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22 February 2011


How to support a congregation member going through relationship breakdown & divorce

In a month when Valentine's Day hearts, red roses, and bargain meals for two fill the TV screen it may seem strange as Christian leaders to be focusing on the breakdown of relationships. Yet the painful truth is that marriages are under pressure, including in the church, and some don't survive. And as church leaders it's important that we recognise that the church is potentially the best and the worst place to be when going through marriage breakdown and divorce - a place of care and practical support, yet in a setting where marriage tends to be elevated and divorce can bear the stigma of failure it can leave one feeling very exposed. So, how can we best help those in this situation?

Recognise the feelings

  • Possibly failure, anger, helplessness, insecurity, guilt, loss, undermining of confidence & self-esteem
  • May be relief too at problems finally being dealt with and guilt at the relief
  • Feeling very alone even when with people
  • Questions may be raised over the value of the past - personal worth, decisions made, and God's guidance
  • Anger with God for perceived lack of intervention
  • Stress over big decisions to make on one's own - children, home, possessions, stay in the same church
  • Issues of trust, how to deal with what is said in anger or pain, living with uncertainty & unpredictability
  • Handling the feelings of others affected - children, parents
  • Impact on friendship - sides being taken, socialising patterns changing significantly

What will help?

  • Make time to listen, recognise feelings will fluctuate and  each situation is unique
  • Don't make value judgments but be prepared to 'hold' the messiness of the pain of divorce and/or the relief it brings providing a safe place to talk
  • Give practical help but avoid taking over - be aware if the partner who has moved out did all the DIY repairs, finances, etc and offer support accordingly
  • Be sensitive to particular pressures e.g. bringing up children on one's own; and times e.g. anniversaries, no-one to go on holiday with
  • It takes time to rebuild life - don't try to get people to rush it, to tidy up the messiness, they need to grieve and to adjust
  • Be consistent and there for the long haul

What are the legal things that need to be considered?

  • Choice of lawyer and approach taken - firm but conciliatory, settlement or contest
  • Agree with lawyer a resolution 'code of conduct' to focus on any children and avoid unnecessary conflict
  • Funding legal advice - hourly rates, fixed fees, legal aid (public funding), litigation loans
  • Costs - balance your input dependent on whether you are time or cost poor  by either letting the lawyer do everything or helping with some matters
  • Decisions about divorce or not - can wait two years to avoid fault basis but this may bring 'limbo' problems e.g. financial confusion
  • Could opt for a judicial separation - some may prefer this theologically but it can be difficult to make a clean break if there is no divorce
  • Draw up a deed of separation which defers potential litigation but requires full agreement on all issues - likely to be upheld later by the courts
  • Follow the pre-action protocol to resolve issues before going to court - use mediation if appropriate
  • Financial process - full & frank disclosure, valuation of matrimonial home, bank statements, pension transfer value, pay slips & P60
  • Children - where will they live, what routines with other parent, schooling, faith matters, foreign holidays, establish a parenting plan

Further info & resources: www.careforthefamily.org.uk  

Fran Beckett OBE
Consultant - Anthony Collins Solicitors