Divorce: finding calm after the storm
The concept of eternal families is commonly considered a blessing within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Unfortunately, it can be a sensitive topic for families who have experienced trials that make eternity seem complicated.
Between 40 and 50 percent of marriages in the United States end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association.
Andra Hansen, a professor in the Communication Department, said she was divorced in 2001 after 13 years of marriage.
“There’s a four- to five-year span [after the divorce] when it feels like someone just hit you in the head,” Hansen said. “It’s a really blurry stage where you just have to think ‘today is going to be OK and then tomorrow is going to be OK.’”
At the time of her divorce, Hansen worked as a professor at Idaho State University in addition to caring for her six- and three-year-old daughters.
She said the biggest challenge for her was learning to cope with a different lifestyle than she had been taught growing up in the LDS Church.
“In our culture, I don’t think we are particularly well-equipped to deal with people who are divorced or who are going through a divorce. So I always felt a little on the outside,” Hansen said. “It was hard for a while to find comfort at church, because I would go there and feel really bad about losing an eternal marriage. Feelings like that made it really challenging for several years.”
Church researchers estimate that one-third of LDS children in the United States will live with a single or remarried parent, according to LDS FAQ, a website dedicated to answering questions about the LDS Church.
Jordan Hinckley, a junior studying communication, recounted her parents’ divorce, which happened when she was seven years old.
“I went to bed at my house and woke up the next morning at my grandma’s house,” Hinckley said. “My mom sat me and my little brother down and asked us if we knew what divorce was. After we said no, she told us we wouldn’t be living with my dad anymore, and I immediately started crying.”
Growing up, Hinckley saw her dad just four days out of the month and had to travel back and forth between her parents for holidays.
“On Christmas Day, normally you wake up with your family and play with your toys all day,” Hinckley said. “The difference for me is I wake up and get to be with my mom for just enough time to open presents and get ready to go, and then I’ll go to a different house. I never had time to spend playing with my new toys or my new games or anything when I was younger.”
Forrest Hubert, a junior studying physics, received the news of his parents’ divorce during his LDS mission for the Church.
“It was a shock,” Hubert said. “I immediately talked with my mission president and he said the best thing I could do is keep working hard.”
When Hubert returned home from his mission, his dad was engaged and his mom was in a relationship.
“It feels like you have to choose sides no matter what,” Hubert said.
Lily Brown (name has been changed), a senior studying health science, learned of her parents’ divorce over the phone while she was living in Rexburg and her family was living in another country.
Brown said that for her, it was easier to deal with the divorce while at school, but she found it challenging when she visited her family three years later.
“When I visited home, I had to deal with [the divorce] head on, and I hadn’t had to for three years,” Brown said. “I was hearing the story from my dad’s side and my mom’s side and my siblings’ sides, and it was really confusing.”
Brown said she believes love is hard work.
“Growing up, you believe love is what you see,” Brown said. “What I saw was my parents.”
Danny Fife, a graduate from BYU-I’s biology program, was told that his family was taking a vacation from their home in Texas back to their old home in Virginia when his parents got divorced.
“We never took my dad and we never came back,” Fife said.
Fife said he was used to his father often being away from the family, due to traveling for business. It wasn’t until later in life that he realized it would have been helpful to have a father while he was growing up.
“When you don’t know what a relationship with a father is supposed to be like, you don’t know what your relationship with your Heavenly Father is supposed to be like,” Fife said. “I think growing up, one’s relationship with their dad mirrors their relationship with Heavenly Father. It would have been nice to have someone teach me how to have a relationship with God. It also would have been nice to have someone teach me how to play baseball.”
Current Church statistics on divorces among Latter-day Saints show somewhat fewer divorces among U.S. Mormons than among the general U.S. population, according to LDS FAQ.
Lauren Agostinelli, a senior studying communication, said she didn’t become active in the Church until after her divorce.
After she and her son moved in with her parents, she began taking missionary discussions and attending church.
“I went into [marriage] with not the best view. I hoped it would work, but I wasn’t sure,” Agostinelli said. “Since I didn’t have that church mentality of eternal marriage, it was just kind of like ‘Why not? If worst comes to worst we can get divorced.’”
Agostinelli said her divorce felt like grieving a death because someone who had been a part of her life for a long time was no longer a part of it.
It’s okay to feel and function at a less than optimal level for a period of time, according to Help Guide.
“I had postpartum depression and I was grieving my divorce for the first few months. I would cry multiple times a day because I felt so lost and so scared,” Agostinelli said. “One of the hardest things is that you’re not just divorcing that person, but you’re divorcing their family. Five and a half years of being really good friends with his mom and his dad and his brothers and his cousins was being split too, so it wasn’t just one loss. It was like many, many losses.”
Church members who are divorced and children of divorced parents sometimes report feelings of isolation or lack of acceptance. This is because of the strong orientation toward two-parent families in the Church, according to LDS FAQ.
“Automatically, especially within the Church, you assume people are thinking ‘Oh, my family is so much better than yours,’” Brown said. “But then I actually talked to people about it, and I realized if you’re friends with someone they’re not actually going to judge you for it.”
Hansen said that when someone grows up in the LDS church, they are continually taught to desire a certain pattern in their life. If someone has to build a life that doesn’t fit that pattern, it’s easy to believe that happiness isn’t really possible.
“I was in a stake council meeting the other day, and they were talking about helping people without priesthood in their home,” Hansen said. “It’s a big issue, one that really matters. When they asked me how I thought home teachers should approach the subject, I said ‘For starters, I appreciate it when people focus on what I am instead of what I’m not. I hope others can look at what I have instead of what I don’t.’”
Hansen said she coped with her divorce by realizing that she could be happy even if she wasn’t married.
“I think I’m as happy as most any of my married friends,” Hansen said. “Heavenly Father wants us to be happy, and happiness is totally possible. I’m very much in favor of marriage, but I don’t think marriage defines whether a person is OK or not.”
Hansen and Hinckley both said the Gospel has helped to heal them through this trial in their lives.
“The divorce has brought me closer to the Church and it helped me realize none of it was my fault,” Hinckley said. “I just try to remember God and how he never tries to make you fail. He wants you to grow stronger and to succeed.”
Hubert and Fife are both married, and agree that seeing their parents’ mistakes prepared them to be better husbands.
“[The divorce] made me appreciate the importance of marriage and made me want to be the best father and husband I can be,” Fife said.