The Way to “Divorce-Proof” Relationships is by Education and Healing, Not Shame

“Things might have gone differently.”

That’s a tough reality to face.

In the aftermath of a breakup, our brains cling to over-simplified stories to help us cope. Hopefully, we hold these reductive stories only temporarily.

Stories like: “It’s all their fault; they are bad!” and its counterpart: “It’s all my fault; I am bad.”

The first helps motivate us to get away from a toxic situation, which is the first step to clarity. The second offers a sense of control even if it’s at our own expense: “I am to blame, but at least the world isn’t just cruel and arbitrary.”

Often, when the breakup is sudden or dramatic, we oscillate between these extremes as we try to make sense of what happened.

With time and self-awareness, we can land somewhere that’s more based in reality.

For me, that reality looks like this: Things might have gone differently.

Is that painful to admit? Yes, but it’s also freeing. I have a lot of life left, and now I can actually learn and change my patterns (including both how I behave, and what I tolerate from others) instead of repeating them.

Both Ryan and I have worked to see each other with respect and good will, taking ownership of ourselves, apologizing, and genuinely wishing each other the best. For this I am deeply grateful. It is from this point that I now feel comfortable enough to write in hindsight.

Because we had to fight through a lot of ideological quagmire to get here.

[Ideology is a collection of normative ideas and ideals that rely on basic assumptions about reality which may or may not have any factual basis.]

I can’t save everyone I care about from heartache, struggle, or loss. But I am convinced that I could have been empowered to make better decisions with more solid, rational wisdom to frame my spiritual convictions.

Here are the things I wish someone would have told me.

Things might have gone differently if I didn’t let purity culture and religious pressure push a nascent relationship towards marriage.
Instead, I could have taken ownership of my own decisions about what I was comfortable with and what aligned with my values without involving two families, countless friends, my own name, and the government.

Things might have gone differently if I didn’t so easily accept other people’s ideas about what the highest call to service means.
Instead, I could have given myself time to explore to my own gifts and passions and how God might be cultivating those in unique ways to pour out for the world.

Things might have gone differently if I wasn’t groomed to believe that a commitment to the Bible was enough to sustain a healthy relationship.
Instead, I could have looked for things like emotional maturity (including my own), shared interests and values, and genuine trust.

Things might have gone differently if someone had told me that breaking up can be a good thing, that it can be done with maturity and care, and it doesn’t mean a relationship has “failed.”
Instead, I could have saved a friendship and possibly prevented years of strife and emotional baggage.

Things might have gone differently after getting married if I knew the difference between “spiritual counsel” and a licensed counselor.
Instead, I could have started the work of emotional healing a lot earlier instead of endless band-aiding with biblical platitudes. (I’m not saying spiritual counsel doesn’t have a place, but very few clergy are trained to help with inner emotional healing and trauma recovery. Confusing the two can be damaging, if not further traumatizing, as it was for me.)

Things might have gone differently if I knew that it was okay to have doubts, that faith and doubt can coexist, and that a space where you can’t question certain paradigms is not a safe space.
Instead, I could’ve realized that the wilderness is part of the journey, not straying from the path. Ryan and I could have been gentler with each other in our searching.

Things might have gone differently if I had the language to identify spiritual abuse when “ministers” shouted at, shamed, dismissed, and gas-lit me.
Instead, I could have drawn boundaries, not opened my heart to them, and sought help from responsibly trained professionals.

Things might have gone differently if I had poured more into friendships based on values and mutual support instead of gate-keeping beliefs and fitting in.
Instead, I could have avoided the dizzying rebound between questioning authority figures and clinging to them out of fear. Wider social support means less over-dependence on any one person or group.

Things might have gone differently if I knew that feelings of discontent, confusion, and even loneliness can hit whether or not you’re in a relationship.
Instead, I wouldn’t have expected a romantic partner to assuage all those things for me, but rather for us to walk alongside one another.

Things might have gone differently if we had surrounded ourselves with people who affirmed the equality of men and women.
Instead, we could have had role models and peers who modeled true partnership, and men that help bear each other’s burdens so the weight doesn’t fall completely on women.

Things might have gone differently if I hadn’t been told patriarchal ideas about sex and intimacy that disproportionately harm women (and often harm men, too).
Instead, I could have learned to love and appreciate my body; that sex was a connection to be shared and enjoyed, not a commodity to be regulated or owed.

Things might have gone differently if I knew that ALL relationships go through stages and prolonged struggle wasn’t an automatic sign that it was a bad match.
Instead, I could have more soberly reflected on which things were deal-breakers (respect, equality) and which were viable for compromise.

To put it simply:

  • More education and less ideology would have helped me make better decisions when I was single and dating.
  • More freedom to explore theology and personal development and less pressure to spread doctrine would have helped us avoid getting cornered in cognitive dissonance, which put a toxic amount of distress on us both as individuals and on our relationship.
  • More listening, believing, and empathizing (for both of us) and less shame and manipulation would have allowed us to soften and lower our defenses when the relationship deteriorated, increasing the chances of finding common ground to heal from.

I don’t know if the end result would have changed. We had very little context for our relationship outside of our religious involvement and desire for full-time ministry.

What I do know is that despite Ryan and I hurting each other, I really believe he was trying. And he knows I was, too.

The wounds that are far, far deeper for me are from the ministers that I genuinely believed God would work through, who showed me shame when I needed comfort and threw platitudes at me when I needed them to listen.

To believe me.

To help me feel safe when I felt lost, alone, and hurt.

Instead, they told me that more sex would fix things.
(It won’t. This is so damaging and abusive.)

That I needed to forgive, before I even felt understood.
(That’s not actually possible.)

That forgiveness automatically means reconciliation.
(It doesn’t. Forgiveness is releasing a debt from the past; reconciliation is having good reason to believe things will change in the future.)

That emotional abuse is a normal part of marriage growing pains.
(The fact that emotional abuse is common does not make it acceptable; it makes it a virus that needs to be named and dismantled for the sake of our kids not repeating the toxic cycles. Generational history of the wrong thing does not make it the right thing — it normalizes it, and that is the danger. Most of the church is ignoring or enabling it in the name of fundamentalist interpretations of scripture.)

This messaging is not from God, and if you encounter it, you need to run to better support.

God heals.

And healing always starts with com-passion (suffering with) and honesty.

Shame is poison to both. If we want to heal individuals and marriages, we need less shaming and more compassionate spaces of listening.

Less quips and quick-fixes and proof-texting; more gritty, patient work to get to the bottom of the pain and dysfunction.

Oh my goodness, less misogynistic Christian marriage books.

Less ideology; more education.

I can’t go back in time in my own story. But if anyone reading this is not yet married or married and struggling but not yet divorced, my prayer is that you take all the time and space you need to find healing instead of escalation.

Run, don’t walk, away from spiritual abuse and callous religious leaders.

Remember that your partner is a human being made in the image of God — even if separation or the end of a relationship is necessary.

Remember that there is no perfect partner or relationship, AND respect and dignity are not too much to ask.

Real help is out there, and you are worthy of it.

A Word About Abuse

This deserves its own post, so I’ll be brief for now: if you are not trained to respond to the disclosure or allegations of abuse (including mental/emotional, physical, sexual, or financial), then you need to be a stepping stone to someone who is.

Do not counsel an alleged victim about “what God would have them do.”

Do not try to find ways to justify abusive words or actions.

Do not discredit the person who is making the abuse known.

All of these reactions, while typical, are human responses to information that makes us uncomfortable. We may not want to believe that a person we know is capable of abuse. We may feel a desire to protect our authority figures, organizations, or someone’s reputation.

The disclosure of abuse might make us feel sad, angry, skeptical, disgusted, upset, or vulnerable.

Those feelings are understandable, but they are secondary to making the sure the alleged victim is safe and supported.

Even if you are skeptical, it’s far better to start by believing than to risk being one more place a victim is devalued and deserted.

Here are things that are critically helpful to say:

“I believe you, and I’m so sorry. That never should have happened to you.”

“We’re going to get you the support and resources you need.”

“It’s not your fault. You’re going to make it through this.”

The priority then is to get them what they actually need. It might be physical safety in the case of domestic violence (and that could be a matter of life and death). It might be financial help or childcare while they take care of legal matters.

It’s almost certainly counseling.

You don’t have to be the one to provide those things, but you can change the course of someone’s life drastically by being with them as they find it.

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