God intended marriage to be for life. When it ends in divorce, it has painful consequences for all involved. How can you heal and help your children cope with the devastation of divorce?
A number of people have asked us for literature on healing and starting over after a divorce. Unfortunately, we don't have anything in print on the subject. This answer will provide you with some overall principles, but we invite you to write with specific questions that you have.
A colloquialism on the subject goes: "Divorce is a death that never ends." There is much truth in those few words, for the impact divorce has on people is much like death—without any closure for one's grief. Like all heavy trials, you can recover from the damage divorce inflicts by working at it one day at a time with God's help.
In a healthy marriage relationship husbands and wives inadvertently hurt each other, but their willingness to forgive and to work through problems produces healing and actually strengthens their relationship. In an unhealthy marriage, these qualities are lacking. The relationship may deteriorate slowly over a period of years, inflicting countless emotional wounds in the process.
When divorce occurs, there's no opportunity to heal the wounds in the same way as within the marriage relationship. A mixture of frustration and anger often overwhelms you. And any subsequent disputes with an ex spouse over child custody, property or finances reopen the old injuries. Children of divorce have their own hurts and need security and nurturing from you. It's truly difficult to provide these necessities for your children when you feel so much in need of them yourself. Nonetheless, it is possible to work your way through the emotional quagmire, as well as to help your children.
There are many helpful books on the market that can guide you through this difficult time, for example, What About the Kids? by Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee.
Guilt and forgiveness after divorce
Thankfully, we can count on God for His help. Christians often feel guilty in a divorce, thinking that God might not help them, since He tells believers to resolve differences instead of divorcing. We can take comfort in the fact that He recognizes that relationships sometimes fail. Christ inspired the apostle Paul to address divorce in 1 Corinthians:7:15: "But if the unbeliever departs [from the marriage], let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage [bound in the marriage] in such cases. But God has called us to peace." That is, if one's spouse breaks up the marriage, the Christian should not blame him or herself. Let him or her go.
God mentions peace, a quality typically lacking in a home that's breaking up. In such an environment, a believer struggles to be able to live God's way of life. God knows that we need a reasonable amount of peace to be able to think clearly and act properly; He doesn't demand that we stay in a situation where peace is impossible.
Additionally, remember that God Himself experienced divorce. He was in a marriage relationship with the nation of Israel, which was unfaithful to Him (Jeremiah:3:8). It's true that He would not choose to divorce, if His people had been willing and able to be faithful (Malachi:2:16). But it takes two willing and committed partners to make a marriage.
In a divorce, a Christian also struggles with guilt because of realizing that he or she has made mistakes. After humbly and truly repenting to God of any sins, we must accept God's forgiveness and not allow ourselves to be imprisoned by guilt. Part of the cruelty of divorce is that it deprives you of the opportunity to address mistakes that affected your relationship. Still you can make changes you now see you should make, even though it's too late to make a difference in the marriage.
You will likely only hurt yourself further if you expect your ex spouse to make you feel better. In a healthy relationship, you can expect to find forgiveness for your wrongs from your spouse, but you can't in a divorce. However, we can always find forgiveness with God—and we need to seek it regularly. Although God forgives us every time we sincerely repent (1 John:1:9), we may not "feel forgiven," due to the emotional shake-up we suffer in divorce. But continue to look to God, and He will help you.
(Please review our booklet, Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion for guidance on the way to repentance.)
Again, in a healthy marriage relationship, your spouse makes changes and/or apologizes for mistakes, making it easier for you to forgive. When there isn't any change or apology, it's hard to forgive. Divorce is a betrayal of the promise made to stick with you "for better or for worse" and "to love, honor and cherish . . . 'til death do you part."
Here again, God's way of life helps us. Jesus set the example of forgiving betrayal by His prayer: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke:23:34). Jesus' betrayers didn't reconcile with Him or the Father. Full reconciliation won't take place until those people change. Yet Jesus remains willing to forgive all people when they repent. Similarly, you can have some measure of closure by being willing to turn your right to seek revenge over to God, to let go of your anger, even when there isn't any change or apology forthcoming from your ex spouse.
Having a forgiving nature is godly—and healthy. Contrariwise, holding on to anger over wrongs done to you can become a bitterness that consumes you. God tells us: "Pursue peace with all people, and holiness...lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled" (Hebrews:12:14-15).
Emotional support in healing from divorce
Friends can be helpful in getting your mind off of your pain. Spend time with friends who will lend you emotional support—not people who encourage you to vent your negative feelings, but rather stable people whose companionship helps bring out the best in you. Pray that God will bless you with such friends.
Seek to be a friend yourself and serve others at every opportunity. It really is "more blessed to give than to receive," for, rightly motivated reaching out to others will give you a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Please don't make the mistake of becoming a best buddy with your child or children, sharing confidences with them that you would not if you had a spouse. There's a strong temptation for a single parent to do this, especially over issues with your former mate. But that person is their parent, regardless of the wrongs he committed. It doesn't help them or you to vent about your hurts to them. And it doesn't help them for you to lean on them for emotional support, for it deprives them of the nurturing leadership they need in a stable parent.
Learn to meditate (that is, to focus your thinking on a single theme) about positive ideas or places. It's a peaceful and heath-giving habit. The psalmists often wrote of meditating about God and the inspiring aspects of His creation or of His truth (Psalm:63:6; 77:12; 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78, 148; 143:5; 145:5).
Find places that are peaceful where you can go occasionally for restful and restorative time. In the famous 23rd Psalm, David wrote poetically of green pastures and still waters, which symbolize peacefulness and security.
Take care of your physical health too. This will aid and enhance what you are doing for your emotions and spirit. Eat a balanced diet, exercise sensibly and get good rest.
We suggest that you review our booklet Making Life Work for help with all manner of relationships, including those with children, friends and employers. It also addresses building and maintaining a healthy relationship with God.