger because of the tough times.

    Someone else immediately said that I was being judgmental and I didn’t know anyone else’s business and that divorce was necessary sometimes. I felt so bad because I really didn’t mean it that way, and in fact, I had a brother who was going through a divorce and I fully supported his decision. I think there are a lot of really good reasons to get divorced, and sometimes they don’t have anything to do with sin or selfishness. I was just surprised by how casually my friends would throw the word divorce around, like they fully expected it to go that direction in the next couple of years and didn’t want to fight for their marriages.

    I felt so terrible for the rest of RS and I really wish that I had been able to explain myself better, but the discussion moved on. I should have kept my mouth zipped.

    Comment by Jen — May 3, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

  15. “she refuses to speak to him for three weeks, except to tell him what an awful person he has become. When she then barely speaks to him for a year”
    You may not want to say it, but most people define this as emotional abuse.

    Comment by jks — May 3, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

  16. Every president of the Church from Brigham Young to Joseph F. Smith were divorced. Of course their relationships were more complex becuase of their plural marriages.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — May 3, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

  17. One of my sons and one of my daughters were divorced because of abuse. They moved in together in a family ward where the bishop and his wife had been divorced from their first spouses. They understood what my children were going through, although they had been divorced for several years, and took them under their wings.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — May 3, 2011 @ 10:58 pm

  18. Very good discussions here. I will definitely be more aware in the future. Just breaks my heart that we carelessly cause so much pain.

    Comment by Embey — May 3, 2011 @ 11:00 pm

  19. Anne (UK) (#6): You know, i think you have a good point, Jeff Johnson‘s (#16) comment notwithstanding.

    A good first step before that, though, might be to somehow get rid of the meme that even if one person is more at fault in a divorce, there‘s always some fault on both sides. A specific case: A friend of mine had her (now ex-)husband tell her one day that he was leaving her to explore his potential for relationships with other men; i have difficulty believing that she pushed him toward homosexuality, or in some other way bears blame for the dissolution of their marriage.

    Comment by David B — May 3, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  20. David B,

    There are always a hundred things. Even with something as stark as homosexuality, there is never just the one thing – even if the one thing is the deal breaker.

    jks,

    Why it is not abuse. Because she is using every tool she has not to abuse. That’s the irony: if I could turn her into a bad person and say that I alone have been wronged by an abusive spouse, that would be easy. But she is just using the crayons she has in her crayon box, and I’m using mine. We can’t acquire new crayons fast enough, and we both may feel that we shouldn’t have to. She certainly feels that. She should be accepted as she is – that is love. I largely betrayed our initial compact when I returned to the church – that became increasingly apparent as the years accumulated, and her bitterness was not without cause. We stopped speaking the same language, we were no longer working on the same project. The changes I made in my life, which I felt were making me a better person were, to her, quixotic and even hurtful. I was going places she didn’t believe she could follow. Irritation that I no longer had a drink of wine with her on holidays was a small surface emblem of deeper, cataclysmic shifts.

    I’ve been chastised in another place for my degree of openness about this. I don’t post anonymously. But I feel I need to err on the side of openness – I just feel like it is something I have to do. It’s part of the deal I made with God when I came back to the church. I wanted to show what I’m keeping in the little bag at the back of my heart. But God is faithful … there is healing in more than just a couple lives because of the way things went. He works in mysterious ways.

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — May 4, 2011 @ 2:36 am

  21. Sorry, Ardis, for hijacking this.

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — May 4, 2011 @ 2:36 am

  22. Not a hijack, Thomas. I know from remarks you’ve made elsewhere that this is entirely authentic.

    It does illustrate, though, why I asked the sisters in my ward to speak as impersonally as they could that day. I didn’t want anybody to be put on the spot, to feel she had to defend her own story against some theoretical ideal or against inapplicable advice. Maybe it’s a little different in a forum like this that is entirely voluntary, but in a church setting it might have been too intense for some, no?

    But since you’re willing to share it, who knows what good you might be doing for someone who reads it? Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 4, 2011 @ 3:53 am

  23. Anne(UK) I would love to see a divorced General Authority, I wonder if it will ever happen. It seems that people picked to be General Authorities have led spotless lives and made the “ideal” decisions and had the “ideal” family situation and everything has worked out, everyone they talk to joins the Church, gets reactivated, sealed in the Temple etc. I think if God wanted to send a revelation to the Prophet to call someone who has been divorced, even his wife, I wonder if it would pass the unwritten bureaucracy of perfection for leadership in our Church? Tongue in cheek about all these prerequisites for General Authorities but that is how they are displayed and you wonder if you even belong to the same Church as them or where they come from?!

    Comment by Cameron — May 4, 2011 @ 9:36 am

  24. Thomas, keep sharing your thoughts. They are definitely worth reading, and give many much to think about.

    Comment by Jacob M — May 4, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  25. Thomas Parkin (#20): Can an outsider ever really be sure?

    I tend to think, quite seriously, that the idea that both sides are always (at least a little) to blame for their divorce is simply a nice way for those of us who have never been divorced to find a way to feel superior to those who have been.

    Comment by David B — May 4, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  26. Ardis—I think you did a wonderful job.

    But I also think I would have had to get up and leave at some point. I might have made it through the “don’t share personal experiences” request. I don’t think I would have been able to make it through the “Speaking to church members who may be contemplating divorce” part.

    If I managed to make it through the entire lesson, it would have been completely silently.

    But I don’t think that is because you did a bad job (it was great) or because Elder Oaks’ talk wasn’t true, but because it is so inutterably hard to not take the things that are said and beat myself up with them.

    Even now, the decision long made and the ashes settled, I have to fight hard against wondering what I did wrong in my marriage. And I’ve traveled that road so often, I know it leads nowhere useful.

    Comment by SilverRain — May 4, 2011 @ 11:58 am

  27. SilverRain, and Thomas, and others who have been through it —

    Do we need to have lessons like this? Do they help anybody? Would the Church be failing in any part of its mission if we didn’t have lessons like this?

    You have me wondering what the point is. The nearest thing I can relate it to in my own life is my failed mission. If I’d heard a lesson beforehand, even one that precisely addressed the difficulties I was about to have, I wonder if it would have helped. I think I wouldn’t have believed it Oh, yeah, that might happen to somebody else, but not to me! I would have thought. And of course after the fact it would do no good, except to remind me I had failed, and to give people who had never endured what I endured the opportunity to be sincerely, earnestly, faithfully, spectacularly unhelpful.

    I don’t go so far as to say Elder Oaks shouldn’t have given such a talk. He’s the apostle, not me, and I’m not second-guessing him at all. It’s a serious issue, relevant to the church’s mission. But I wonder now what good it does to talk about it in small groups, as in a ward Relief Society. I’m wondering now, after the fact, who it could possibly have benefitted.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 4, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

  28. I think the lessons are necessary. Maybe not as presently constituted, though.

    But with Tracy’s post on being a single mother, I’ve been thinking a lot about how lessons would be more beneficial in general. I’m trying to put together a post about it, but my thoughts on that subject are not yet fully baked, and too complicated to cover at this point, I think.

    To attempt to answer it succinctly (too late!), I’d say that I think a different approach to any topic would be helpful. Less formula-for-success and more gospel of Christ.

    And by that, I mean that the gospel isn’t a description of perfection. It is a map to it.

    Comment by SilverRain — May 4, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

  29. I’m not sure what the lesson can do unless the group is small(ish) and there is an unusual degree of trust, even intimacy. I think the teacher can take the lead in helping everyone feel they are among friends. Even the people who testify in cliches … everyone should feel they are among friends. But this does break down when the emotional stakes are high.

    Jacob – thank you!!

    David – yeah. I can see that. To me, it wasn’t the feeling of being judged nearly as much as this feeling that no one really knew what to do with me, anymore. Like I was wearing a flashing neon bow tie – divorce, divorce divorce! Rather exhausting.

    Thanks all for hearing me out. ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — May 4, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

  30. Ardis,

    *Universally, every couple or individual said they recognized that divorce was not a good thing but they all insisted that their situation was different.

    I think this line constitutes what passes for humor, in Elder Oaks stern lecture.

    It is always subject to question, whether a family ever gains by giving up, and ceases to be a family. In my former family everyone suffered from the breakup. The ones who suffered the most were my children. I feel the guilt, considering what might have been, if my family could have managed to stay together.

    Comment by Jim Cobabe — May 4, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  31. as one whose life could have gone the way of divorce i am grateful that there is counsel to consider it ever so carefully. it was not right for us.

    but i think his counsel to be careful before divorce should be seen as really only for those who have not yet made the decision. i know from too many people in my world how necessary divorce sometimes is and we have to help stand by them at times like this and rally around them them and help them through the healing process.

    to those who made that decision with the best of their heart and soul, do not punish yourself. please. live. learn. move forward. trust yourself and trust the atonement.

    but please, don’t make it so that we can’t talk about these things. it pains me greatly to think of avoiding such difficult topics, for two reasons. one because i think that there are more people around us struggling than we think. and two, how can we ever get better at helping each other through hard things if we avoid hard topics because they are hard?

    so to the thomases and silverrains, i plead with you — help others in your real world, too, to understand the pain-filled road you are walking. don’t be silent. don’t leave. help those around you help you. be patient with people as they try and fail and try again. trust and intimacy cannot be developed without risk and failure and forgiveness and lots of patience. it can’t be done in the abstract.

    so in that vein, ardis, i think your lesson was good, although a part of me wonders if there might have been value in allowing some space for people to be personal. that to me is what opens up the power of a lesson to go beyond pat answers and really be real. but then as thomas noted, some dont want that or anything close to it and it is a risk.

    probably good to do what you did and follow the spirit and a spirit of compassion the best you could, drawing some expectations for the discussion as you felt you should. the answer of how to handle it would probably be different in each ward anyway.

    Comment by anon — May 5, 2011 @ 1:08 am

  32. (*I have been divorced)

    I just don’t think this is a topic that should be “taught” about during regular church meetings. The ones who are divorced know that its horrible and awful and soul crushing and already fear at what it will do to their children. Its not something we need to point out to them. I think Mormons are all sufficiently scared to death of divorce and try to avoid it as much as possible. Do we really need to drive the point home? No, I don’t think we do. I don’t think the majority of people take divorce lightly, so why preach to the choir about those exceptions to the rule?

    I know you had a hard job, and an unfair task to e begin with, but your talk made me cringe. That you felt the need to point out that people will become defensive instantly puts people on the defensive. Its like saying “Not to be rude, but…”

    And the quotes….they are just heart breaking for those going through divorce. I just don’t understand why this was felt to be a good topic. Its like “lets talk about death and why it is so horrible and awful, and that you just didn’t have enough faith to save them, and you should’ve tried harder and done this and that, and oh how horrible that you let that person die, it destroys families and tears them apart, we need to have better faith”

    My heart breaks for any divorced person who had to sit through that. :(

    Comment by Olive — May 5, 2011 @ 10:30 am

  33. I did invite candor, didn’t I …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 5, 2011 @ 10:39 am

  34. Thomas, Silver Rain, Olive and Jen, thanks for sharing your insights. Very helpful to me as I learn to comfort those who stand in need of comfort without personal experience to do so.

    Olive, in particular I found myself wondering what we should teach in absence of lessons like this one. (I’m with Ardis, by the way — Elder Oaks can speak about what he’s impressed to speak about; I’m talking about smaller group discussions like the one described.)

    In the end, I suppose we could teach that the atonement has power to heal all of us. And that the second great commandment is that we love one another (whoever and wherever we are).

    Comment by Paul — May 5, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  35. I think it may be helpful for each individual to recognize that maybe they weren’t the intended audience for the talk. Members who are already divorced: I don’t think Elder Oaks was thinking, “Now how can I make them feel worse about this.” Don’t feel the need to justify your decision to the class or even Elder Oaks. If you made the decision prayerfully, then own it, painful as it was, hopefully you made it as intelligently as possible.

    Comment by psychochemiker — May 5, 2011 @ 2:10 pm

  36. I’ve been pretty absent from blogs the last few months, but I have to share two thoughts:

    1. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — “Anna Karenina” (Leo Tolstoy)

    2. I remember the Church taking a lot of heat in Chile in the 90s when they were one of the churches supporting a constitutional amendment allowing divorce. People simply couldn’t fathom why a church would advocate for divorce. I was nearing the end of my mission, but I came up with a line that was equivalent to needing it to be “rare, safe, and legal” (as used in other context).

    Comment by queuno — May 5, 2011 @ 6:20 pm

  37. My life would have been very different without divorce. In those days, my dad had to go to Mexico to divorce, or else lie and say he was an adulterer, but that divorce cleared the way for him eventually to marry my mother. (And I defensively feel the need to say that although they had met while both were in WWII service, they did not meet again until after Dad was free to marry.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 5, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

  38. Thank you, everyone, for the comments. This has been an amazing thread to read.

    Comment by Ray — May 6, 2011 @ 8:33 am

  39. In regards to the comment:
    1. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — “Anna Karenina” (Leo Tolstoy)

    I find this to be totally untrue. In fact, spending time with other divorced people in real life and hanging out at divorce recovery message boards, it’s clear there’s a rather standard narrative. Even if small details differ, it’s amazing how so many divorce narratives follow the same basic path.

    The benefit of lessons like this is because our discourse over divorce in church is very messed up. There are only two acceptable narratives:
    1. It was hard, we almost divorced, but we got through it and got better and we’re stronger for it.
    2. It was pretty much all the man’s fault. He was emotionally abusive/physically abusive/had an affair/ruined our finances. The woman is pretty much blameless and deserves our sympathy, whereas the man shouldn’t be allowed into respectable company because no success can compensate for failure in the home.

    Both of these narratives are often true, and so I am not claiming they are false or no one should use them. However, there seems to be no room for narratives like mine, where my wife left me because I was unemployed for a year or so, and she flat out told me “I’d rather have the government force you to support me rather than struggle with you.” Her parents also were pushing her to leave me, because my unemployment was a sign from God I was unworthy.

    Of course that’s just my narrative. And I have to admit my ex pretty much tells everyone the second narrative I listed above. That’s because it’s the acceptable narrative and gets her sympathy and approval. I cannot attend children focused ward functions for my kids home ward because I am an evil man in the eyes of every woman in that ward.

    My narrative is unacceptable and people refuse to admit it could be true (or at least closer to the truth. Perhaps I deceive myself). The first thing every church leader asked me: “Where you physically abusive?” (the answer is no – not even close). It’s the default assumption, though.

    I was lucky, in that my Elder’s quorum president had been divorced, so he was of some help. But there’s a strong supports system in the church for divorced women, but divorced men are pretty much treated as if we have some divorce virus that might be catching.

    Comment by twiceuponatime — May 6, 2011 @ 9:15 am

  40. twice, I once spent a long night listening to a man who had come home that day to find his wife had left with the baby and who couldn’t be safely left alone. He babbled in shock all night long, blaming himself for everything he had or hadn’t done or said during their entire relationship — and it was all of the kind “I should have got up to fix her breakfast sometimes” and “Maybe if I had bought her more presents.” There wasn’t a hint of “if I hadn’t hit her” or “if I had hadn’t yelled at her” or “if I had only let her do X.” It was such a stream of consciousness that I have no doubt he would have confessed to anything he was guilty of. He wasn’t guilty of anything other than the normal casual failings of mortal human beings.

    So it came as a shock to hear over the next few months all the accusations of people who assumed that, as the man, he must have been guilty of gross abuse or at least neglect. I knew he wasn’t. He couldn’t hide anything during that awful night.

    That’s just to say that some of us, at least, recognize your narrative as a true one we’ve heard and seen ourselves. It certainly is discounted in the wider society, but some of us individually recognize it as genuine.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2011 @ 9:53 am

  41. re: divorce narratives, Elder Holland has some comments on divorce in an old BYU devotional of his I quite like, given before his calling.

    In even mentioning this [topic] I earnestly wish not to offend. I have seen divorce in my own family so I know something of the complexity, the pain, the accusations, and innocence that inevitably attend it. I do not speak here of specific lives or personal problems about which I know nothing and on which I would not pass judgment if I did. But the general matter of divorce, the abstract matter of divorce, is not only a major social but also a major symbolic problem in our world.

    -http://speeches.byu.edu/reader/reader.php?id=6877

    Comment by Ben S — May 6, 2011 @ 10:14 am

  42. Wow. I certainly would have quoted that myself had I been aware of it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 6, 2011 @ 10:38 am

  43. “But there’s a strong supports system in the church for divorced women . . . .”

    Although I don’t deny that there is substance to what you are saying, I suspect that in areas of REAL abuse, the woman is often disbelieved because of her demeanor and modes of interaction vs. the demeanor and modes of interaction of the abuser. When abuse is imaginary, the confidence of the woman and lack of preparation and confidence from the man wins people to her side.

    So please don’t overestimate the amount of support for a genuinely abused woman.

    Comment by SilverRain — May 6, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  44. Great lesson. Your lesson plans are always superb.

    Comment by Amy — May 8, 2011 @ 7:31 am

  45. SilverRain –

    I don’t and won’t. I’ve known too many cases of real emotional and/or physical abuse to do that. As I said, the acceptable narrative is all too often real. And it is sad when real abuse is not taken seriously – but there is no support system for the men – men in the church (perhaps unconsciously) avoid divorced men. I’ve seen many a Relief Society rally to the aid of many a divorced woman, but I’ve never seen an Elder’s quorum rally to help the man.

    But yes, your warning is important. I don’t mean to case any aspersions on every accusation of abuse.

    Comment by twiceuponatime — May 8, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  46. Twice—I think there is something to what you’re saying.

    But, as a divorced woman, though I have had support from some women, I’ve had mostly silence. Many women who are married act as though divorce is communicable. And from many other single women, I’ve seen outright vitriol. To quote one woman who didn’t know I was divorced and overhearing, “[They have] already had their chance at eternal marriage, they shouldn’t be allowed to come [to singles’ wards or activities] and take chances away from us.”

    And don’t even get me started on how so many men see divorced women. For single men, we are “damaged goods” and for the marrieds, we are loose cannons. Especially as the one who decided to file for divorce, I theoretically had control over whether or not my marriage fell apart, and that is its own black mark.

    I’m not trying to say that women have it worse, but that I think it is easy to see how the other party has it easier than you do, when in reality, divorce is a great burden in the church, no matter the circumstances or gender of the divorcee.

    And to be honest, I think to an extent it should be. Divorce shouldn’t be easily acceptable. I am possibly one of the most vehement voices against divorce in general, and would have strongly preferred that I was not so foolish as to marry him in the first place.

    Comment by SilverRain — May 9, 2011 @ 8:02 am

  47. Coming late to the party, I have a few thoughts I’d like to add. My demographic, married 18 yrs, divorced 20 yrs.

    First, re #27, “Do we need to have lessons like this?” Yes, we need the lessons. “Like this” depends on how they’re given.

    “Do they help anybody?” Yes, divorce needs to be a topic that can be talked about openly, not relegated to whispers and rumors.

    ”Would the Church be failing in any part of its mission if we didn’t have lessons like this?” Yes. This addresses perfecting the Saints when it teaches: critical thinking-analyze where our attitudes and laws may have been affected by history; like everything else in life, this issue can be addressed by applying gospel principles-prayer, repentance, forgiveness and atonement; we are to be loving and non-judgmental of others-acknowledge and treat everyone as dealing with life situations the best they know how.

    I especially like SilverRain’s #28 comment, “I’d say that I think a different approach to any topic would be helpful. Less formula-for-success and more gospel of Christ.”

    RE support for women vs. men, SilverRain has it pegged again. I wish we could just take Alma’s advice and “…are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…” Everyone is responsible for his or her own salvation, regardless of marital status.

    Comment by charlene — May 10, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

  48. SilverRain –

    well, I know a few divorced women who won’t date divorced men (often, it’s understandable – a divorced man makes them think of their ex, who is also a divorced man).

    I am dating a divorced woman right now, one with several kids. So not all of us single men avoid divorced women.

    But every situation is different – we all view things through our own experience. I may be somewhat blinded by how my home ward basically just got really awkward whenever I was around, but my ex’s new ward rallied to her and make my life uncomfortable whenever I happen to visit.

    Comment by twiceuponatime — May 12, 2011 @ 12:28 am

  49. Wonderful, Ardis.

    Comment by Jack — September 20, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

  50. Thanks for finding this Jack, so I could find it too. I needed it today.

    Comment by Julia — September 21, 2012 @ 7:40 am

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