Marital Breakdown

FULL ESSAY TITLE: Marital Breakdown.  The essay must give significant evidence of reading of substantial course texts.  The essay needs to convince the marker of the theological viability of the pastoral skills and methods being implemented.  It is imperative that the final essay be the work of the individual.  (3000 words).


“Divorce is one of the most widespread grief experiences in Western societies….Divorce is usually an ego insult, an experience that diminishes self-esteem…..Both men and women feel the painful wound of being rejected by their ex-spouse…..Unresolved anger, bitterness, resentment, loneliness, self-doubt, and depression swirl together producing the infected grief wounds that frequently result from divorce” (Clinebell 1999, 233).

In his discussion of divorce counselling, Clinebell (1999, 233-234) suggests three objectives to be aimed at in the pastoral care and counselling of divorced persons.  They are (with emphasis added):

  • Help them work through and resolve the grief and the pain
  • Help divorcing people learn and grow from the experience
  • Reduce emotional damage to children to a minimum

This essay will attempt to follow Clinebell’s approach (not by way of endorsement of him but because it is useful) by considering his three objectives.

1. Resolve  

Smoke (1986, 14-23) identifies three emotional stages that people go through in a divorce.  They are:

  • Shock
  • Adjustment
  • Growth

In the “shock” stage the person “left behind” in the divorce reacts to the realisation that it is actually them that this is happening to, not some statistic; run the gamut of emotions “from personal feelings of guilt and failure to the transference of those feelings totally to the other person”; and “tend to reject positive help and acceptance from others”.  Others however, go outside themselves by telling everything to anyone who will listen, and get frantically busy in an attempt to fend off acceptance of the situation.  Still others tend to prolong the shock by clinging to the hope that they can get back together with their spouse; they come for counselling in this hope; they look to God for a miracle; they even talk to their departed mate about reunion.  But, important as hope is, it must be coupled with realism, and questions must be asked to determine whether there is any basis for hope of reunion.

This, and the second stage (Adjustment) of Smoke’s three stages will be considered together in this first point, as they coincide well with, and are a helpful expansion of Clinebell’s first objective, that is, the resolution of grief and pain, because the deserted spouse is at the place (Adjustment) where they begin to deal with the reality that has happened to them.  Smoke (1986, 18) says “Shock is accepting the facts of divorce, adjustment is doing something about it”.

He also notes “There is a period of time in most divorces that is similar to that experienced at the loss of a mate through death.  It is a time of grief, mourning, or sorrow over a relationship that is lost” (Smoke 1986, 18).  Clinebell (1999, 233) adds that the “differences between the experiences of divorced and widowed women revealed the divorced felt significantly less social support and more sense of restriction and isolation than did widows.  They also suffered from more physical and mental health disturbances than the widows (emphasis mine).  One reason for this is that the widow has lost a spouse with whom she was still in a relationship, whereas the divorced woman is rejected.

It is at this crucial period of need that the Church sometimes lets the sufferer down.  Because of the wrong understanding that many Christians have of the biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, “the church turns the other way and responds with cold and insensitive scorn…..Some congregations abandon people at a time when they feel the greatest need for support, friendship and forgiveness to offset the loneliness and guilt.  Sometimes these insensitive church members and their leaders forget that the God who hates divorce still loves the people who suffer the effects of divorce” (Collins 1995, 218).

And Oates draws the cruel contrast between death and divorce: “Divorce is that form of grief for which there are no flowers sent, no church ceremonies offered, to help persons come to grips with the reality and finality of the separation.  The community tends to be brought together by death – scattered – by divorce.  The dearth of community feeling and support, the deep and distressing feeling of stigma attached, and the element of deception present in the average divorce present in the divorce situation all conspire to strip away most rituals where the transition from marriage to the single status is conceived” (Oates 1976, 75-76).

This period of adjustment is a time of transition in which the divorced person passes from a married life-style to a single life-style; this is also a cause for grief.  The divorced person who was not expecting the break-up of the marriage now has to accept that the life-style which they had chosen for the term of their life has been ripped away, and they have to embark on a different life-style, unlooked for and unwanted. 

Presence and “Self-knowledge”

Thus it is at this point that the person grieving over the loss of their spouse and all that accompanies it is in great need of help.  Even if they are withdrawing and not wanting to speak to anyone as they try to cope with their terrible loss, they are in desperate need.  Fogg (2003, 45) says “Receiving emotional care in the midst of loss is one of the deepest needs of any human being.  Offering this support is one of the greatest acts of human kindness, because the exchange always occurs on uncomfortable, often painful terrain”.  She observes that this requires preparation, and is not easy.  Importantly, she says, “You do not come as one who knows how to fix deep grief with a few well-chosen words and techniques”; and, “you must be willing to look at your own experience of loss and then share your feelings about loss with another person”.

However, not everybody has suffered the loss and grief of divorce, but this should not prevent them from ministering to the need of the sufferer.  They may have the situation of ministry thrust upon them suddenly; they may be the only person who can gain admittance to the sufferer’s presence; it may even be the pastor who, hopefully, has not suffered such loss and yet is called upon time after time to minister to people in great need.  What is essential is empathetic listening, which will be discussed later.

But still, Musgrave (2003, 72-75) expects that we have a level of “self-knowledge” before we can attend to someone else’s need: “When we know our own fears, our own pain, our own history, we can become attentive to the fears, pain, and history of someone else.  If this has not been done, if we do not look within ourselves, then that deficiency will block the usefulness of pastoral ministry” (Musgrave 2003, 74).

In reading this book and its methods of pastoral counselling however, it must be borne in mind that it advocates a particular model of care, one based on a highly organised and structured training and support group for the carer, which was born out of the founder’s (Beverly Anne Musgrave) own realisation of needs when she was undergoing her trial of “sudden death syndrome”.  It has developed a programme which is to be used in collaboration with “other health care providers, religious groups, educational facilities and community organisations to help professionals and lay people… bringing spiritual, emotional, and psychological comfort to those in need…” (Musgrave 2003, viii), and using volunteers rather than professionals, for “individuals without professional experience are often the best contributors” (Cusack 2003, 140).

Yet the principles advocated are basic ideas, and it is not necessary to be part of such a highly organised and focused group in order to minister to a person’s desperate needs, although some kind of group support is advisable.  One of the principles is that of “presence”.  Musgrave identifies this fundamental principle, and shows how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; his name will be called “Immanuel” which means “God with us”.  “From a practical point of view, the great mystery of the Incarnation is the presence of God in the ordinary affairs of human life: God is with us.  And in the practical ministry of a visitor, the great mystery of blessing in the presence of one human being to another is explained in the same way: God is with us”.  The Incarnation gives meaning to the word “presence” in the work of ministry” (Musgrave 2003, 68-69).

Empathetic Listening

Jacobs does not entirely agree with Musgrave’s and Hogg’s principle of “self-knowledge” in order to counsel effectively.  He says such experience can be helpful in a counselling situation, but can also hinder.  “If the listener has actually been in that situation, it may seem as if their empathy will be accurate.  This may be true, but it is an incautious assumption because no two situations are ever identical.  What has led up to a situation, the complexities of the present experience and all the possible permutations make empathy from our own experience difficult to get right.  The empathetic response, as long as it is accurate, can be extraordinarily effective – although where it is not, it can create a feeling of not being heard” (Jacobs 2000, 36).

He prefers empathy which comes from imagining how one would feel in the other’s situation – this does not involve listening to one’s self.  But he advises that this is not in itself empathy, only the first step towards it.  “Empathy really begins when we can leave behind what we ourselves might feel or think, and move into what the speaker might be feeling or thinking” (Jacobs 2000, 35).

But empathy is not the only thing that is important in listening.  “Giving anyone the opportunity to speak freely, and to be heard seriously, has what is called a cathartic effect…..Careful and patient listening, and the type of responses which encourage further expression of feelings, in themselves help to release many of the blocked-up feelings of which a person is aware, but which cannot easily be shared with another…..The catharsis of what is known and conscious is in many cases sufficient to ease a burden, and to clear some of the impediments to resolving a problem” (Jacobs 2000, 148).

And he cautions that empathy should not be confused with sympathy.  “There are times when it is right to express reassurance or sympathy because it really seems necessary”, but it can often sound patronising.  “….even where sympathy is readily felt, an empathetic response is in most cases much more helpful than a sympathetic response, however well meant” (Jacobs 2000, 148).

These three concepts, “presence”, “self-knowledge” and “empathetic listening”, can seem daunting to one who would counsel another going through the grief of divorce, but they are fundamental to effective counselling.  Divorce is a form of grief, and the sufferer, if able to accept help from an outside source rather than rejecting it or retreating (Smoke, 1986, 14) has “an aching desire for someone to be able to straighten out her bewilderment, and to stop her from thinking round and round in circles” (Carrington 1962, 93).  To someone so alone, the presence of another, and through whom Christ can make his own presence felt, and who is able to identify with the pain of grief, can be a true comfort, and the beginning of the attempt to make sense out of chaos.

It will also help the sufferer to either avoid or come out of “negative mourning”, which involves self-pity, blame (either of self or the other party), and telling everyone their miseries, to “positive mourning”, where the sufferer gives themselves permission to feel loss, sorrow, grief etc., but to remember and be glad of the happy memories and good times; being sorry that they are gone now, but knowing that there is still much happiness in life to come (Smoke 1986, 18).

2. Grow

Young (1990, 302) says, “The backbone of Roman Catholic pastoral care to the divorced has become the locally based support group, in which the divorced themselves help others through the difficult adjustment process following broken marriages”.  The “Partners in Healing” programme initiated by Beverly Anne Musgrave could be seen as a variation of this.

A similar kind of model is also acknowledged by Clinebell (1999, 234), who writes, “Participating in a creative retreat or group, or in a grief growth group can be a valuable experience for those going through separation or divorce….Numerous churches have developed creative responses to the largely unmet needs of divorcing people for mutual support, caring, and encouragement to not waste the growth possibilities of their painful experience”.

Young also makes the important point that the “groups insist upon personal recovery and establishing an autonomous single life after divorce as their main goal, warning against hasty remarriage as a solution” (p 302).  And Fogg (2003, 57) makes the significant statement that “Every human being is ‘wired’ to be restored to wholeness.  The task is made lighter and easier when there are others along the path of mourning who can be present and supportive”.  This is a helpful summary of the goal which is to be aimed at, and the method of achieving it. 

3. Children

A high priority in counselling people through divorce is to support the children by supporting the parents as they try to meet their special needs.  “Divorce is a time of great insecurity for children.  Pre-schoolers do not understand….. exhibit distress through sleep disturbances and anxiety at each point of separation…..School-age children experience fears of displacement….fantasies that the non-custodial parent will come back, depression and grief, fears that the absent parent is starving….anger….need comfort and reassurance….encouragement to express feelings….In summary, children need careful attention before, during and long after parents divorce” (Garland 1999, 555).

It is for these reasons that the divorced parents need to put aside their own feelings and consider the needs of their children if they wish to bring them through the divorce and separation with the minimum damage possible.  Hart (1996, 52) says, “….it is clear that those children who have a lot of contact with both parents (emphasis supplied) are the least likely to be damaged….It is imperative, therefore, that divorced parents make every effort to raise their children equally”.

Because it is often hard for parents to agree on how, or even if they will agree, to raise their children equally, they need outside help.  Garland says, “surrounding a couple with a community of people who believe in God’s power to work with imperfect folks in difficult circumstances, and who love them enough to challenge them and walk with them in their effort, can make that which seems impossible possible.  Friendship and the spiritual guidance that comes with participation in a community of faith are the most important ways this encircling support can be offered” (Garland 1999, 556).

Another of the many problems of a single parent with custody of the children after divorce is that they are over-burdened with caring for them; they have the responsibilities of two parents.  As Smoke says (1986, 58), “For the parent with custody rights it’s too much children too much of the time.  For the parent without custody rights, it’s too little children too much of the time.  One suffers overload and one suffers loneliness.  And the hurt is equal on the emotional level”.  This is a further reason why support for the parents is essential.

It is also vital that the child is assured that he/she is loved, by parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, and by God.  The situation needs to be explained to the child; they need to be included in what is happening, as much as possible.  Coleman (emphasis added) says, “As difficult as it may be for both of you, regularly spend time with the child, talking about the divorce.  Almost always, the child feels he is to blame for the divorce; therefore, the more he is able to discuss the situation, the less guilty he or she will feel” (Coleman 1983, 9).


Grief suffered from divorce is devastating.  Compared to the grief of the loss of a loved one through death, it is much “messier” and harder to deal with because there are many related issues to deal with that are not encountered in grief caused by death; issues such as sense of betrayal and of being deserted, with the resulting loss of self-esteem, blame, guilt, dismay, etc.  Both kinds of grief require counselling; the counselling such as that discussed in this essay, involving “presence” and empathy, is most effective because it is not just advice or instruction, indeed, initially it is none of these.  It is being with the sufferer, and gives them the feeling that there is indeed someone there with them and for them; it gives them a sense of support and of someone who understands; it gives them a connection with normality that they can feel, and a connection with the God who loves them.

Such counselling requires commitment from those involved – commitment to the sufferer and commitment to see it through to the end.  And it needs the support of a group; both Catholic and Protestant churches have recognised this, and each have put their own structures in place to ensure that such counselling is effective.


Carrington, W.  1962, The Healing of Marriage, Epworth, London

Clinebell, H.  1999, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling, SCM, London

Collins, G.  1995, Family Shock, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Coleman, W.  1983, What Children Need to Know When Parents Get Divorced, Bethany, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Cusack, P.  2003, “Practical Steps to Developing Effective Volunteers”, in Partners in Healing, ed. B. Musgrave and J. Bickle, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 140

Fogg, S.  2003, “Visiting Those Who Mourn” in Partners in Healing, ed. B. Musgrave and J. Bickle, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 45, 47

Garland, D.  1999, Family Ministry, IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois

Hart, A.  1996, Helping Children Survive Divorce, Word, Dallas, Texas

Jacobs, M.  2000, Swift to Hear, SPCK, London

Musgrave, B. 2003, “Introduction” in Partners in Healing, ed. B. Musgrave and J. Bickle, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey

Musgrave, B. 2003, “Presence: An Active Silence” in Partners in Healing, ed. B. Musgrave and J. Bickle, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 68-69, 72-75

Oates, W.  1976, Pastoral Care and Grief in Separation, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Smoke, J.  1986, Growing Through Divorce, Harvest House, Eugene, Oregon

Young, J.  1990, “Divorce and Remarriage (Roman Catholicism)” in Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counselling, ed. C. Gifford, D. Perkins, J. Crockett and U. Guthrie, Abingdon, Nashville, Tennessee, 302