Anonymous Question Series:
The following two questions are so similar that I chose to include them both in this response. I will be speaking in terms of divorce, but these concepts are equally applicable to "breakups" before marriage and within engagements.
Q: When do you suggest that a problematic/troubled partnership separate? Or stay together?
Q: How do you successfully break up with someone that you see no potential with?
A: The quick answer, with love.
Book: Real Love
(vol. 2) by Blake T. Ostler
Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages"
Blog, "Mormon Marriages"
I left my wife because I loved her.
The following is true and personal. I hesitate sharing this 1) because the experience isn't mine alone and 2) it's a sacred and vulnerable experience. Sharing this experience opens the door for much judgment and misperception. Additionally, in sharing something so personal, there is an acknowledged risk of bias in my recounting of these experiences, and I fear I may misrepresent others’ perspectives. As such, I am openly acknowledging the following as my perspective alone. Despite these risks, I felt the clear impression to share these things. There are so many lonely and hurting souls who don't have a loving example of healthy break ups, that I would feel selfish not to share. Divorce and breakups are never easy, but they are also a taboo topic and few know how to navigate them, and fewer with a healthy perspective. With that, I hope my experience guides those who are currently struggling, hurt and alone to a more loving and healthy path.
For the first time in my 13 years of married life, I lay next to my wife with a peace and clarity I'd never felt before — at least not to this degree.
There had never been a time when I didn't love my wife, although life presented challenges and pain I never thought possible. Those challenges and the associated pain often proved my character, while at other times it revealed — with heart-wrenching clarity — my weaknesses. Nonetheless, my love, devotion, loyalty, and hope never wavered in our marriage. In fact, they deepened with each new challenge and blessing. But with each new challenge and blessing, I felt our relationship becoming more distant and lonely.
How is it that marriage could be so painful and lonely? Our stake president once told us, "I don't understand. I see two smart and worthy people who are fighting for a good marriage." I too didn't understand, but what I felt was pain and loneliness during this time. No matter how much faith, prayer, fasting, temple attendance, service, scripture reading or selflessness was given, the relationship seemed to get worse. It didn't make any sense.
Knowing that, there I was lying in bed next to my love, my wife of 13 years and the mother of our two children. I was feeling a peace and clarity I had not previously felt in our relationship. These feelings didn't come because we made a "breakthrough" in our marriage and felt connected and joyful, but because it was then I knew it was time to leave. As we held each other close, tearfully discussing the path forward, it was ironically the easiest discussion I felt we had had in our married life.
In order to not inappropriately discuss too sacred of personal experiences, I will share the doctrinal concept that God answers all prayers, James 1:5. The decision to end the marriage was made in serious fasting and prayer. It was entirely a spiritual decision; in no way was it a flippant decision, but one involving God in the process. There was no infidelity, "sin" or behavior that is otherwise viewed as "sufficient" to leave a marriage. I emphasize this fact only to clearly communicate that this was completely a decision I made with my Father in Heaven. Although unhealthy behaviors existed within our marriage, the decision was made between the Lord and me, not me running away from the behaviors.
To this point, and in response to the questions asked above, there are quite a few toxic myths and traditions in our culture that cause us to distance ourselves from God.
The assumption that divorce is not really an option
The idea that divorce is only a consideration if abuse and infidelity occur
The feeling that divorce is equivalent to a failed marriage or relationship
The fear that divorce is perceived as an easy way out or a form of giving up
These myths are devices used by the adversary to prevent heavenly communication with your Father in Heaven. These myths make the assumption that God will not tell you to leave your spouse, that divorce is only acceptable if a spouse becomes so dangerous that their behavior has essentially ended the relationship already or has put you and the family at risk. Where is the joy and agency in these perspectives?
Myth One — Divorce is not an option
Divorce is absolutely an option.
There is a notion that if someone believes divorce is an option, it's somehow synonymous with rejecting the marriage covenants and will prevent couples from "fighting" for their marriage. If this were true, I assure you there would be bigger issues within the individual and relationship than their ability to "choose" marriage first. If these unhealthy issues are present, a mantra, a belief, or a moral standard that divorce is not an option will only foster resentment, feelings of isolation and in some cases a feeling of being a prisoner. It's very common for individuals who believe divorce is not an option to privately hope that illness or a crisis like a car accident will take their spouse from them. Some may even privately hope the same would happen to themselves just to be free from the relationship. Depending on how toxic the relationship becomes, some spouses will add to the toxic behavior by setting their spouse up for failure. They do this by withdrawing, denying sex and intimacy, becoming passive-aggressive and/or constantly finding fault with their spouse. Ironically, due to the natural human need to feel connection, the one spouse who views choosing to leave as worse than participating in a relationship may end up seeing the other spouse seeking companionship elsewhere. By participating in the toxic behavior, the spouse actually exacerbated the issue at hand, which leads to myth two (divorce is only an option in cases of abuse or infidelity).
For example, a young wife came into my office expressing suicidal thoughts, feelings of depression and anxiety, and her absence of joy in living the gospel. She was doing her best, doing everything she could to have the Spirit and love of God in her life. She felt that her depression was a function of her biology and considered getting medicated. Before we explored that option, we explored her relationship with her spouse. There was significant conflict and emotional distress. Her husband was a good man who also struggled with his own weaknesses. These were two good people who were "fighting" for their marriage. In a sincere desire to support and encourage her in her marriage, priesthood leaders would frequently say things like, “Divorce isn't an option,” “Don't consider it,” “Work hard,” and "Don't give up on him.”
In her mind this was logical, but also created a feeling of despair and resentment that was like quicksand. She wanted to do the "right thing" and therefore pushed aside her feelings as her just being "selfish" and "unrighteous."
She shared her "resolve" to not give up, using incongruent optimism (the words were optimistic but her affect was depressive). I then asked her why she wouldn’t divorce him. She looked at me with a little confusion, but also with some curiosity and asked, "Why would you say that?" She quickly added, "Aren't you suppose to encourage me to stay married?"
I replied, “No, my professional responsibility is to improve individual health and happiness. If that leads to a stronger, happier marriage, that is wonderful, but if it leads you to move on from an unhealthy relationship, that is also wonderful. Either way, you get the choice to stay or go. That is not my choice. It's yours with God.”
She broke down in tears and asked, "I get a choice?!"
“Yes,” I said. “Isn't that the agency you were blessed with? The power of owning your authenticity and identity?”
"I've always been told I made a covenant and can't ever back out of that choice. It made me feel trapped and lonely, like my spouse can say, do and act in any way he wants because he knows I can't leave," she tearfully explained.
Again, I calmly but confidently reassured her, "You get a choice. That choice is between you and God."
Something interesting happened. She came back the next session excited and hopeful. Her whole countenance changed, she expressed feeling joy for the first time in years. But get this, she said she decided to stay in the marriage.
What changed? She made a real choice with God. She felt empowered and was able to own her decision because it WAS her decision. Some may say she always had a choice. Maybe so, but when you are told over and over that it's not an option, you stop making it an option. When you stop making it an option, you don't really choose. When you don't choose, you secretly and sometimes openly wish for death to take you or your spouse away, to free you from that decision.
The doctrinal mistake people are making here is to not use their agency, to not counsel with their Heavenly Father and decide with Him — together — what is best. It has nothing to do with "breaking a covenant"; it's the fact that they are not choosing for themselves the next step, not recognizing that they even have the right to choose. Not embracing our agency is the greater sin. The entire Plan of Salvation was provided for us to have agency. Father's plan was for us to have the chance to choose "wrong," ergo the Atonement was also provided. Not using our agency and the Atonement is a rejection of His plan. Too many are so afraid to "make the wrong choice" that they make no choice at all. This places them in darkness where the Atonement feels distant and hope dissipates. No wonder those who give up their agency experience depression and anxiety.
It is no surprise that clients who learn to embrace their agency often find they have the ability to choose to joyfully remain in their marriages, where otherwise they would have either left or stayed out of fear. But again, it's not about me convincing them to stay or leave. If they choose to leave, that is their choice, not mine. When individuals feel compelled, forced or are convinced there is no other option, they experience increasing resentment.
Myth Two — Divorce only if abuse exists
If abuse is present, you waited too long.
Meaning, you deserve better and this has gone on far too long already.
"Satan uses your abuse to undermine your self-confidence, destroy trust in authority, create fear, and generate feelings of despair. Abuse can damage your ability to form healthy human relationships. You must have faith that all of these negative consequences can be resolved; otherwise, they will keep you from full recovery. While these outcomes have powerful influence in your life, they do not define the real you.
Satan will strive to alienate you from your Father in Heaven with the thought that if He loved you He would have prevented the tragedy ...
To find relief from the consequences of abuse, it is helpful to understand their source. Satan is the author of all of the destructive outcomes of abuse. He has extraordinary capacity to lead an individual into blind alleys where the solution to extremely challenging problems cannot be found. His strategy is to separate the suffering soul from the healing attainable from a compassionate Heavenly Father and a loving Redeemer.
If you have been abused, Satan will strive to convince you that there is no solution." —Richard G. Scott, To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse
Abuse is a dangerous place to get to in a relationship. If experienced, it distorts our perceptions of our Father's love for us, our perception of human relationships, and even our ability to use the Atonement within our own lives. Abuse should never be tolerated in ANY degree within relationships. Abuse can be verbal, emotional, spiritual and physical. I have heard people say, if my spouse ever did ... to me, I would leave. Why would the Lord design a plan or commandment that would require severe abuse to be the only reason for divorce? Why do we wait until a relationship becomes so toxic and dangerous, to only then begin to consider divorce? If you have children, what are you teaching them? If you don't have children, what message are you communicating to yourself about what is acceptable in a relationship?
For many years, I convinced myself that I must "long suffer" in my marriage and "endure to the end." There was hope that my spouse would "change," only to realize that my tolerating of the toxic behavior and me staying in it was merely enabling the unhealthy behavior and giving permission for it to continue. I was essentially teaching my children that "love" was to be abused and to accept abuse. When in fact, to honor the eternal marriage covenant is, in part, to teach our children how to love and be loved in God's way. Generations of youth have been taught that abusive relationships are acceptable and are a normal part of marriage, that unhealthy and unhappy parents are to remain in abusive or unloving relationships for "the sake of the kids."
"Men [and women] are, that they might have joy" is a concept I believe we fail to understand, embrace and teach to our children.
Myth Three — Divorce is equivalent to a failed marriage
Another form of denying agency is to view a marriage as "failed." This is a ridiculous notion and is toxic at its core.
To say a marriage has failed suggests that both people in the relationship can control each other, that one spouse's behavior is a reflection of the other's "righteousness" or "unrighteousness." This can be said in a different way: "Through my righteousness, I can 'control' my spouse's behavior. If their behavior doesn't change as a result of my prayers, fasting, obedience, and sacrifice, then I must not have been faithful or righteous enough to save the marriage. Therefore, I have failed the marriage."
Sounds silly and a bit arrogant when written out, doesn't it? Now, think about how many actually view marriage that way, and then notice how that line of thinking — I argue — is similar to emotional and spiritual abuse.
It also suggests that someone failed or both individuals failed in the marriage. This is dangerous thinking and it does no good to entertain it. This line of thought isolates individuals and children of divorced parents. When my own divorce became public, those who knew me for many years made an assumption that I did something horribly wrong to cause the marriage to end. I'm not entirely clear why they came to that conclusion, other than they were influenced by a societal stereotype that women leave abusive men or that divorces are a result of men being unfaithful. With the exception of a couple of people, I was fortunate not to experience this form of judgment publicly. What was more difficult was the absence of help during the difficult and lonely time of separation. As a single father working full time, I didn't get the support that is traditionally given to women in that same situation: meals, babysitting or emotional support. Fortunately, I did have amazing home teachers at the time who were as supportive as they could be in their visits.
The view that divorce is a failed marriage affects the children in negative ways too. Each of my three step-daughters experienced this first hand.
In my current marriage and family, we consider each child our own full son and daughter and refer to them as such. But, for clarity's sake in the following examples, I refer to my daughters as step-daughters.
A friend of my youngest step-daughter found out that she was a child of divorced parents and promptly assumed she needed comforting. In his attempt to sympathize with her he said, "I am sorry you come from a broken home." She was startled when she heard this comment from her friend. She was deeply confused by it and replied passionately, "My home isn't broken!" Never had she been happier and felt more loved than after her parents separated. Before the divorce, her parents' marriage relationship didn't allow her parents to connect with her or with her sisters. After the divorce, the result was a uniting of the relationships between parent and child, and therefore an increase of joy. The divorce allowed my step-daughter to develop a more loving and connected relationship with her mother. Because of this, she was seriously surprised anyone would make such an observation (brash assumption that divorce could only be so negative and not be fulfilling a need within the family as a whole).
My middle step-daughter, while in a seminary class, was taught that her parents did "not keep their temple covenants" because they got a divorce. That mindset implies it's a serious sin to God to get divorced. This interaction during class both deeply troubled her and angered her because she began believing one of or both of her parents were "wicked" and did something horrible to end the marriage. Fortunately, she was mature and loving about her response and said, "I have a problem with that." She asked her teacher for further clarification. To the teacher's credit, he did his best to explain what he believed but ultimately left her troubled and unclear on the topic.
My oldest step-daughter also experienced the judgment of others assuming that divorce could only be a negative thing, but in a more abusive way. When her boyfriend was experiencing jealousy, he told her he didn't want her to have friends outside of their relationship. He accused her of being unable to commit to him because she came "from a broken family," insinuating that she didn't know how to be in a relationship with him due to her parents being divorced. He used similar language later when she recognized their relationship was not working and needed to end it.
These specific incidents occurred because individuals boldly judged a situation incorrectly. Unfortunately, the social stigma is prevalent within society and even within our faith. Children often see themselves as the cause or reason for their parents’ divorce and that they have become a "statistic" of a broken home, more likely to repeat their parents' behavior in their own relationships.
I wonder if this has lead to individuals delaying marriage? What if the need to separate can be viewed as a healthy alternative to a living in a toxic relationship? What if we taught ourselves and our children that a successful marriage is one in which you haven't lost yourself nor lost your relationship with God? Thriving in your relationship with God might mean leaving a toxic marriage you have no control over.
Myth Four — Divorce is an easy way out
Anyone who says divorce is "an easy way out" is profoundly ignorant and dismissive.
Individuals who tend to say divorce is an easy way out, fall into a pattern of the first two myths.
They fear to use their own agency or "give up" on their spouse
They view divorced couples as weak and unloving
After all, we promised to "endure all things" with our spouses, but that does not include abuse.
One divorcee observed,
"People who make this claim about divorce have clearly never been through it or they would never say such a thing. I don't know a woman [or man] out there who has been through a divorce and didn't fight with everything she had to save her marriage. I guarantee you, leaving or being left was the scariest and bravest thing she had to go through.
Those on the outside may see this decision as being rash and quick because they didn't share the same four walls in which the couple changed, fought, and tried. It's not a "get out of jail free" card. You do not pass go, do not collect $200, nor do you ride off into the sunset. It affects you deeply and for the rest of your life.
The pain you feel during this time is like no other. So nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and say you took the easy way out.
Every time you look at your kids or see another family holding hands crossing the street as you sit alone in your car, you are constantly reminded of how hard you fought and how much you gave and how it still wasn't enough." —Katie Smith, I Really Wish People Would Stop Saying Divorce Is the Easy Way Out.
"When I first started telling people about the divorce, a lot of responses I got were the "choosing love" idea. But it takes two people for a relationship to work. It takes trust, communication, openness, and honesty — things my ex and I had lost or never had.
Divorce is an incredibly personal, difficult decision. And what it comes down to is that no one, but the people in it, knows the dynamics of the relationship. When we first made the decision, I had my week of crying, of freaking out, of feeling lost. But then I gathered myself up and started working towards making the best life I can for myself and my kid. Many people took my pragmatic, positive attitude as either not caring or the divorce being solely my decision. I know there are a lot of people out there who are disappointed in me, but if I've learned anything from becoming a mother, and now going through a divorce, it's that I can't control how other people act or what they say. I can control how I react and how those things make me feel.
I'm learning that it's okay for me to do what I know is best for my family, despite what others think." —Rachael, On divorce and the "you just didn't try hard enough" myth
There was NOTHING easy about my divorce. Even with the knowledge I had from God to proceed with the divorce, and feeling his hand in my life through the process, the intensity of this refiner's fire was more than I had ever experienced. It tried me, it tested me, it strengthened me, and it crushed me. There were times I felt the Spirit stronger than I had ever felt before, but there were also times I felt a despair I'd never thought possible. There were times I felt more love for my ex-wife than I had ever felt for her.
I chose divorce out of love. I did not hate my ex-wife, nor did I think she was wicked or sinful or dangerous. I chose divorce because when looking at all the options, this was the most loving thing I could choose.
Too many turn their spouses into monsters to make it palatable to leave, to justify their "giving up." I don't take divorce lightly, but when we view divorce as an absolute no, we remove choice and foster resentment, we wander in darkness and wish for other acceptable ways out. Own your choices. Know your limits. Trust your relationship with God. Recognize that sometimes the most loving thing to do is to leave.
Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages"
Blog, "Mormon Marriages"