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Dealing with Guilt, Shame, and Social Stigma of Divorce

It is assumed, and sometimes stated outright, that a person following God would never have ended up at a destination called divorce...
Published Oct 17, 2007
Dealing with Guilt, Shame, and Social Stigma of Divorce

Many divorced people, and especially those who hold strong religious values, tend to regard divorce as outward evidence of an inner character flaw. It is assumed, and sometimes stated outright, that a person following God would never have ended up at a destination called divorce.

"Divorced" means "defective" in the internal self-talk of many religious persons. Whether or not this is openly taught in the congregation or the community, this is the core message that often forms in the minds and hearts of persons struggling through a divorce. And feeling defective and less than acceptable, divorced people are susceptible to feelings of guilt, shame, and failure.

When we sin against a known law of God, guilt and shame serve the useful purpose of calling us to repentance and forgiveness. As we reflect on our own lives and conduct, God’s Holy Spirit searches our hearts, showing us places and situations where we may have been selfish or sinful. As with all instances of revealed sin, we need to confess our wrongdoing and then move in positive directions, turning away from evil. In such cases, our sense of guilt is positive—it impels us to examine our hearts, renounce our evil ways, and repent—turning away from wrong choices and negative directions.

Yet often our feelings of shame are not rooted in a willful act of rebellion against God or in a revealed sin. Instead, they may have their origin in the difficult circumstances of our lives, such as a divorce against our choosing. We may carry a vague sense of personal failure about being divorced; we may internalize a sense of shame or inadequacy that is inappropriate and unhelpful. Looking around at those who seem successful and capable, we may feel "less than" or "unworthy of" others. If we had somehow functioned better as a husband or wife, we reason to ourselves, we would still be married. Others can do this better, we may feel, but somehow we are incapable of succeeding at it.

In such cases, our sense of guilt or shame may entrap us—limiting our ability to function in normal and natural ways. By seeing ourselves as unqualified or unworthy, we tend to fulfill our own low and negative expectations. We may underperform, underachieve, and spiral downward into depression or other physical or emotional afflictions.

Having Access to an Objective Listener

In such cases, we need to break free from the sense of shame or guilt that imprisons us in the miseries of the past. We are likely to need outside help as we confront our misconceptions about our own identity and our own future. A trained counselor or caring minister can be invaluable in the process of sorting through our feelings of shame. Without an objective listener, we may not make needed progress toward healing and recovery.

Cathy found it so. "I blamed myself for the divorce—not at first, but later, after the reality of things began to set in. At first I blamed my husband—he left me and moved in with another woman—but later I started blaming myself. I kept thinking that if I had been a more loving wife, or a more beautiful one, or if somehow I had taken better care of my husband—he would have never left me."

Cathy felt ashamed and inadequate about her performance as a wife and partner. She found herself constantly worried and anxious, thinking back on her five years of marriage, seeing herself as the person who had "caused" the divorce by failing, by falling short, by being less than perfect as a wife, mother, and household manager. Her sense of shame was partly about the fact of being divorced—yet at a deeper level it was rooted in low self-esteem, a nagging sense of self-doubt, and a lot of blaming herself for circumstances and situations beyond her control.

Six months into a regular weekly counseling regimen, Cathy began seeing things differently—especially herself. She began to accept herself as imperfect, as we all are, and yet realize that the primary responsibility for the end of her marriage had to rest with the person who decided to end it: her ex-husband.

"Gary wouldn’t even consider getting counseling," she remembers. "Probably because he was already deeply into another relationship. I later found out he had been seeing this woman for the last year or so we were married.

"Looking back, I can’t fully understand how I managed to blame myself for the fact that my husband was cheating on me, and that he left me. Now, when I look back, I can see that my sense of failure doesn’t really make sense. But at the time, it was powerful. I had days when I thought I’d never succeed at anything again, and especially not at marriage or being a wife."

Cathy’s counselor helped her to process her feelings, learning to identify attitudes of self-loathing, self-doubt, and self-pity that inhibited healing. Along the way, as issues of personal development or personal growth emerged, these were noted by the counselor as places where she needed to make changes.

"I was blaming myself for too much of the problem," Cathy says today. "And yet at the same time, I didn’t want to look too closely at some areas of my personal life, places where I really did need to change. I don’t know how I did it, but I blamed myself unfairly, and also avoided having to grow up, at the very same time!"

How did Cathy know she was beginning to heal? How did she become aware she was on the pathway toward recovery and balance?

"I relaxed," she says simply. "In the weeks and months after my divorce, I was constantly tense. I became hypercritical of myself and also of my children. I would clench my teeth a lot, without knowing I was doing it. I had backaches, headaches, all kinds of symptoms—and didn’t even realize that a lot of these things were due to the tension I was feeling. But after meeting with Carolyn [her counselor] for several months, I noticed I felt a lot more relaxed. I was sleeping better. I was nicer to my kids."

Could Cathy have achieved these same results on her own?

"Maybe. Maybe eventually I would have recovered. But Carolyn kind of ‘got me going’ in the healing process. She got me away from just treading water and feeling sorry for myself. She showed me how to start getting better instead of hating myself and blaming myself."

Fred’s experience was similar. "I never thought I’d go to a counselor in my life." He shrugs. "But when Janet left me, I called my pastor and told him, ‘We need to talk!’ He dropped everything and made an appointment with me that same day. After that I started seeing him once a week, for two hours at a time. I talked and talked and talked—mostly venting all my anger and hostility—and I think Pastor Grant did nothing but listen for our first three or four sessions together.

"After that, once I had run out of angry words, Pastor helped me sort through my feelings and think clearly about myself and about Janet."

Does Fred recommend seeking pastoral care?

"Well, I would never have talked to Pastor Grant or anybody else, except I was hurting so bad," he admits. "If I hadn’t been so angry, if I hadn’t just had all the props kicked out from under me…I wouldn’t have called him."

Nonetheless, Fred called his pastor and received genuine help.

"Pastor Grant helped me see things more clearly and accurately. He wouldn’t let me drift off into blaming Janet or blaming myself. He just kept focusing on what my next steps should be."

For many who experience the trauma of being abandoned by a partner, one of the first steps toward recovery should be seeking the counsel of a wise and caring friend, a trained counselor, or a godly mentor or minister. Having access to an objective listener can mean the difference between stagnation and growth, between being stuck in the past and moving confidently toward the future.

"My feelings didn’t make sense," is how Kaitlyn explains the aftermath of her sudden divorce. "I didn’t know what I felt, I just knew I felt bad."

Kaitlyn’s employer provided comprehensive health coverage, including a generous package of mental-health services. With only a per-visit deductible to pay, she was quick to enroll for counseling.

"I had low expectations," she acknowledges. "But I was so confused, I thought maybe a counselor could at least help me identify what I was feeling, could help me ‘tag’ my emotions and start naming them.

"What actually happened was that, after the first couple of weeks, I got a lot better at talking through my feelings. I would kind of realize what I was feeling once I started talking about it with my counselor."

Kaitlyn’s experience is typical of those who are considered verbal processors. Verbal processors learn best by speaking: As they frame the words and ideas of a conversational exchange, they are literally realizing—in the moment—what their thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and opinions are.

In Kaitlyn’s case, she discovered her primary issue was anger.

"I hated him!" she says of her ex-husband. "But before I saw the counselor, I couldn’t have even told you that. As simple as that sounds—as basic—I hadn’t even realized yet I hated my ex-husband. I’m trying to tell you this: I didn’t even know what I felt, or how I felt, until I started going to those Friday-afternoon sessions."

Within the religious community, seeing a counselor may be viewed as a sign of weakness. After all, shouldn’t "God alone" be sufficient?

We frame this question for Kaitlyn, who smiles ruefully.

"I really do believe God was helping me," she says forcefully, "but the way God chose to do it, was by using a counselor. It’s like that story where God sends a rowboat and a helicopter to the people whose house is flooding. The people keep ignoring the boat and the other ways to escape because they insist God will rescue them.

"Later, after they drown and go to heaven, God tells them—‘Hey, I sent you a boat and a helicopter!’—and they finally realize God was trying to rescue them all the time.

"In my case, it was God who rescued me—and I mean that literally— but the way He chose to do it was by using the counselor. My counselor was God’s way of helping me get better."

  Excerpted from Moving Forward After Divorce (Harvest House Publishers) by David and Lisa Frisbie. © 2006 David and Lisa Frisbie. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Since 1982, David and Lisa Frisbie have served together as co-executive directors of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies, whose primary focus is helping families adjust to trauma and change. Prolific writers and frequent speakers at workshops, camps, and seminars, David and Lisa have traveled widely in North America, Europe, and Asia. They make their home in Southern California.


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