Where do divorced members get support?
Participants were asked to rank from 1 to 7 the support they felt from various LDS-related groups (1 being not at all supportive and 7 being very supportive). This is the average score out of 7 for those support systems:
- Family, 5.68
- Non-member friends, 5.21
- Bishopric, 4.55
- Friends in the Church, 4.55
- Visiting Teachers, 4.11
- Relief Society President, 3.98
- Home Teachers, 3.85
- Ward Members, 3.81
- Stake Presidency, 3.73
- Quorum President, 2.96
The Expert Says
Divorce is the second-most stressful life event, with death of a spouse being the most stressful, according to the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. Those who experience a divorce need a lot of support from others to help manage those high levels of stress.
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Dr. Swinton agrees. “I was sad to see that ward members and home teachers were so far down on the list of where support comes from,” he says. “This is sad because what someone going through a divorce needs the most is support from those around them. I worry that discomfort with the situation unnecessarily impacts many from engaging in providing needed support.”
You’ve Got a Friend
Many survey respondents noted that they felt most accepted and supported by non-members because they were not judgemental and there is less of a stigma around divorce in the outside world.
One divorcee noted, “Friends outside church did not treat me like a sinner for getting a divorce. They just wanted to help.”
Member friends primarily provided support around the spiritual connection that could not be found with non-members. As one woman noted, speaking of her LDS friends, “[I had] great support from my friends, who were divorced as well.”
However, some participants didn’t have that same support system from their church friends.
“It's true when they say that you really do find out who your real friends are when disaster strikes. Many, when they saw me coming, would look the other way,” one participant shared.
Another shared a similar experience: “They stopped inviting me to every activity, shopping trip, dinners, everything. I became a pariah. I tried to understand that they just didn't know how to deal with a situation like this.”
The Expert Says
“Divorce may be more taboo for many,” explains Dr. Swinton. “There is more of a stigma associated with it. In the Church, we value family relationships so much (rightly so) that many don’t know how to deal with divorce because it seems incongruent with the foundation of the Church, which is the family. Outside of the Church, there is a disturbing trend in the devaluation of the family. This may make many more supportive of divorce when it happens outside the Church.”
Ward Members: Too Wary?
Those divorcing tended to perceive ward members as a group that was unsupportive, fearful, and judgmental. As several respondents put it:
- “Many ward members avoided me like the plague because they simply didn't know what to say to me. I felt like I was contagious, and I think that they thought I was!”
- “My children were ostracized.”
- “Church is a family-orientated organization, and when your family splits, it is difficult to find your place.”
Why do ward members seem to have such a hard time connecting with divorced members? Dr. Swinton says, “[In LDS culture], divorce is a bit of a taboo issue that many don't know how to deal with, so the result is to avoid.”
However, avoiding divorced members only adds to their troubles. And making an effort to help, even if it’s awkward, can pay major dividends, as one respondent shared: “I was brought to tears many times at the amazing support I received from so many members.”
What Divorced Members Wish You Knew
Given the experiences that the participants had, they made recommendations to ward leaders, Stake leaders, fellow members, and home or visiting teachers on how to handle future divorcing members. Here is some of their best advice:
- “A simple smile or hello . . . would have helped.”
- “[It] would be nice if [others] had some idea of how devastating divorce is and could have helped me get through the grieving process. [They] could have helped me realize that there is more to being a member of the Church [than] being in a traditional ‘LDS families are forever’ kind of family.”
- “[Acknowledge] me as a person. [Have] concern for my children, especially Young Men and priesthood leaders. For example, take my sons to general priesthood meeting and take my sons home teaching.”
- “Ask if anything [is] needed. Pay attention to the children who are going through a really bad time. Don’t judge; be supportive.”
- “[Give me] spiritual support. . . . Give me messages about strength and faith; help build my testimony.”
- “Have activities where all can be involved, regardless of marital status.”
- “Comments in classes should always also cover how the topic is relevant to those who are not in the ideal family situation.”
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The Expert Says
What can Latter-day Saints do to be more supportive of divorced members?
Dr. Swinton says, “Love them. Even if the situation is uncomfortable or you don’t know how to react, love them. If you worry that being supportive somehow condones something you don't approve of, remember that showing love does not mean you are condoning something. Don't let discomfort prevent you from providing support that may be needed. Also, provide long-term support. Divorce can be very stressful for years.”
What Can We Do?
“Few things in life are as difficult as divorce,” Dr. Swinton shares. “We as friends, neighbors, ward members, home teachers, family, etc., should show Christ’s love. People need all the love and support they can get as they weather a divorce.”
In a message to divorced members, Dr. Swinton continues, “If you have experienced divorce, don't beat yourself up or feel you are lesser in any way. Relationships are really difficult. Just do your best. The Lord still loves you and will always be there to support you.”
Josh Lockhart is a husband, father of two and a Canadian Certified Counsellor based out of Kimberley, BC, Canada. He works as a Mental Health Clinician for Ktunaxa/Kinbasket Child & Family Services, and as needed for LDS Family Services in the East Kootenay's. He has also been a columnist for 8+ years in local small papers. Learn more at joshlockhart.blogspot.ca.