Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What it’s Like to Divorce in a “Families Are Forever” Culture


 Published in Meridian Magazine by Lisa McDougle

One thousand cried out in want of a voice, their pleas desperate for understanding and validation. It seemed behind each statistic and checked box was a shattered human being who felt lost of all sense of value in the world, in their relationships, and even in their ward families. The words “outcast,” “cipher,” “misfit,” and even “plague” jumped out at me. What was this so-called condition that so isolated them from the associations that they had once enjoyed? Leprosy? Chicken Pox? No, the devastating “plague” of divorce.

The survey was born of my own heartbreak after divorcing, and wondering how, when I needed comfort and support the most, I felt suddenly alone in the world? In 2011, after 32 years of marriage, I got out of an unhealthy marriage only to find myself on a deserted Island, so to speak. Friends, family, and ward members seemed to go in to hiding the moment I found myself in unchartered territory. Not only did I feel deserted, I was suddenly the target of great ridicule and judgment from those who I considered to be my comrades, and should have been my emotional support.

I wondered if anyone really cared about me now that my family had fallen apart? Was I no longer wanted in the Church as a divided entity? Had I belonged to a “Perfect Family Club” all along and didn’t know it until I no longer fit in?

While young, I had gained a testimony for myself. I never doubted the truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I had made a decision way back then that no matter what I would stay in the safety of the Church. Many times this conviction was tested as conflicts arose with other members, but never like during and after my divorce. I wondered if my experience was isolated. This couldn’t possibly be normal Mormon-culture-protocol for such a devastating trial.

Looking back throughout my married life, I realized, ironically enough, I had almost always been given divorced sisters to Visit Teach. The majority had left the church, and had very hurt feelings toward members. I heard their stories of being released from their callings and being put in isolated callings such as the nursery, and being reassigned Home Teachers that were the oldest High Priests in the ward. They spoke of being treated differently at church meetings, no longer being invited to activities with member friends like before, and becoming the brunt of rude comments and gossip.

I have to admit that I had a hard time believing that their experiences weren’t isolated incidents. I hadn’t seen it personally, therefore they must be mistaken. Twenty years later, I experienced it for myself. Down to the 90-year-old Home Teacher, the nursery calling, and the sudden object of ridicule and gossip. It seemed so strange to me that a group of people who are taught every week to emulate Christ would believe that being cruel to members going through the trial of divorce was acceptable behavior. I had to be wrong about this.

In the Church there is a place for everyone. The Nursery for tiny tots, Primary for children, Young Men’s and Women’s, Relief Society, Priesthood. Where was that place for those going through the destruction of their family, lost dreams, and financial chaos? There were no counselors to advise, no friends to lend support, no auxiliary to help with the transition into single life and single parenting and bread winning.I looked on Social Media for anything that might bring like-situated lost souls banned from the inner circle of the Church culture, and all I found were a few single’s dating sites. I knew there were many of us, but where did they go? They couldn’t just disappear. Were others out there needing to feel understood and validated?

So I did what any other lonely “cast–away” would do, thus the creation of my “LDS Divorce Survivors” Facebook Support Group. If I felt completely abandoned and alone, I bet others did also. At first my goal was just to have a place where others like me could land and give each other support. But it was also a great place to get more information for my research.

Then I created two surveys, one for the sisters, one for the brethren. I asked around 50 very pertinent and sometimes painful questions about every aspect of their experience in connection with the LDS Culture and their wards, friends, neighbors, and family during this trial. “What methods did the bishop use to support you, what was done for the children, how many years did you stay in the marriage after things had gone bad, how were your Home Teachers, who were the best supporters during this time, had you gone to counseling?” And more.

Many said it brought tears to their eyes to reveal their experiences, but at the same time it was nice to know someone cared about what they went through.

For the past 6 years I have reached out to some Single’s Wards for their participation in the survey, handed out cards at the end of dances, but most came from the LDS Single’s type Facebook groups, of all ages, from all around the world, and over 1000 recipients responded.

Sadly enough, my fears had been confirmed in the faceless words that cried out to me on my screen. “I had to move from my ward to stop the gossiping about me and my family.” “My home teachers never visited me again.” “I was released from my calling as Relief Society Counselor and put in the nursery.” “I felt like I had the plague.”

I also learned what some wards and leaders had done exactly what the victims needed. Many had great ideas for supporting their ward members and their families during this trying time, and because of their efforts, the transition period went much smoother, holding on to the members and their children until they were able to land on their feet.

Unfortunately, these examples were seldom in comparison. One sister expressed her feelings about her experience:

“I sat across from my bishop and announced that I was leaving my husband of over 30 years. He stared at me, his eyes wide with unbelief. I felt sorry for him. We had been considered one of those rock-solid families in his congregation. The one where the husband had been a Bishop himself, and I had been in teaching capacities that included Seminary and Institute, and most recently Gospel Doctrine. That family he didn’t have to worry about. That family with the big smile at church. 

Then I went on to describe what went on behind closed doors. The physical and emotional abuse, the ‘gas-lighting,’ the phone calls from women for my husband, the makeup found on his garments, and many other signs that led me to believe he was cheating on me.

“I was desperately seeking a refuge from the upcoming storm of trying to escape a well respected abusive man with what I was fearing was personality disorders. I had witnessed his great influence as he had regularly cut off my support from my friends, family, and church leaders and ward family with his persuasive personality and his charismatic destruction of my character. Those I would need to lean on if I were to try to escape. When the time came, my loving bishop assured that he believed me, that his heart was heavy for me, and that he would do whatever was in his power to give the needed support. Then he asked me not to talk to anyone in the ward about the divorce. I feared that if no one knew my side of the story, it would be open for his ‘version.’ I was right.

She continued:

“In the end, my charming ex-husband had my bishop, stake president, and whole ward believing that I was the one having an affair, and that he was my victim of abuse. Few ward members would speak to me after my ill treatment of such a great man. The loss of my ward family was devastating to me. I had been in that ward for 13 years and thought that they knew me better. I had hoped to be able to lean on this wonderful, loving group of people during the hardest trial of my life. Instead I was the target of ridicule and unkind comments. The gossip only made a horrible situation unbearable. Even children and youth avoided me at Sacrament Meetings. It felt like I was the favorite topic around the dinner table. Needless to say, each Sunday I went home in tears.

“I go to church to have my cup filled so that I can face my trials, not to be publicly humiliated. As a victim of abuse and infidelity, my world was spinning. It made no sense. My friends disappeared, some turned on me, very few stood by my side. I remembered all the times I served these very friends and ward members during their hard times. I wondered where they were now that I needed them? I was only ever questioned by those seeking information for the latest juicy information to pass around. Few showed honest concern for my welfare.

“In the end I had lots of questions about why divorce in the church put these select members into a ‘don’t touch’ zone, like outcasts or misfits. I suddenly felt like I was on the outskirts of the ‘welcome group.’ I felt like my trial was not among the ‘acceptable trials’ for church members. Death, sickness, and injury were fine to experience, but if your family falls apart, no casserole for you!”

“As I started my life over in another state and ward, I wracked my brain trying to figure what I could have done differently. How could I have convinced my bishop any better so he would continue to stand by me and defend me? How could I have convinced him of my husband’s crimes so that he would take the steps to hold a church court and handle his sins against the church? What else could I have done or said? How could I possibly be more believable? 

“This ex-husband went to a new ward and stake, was given high positions of authority, passing the ecclesiastical permissions of his new leaders, without any voice from his previous bishop. It was a slap in my face to know the level of deception this man had committed with his double life, and yet to have him prance off in his “wolves clothing” without check. I wondered what church I belonged to? Had I not been a leader myself knowing how things were supposed to be done? Did it only happen properly for everyone else? Why was he not brought to face his crimes? Why did I feel like I was ostracized and he was being celebrated? Was this typical?”   ~anonymous

Her question stirred my heart. Unfortunately, as I read on, I found that her story was ever too common. In fact most often, at the time when these sufferers needed the most love and support, those that should be reaching out seemed to go in to hiding. Is it because ward members and friends are mean spirited or vindictive? No, most likely they are just unaware, or feel awkward toward them. They don’t know what to do or say. And yes, too many are judgmental. We, too, have judged wrongfully in our lives, thinking our view was complete of another person’s plight.

Whether we are leaders, friends, ward or family members, we need to be better about supporting those going through the devastation of divorce. One common thread that I had found throughout the survey was that they had stayed much longer than they should have because of their temple marriage, and their fear of the reaction of their LDS community. They endured even in abusive, addiction, and infidelity situations. As they finally fled the toxic environments, more often then not, victims who chose to continue going to church ended up having to move from their ward families to find peace from the gossip and mistreatment from the very people who they thought would rally to their side and offer encouragement.

Unfortunately too many divorce victims left the church altogether, along with their children. They did not want to stay where they “were not wanted.” I asked the question of my survey flock: “What were ward members/leaders doing that made them feel unwanted?”

  • The sisters are threatened that the divorcee may suddenly be interested in their husbands.
  • Members/leaders inwardly believe divorce is contagious.
  • One spouse often spreads misinformation first to take the light off of their own misdeeds, and further isolate the victim
  • They feel awkward and don’t know how to act around them, so they just avoid altogether
  • They believe that by the act of snubbing “naughty-family-splitters” they are teaching the victims a lesson
  • They fear being latched on to, and don’t want to get involved
  • The whole subject of divorce scares them, so they avoid anything or anyone that has to do with that nasty subject
  •  They didn’t allow their children to interact with those of the divorced family any longer.

If victims tried to express the change in behavior of their ward family to their folks or friends, they were greeted with “I’m sure you are just being overly sensitive, and it just seems others are treating you differently.” We need to be respectful enough to realize people know when their treatment is unusual when compared to before a divorce.

Emotional abuse victims are also seldom believed since there are no bruises to show. Without proper validation of their experiences, these victims struggle to move on and heal from the past. They lose trust in their closest associations, and fear their existence is meaningless when important relationships overlook their abuse/neglect.

PTSD during this stage is common, as are high levels of anxiety, extreme weight loss, a decline in health, not to mention the destruction of self-esteem, and even suicide. Seldom will loved ones listen to the pain-filled stories victims have had to hold inside for years, and be willing to offer comfort, like they would a death in the family.

Robert Hyte, who once served as a Pastor for the Wasatch State Corrections Facility in Salt Lake City, reported that the prison was full of women convicted of murder who felt they had no other alternative to stop the abuse when they had tried all other avenues for protection.

It seems easier to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others when we don’t know what we can do to help that would make any difference without it consuming our already busy lives. In my survey I asked what support looked like to them, and surprisingly, their responses seemed simple enough even for the busiest of “Saints:”

  • Send a note of encouragement (mail, text, note attached to flowers, social media, etc.)
  • Give them a hug and tell them you care
  • Save them a space in church so they don’t sit alone
  • Treat them like you used to, don’t be awkward around them
  • Ask if there is anything you can do for them, make suggestions. “May I take your kids when you go to court?” “My son would love to mow your lawn this week?”
  • Take them to lunch regularly, especially if you are their friend or Visiting Teacher
  • Listen to them. Don’t advise, or lecture. Just validate their experiences. And then keep it confidential.
  • Understand that even professionals can be manipulated by experienced deceivers. Be careful about taking sides. Victims tend to be unbelievable, and abusers very convincing.
  • Love those that make mistakes. Christ came to bless the sinner, “the whole need not a physician.” Inside the church is the only place they can turn themselves around and get back on the path.
  • Get rid of the stigma attached to divorced people. They are still the same folks as they were before, and when this is over, they will be the same again.
  • If you went out as groups before, continue to invite them now.
  • If you are a leader of their children, make sure they have rides to the activities, and get extra attention during this time. Their world is falling apart, reach out to them.

Looking back I wished I’d been more aware of my divorcing friends, and found ways to be supportive. I pray I did not add to their already painful experience by spreading gossip and disparaging those involved. Sometimes it takes having to go through things yourselves to fully understand the loneliness of others. I’d rather like to believe I went through this experience to teach me valuable lessons about a large portion of my brothers and sisters in my community who need better empathy and compassion. It is my goal is to hold on to our members, suffering through divorce, within the safety of the Church’s embrace.

Another Facebook group has emerged for those who have divorced and have left the church, and are now “anti-Mormon” divorce survivors. They are growing at the same rate as my Facebook group, unfortunately.

I think that we can step up as Latter Day Saints and reach out to those in need without selfish excuses and unfounded fears. We are not a club for the elite. Even these brethren and sisters can have hope in moving forward on their path to eternal families. It’s so much easier to keep them in the fold then to try to bring them back when lost. It can only happen if we embrace them within the warmth of our Saviors love, as taught to Peter by the resurrected Lord. “Do you love me Simon Peter? (Latter Day Saints?), (Lisa McDougle?), (John Doe?)…. Then Feed my lambs.”

By Lisa McDougle, CLC
Founder: LDS Divorce Survivors, Inc.