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Father Knows Best: How to move through a divorce

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

I’m in the beginning stages of a divorce and am upset that I didn’t divorce this person sooner, instead I stayed unhappy and I was treated poorly for so many years. I’m mad at myself for not doing this sooner, even though I am grieving. How do I forgive myself and move through this?


House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear Chris:

Before I get to your question, there’s something that I’d like to say to you:


You’ve done something hard and brave and important and freeing by naming out loud the reality that your marriage has died. You could have allowed fear or inertia to keep you with your ex-spouse for another decade or another five decades. But you didn’t do that. You recognized that being treated poorly all the time isn’t what marriage is supposed to look like, you recognized that there are worse things than being alone. And so, thanks be to God, you left.

Well done, Chris.

Now, what do you do with your regret, with your wish that you had left sooner?

Well, in order to offer a possible answer, I’d like to highlight one of the words that you put in your letter. It is a word that suggests to me that you are already on the right track, that you are already on the road to healing. That word is “grieving.”

I’m guessing that, when you speak of your grieving, you are referring to the grief that normally comes at the end of a marriage: here is mourning for the end of a particular vision for your life and your future; here is mourning for the end (at least for now) of your identity as a married person; here is mourning for the end of your understanding of who your ex was, of who you were, of who the two of you were together. It is good and healthy that you are doing this grieving. And I’d like to suggest that you might consciously and deliberately expand your understanding of your grief to include your decision not to leave your ex sooner.

Grieving, as we popularly understand it in the West, has the goal of “moving on” or “finding closure,” neither of which are helpful goals and neither of which are realistic goals. You cannot “move on” from a life-changing loss such as a divorce. You cannot “find closure” on a marriage, on something in which you invested years of spiritual, emotional, financial, and physical energy.

What you can do is to heal. You can do the hard work of grieving long enough and well enough that, even as your loss remains like scars that will forever mark your body, you are able to fully engage with and delight in life. As I heard a wise woman put it not long ago, “Over time, my loss didn’t get any smaller. But I got bigger.”

In the fullness of time, the work of grieving with lead you to a day on which you are able to forgive. On that day, you may surprise yourself by forgiving your ex. On that day, you may surprise yourself even more by forgiving yourself.

Now, if you are like most of us, Chris, you will be impatient for that day to come. Healing is hard. Waiting is hard. (I’ve lost track of the number of folks I’ve visited in hospital who liken the experience of waiting in that bed to the fearful boredom of prison.) So, while you heal and wait, give the work of forgiveness to God. Say to God:

I want to forgive myself. But I can’t do it yet. Will you do it for me?

That is a prayer to which God always says, “Yes.”

God will keep on forgiving you until that forgiveness grows and you are able to join in with it. When that happens, forgiveness will become like a broken arm that has fused back together beneath a cast: forgiving yourself for your past will become part of who you are. You will still look at your arm and hold the memory that it once was broken. But you will also know that, now, you forgiven. Now, you are healed.

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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