By James Nelson
My divorce was rough. Abuse came from both sides. We didn’t like each other. Emotions were complex and overwhelming. And the support I received felt like a trickle.
That was ten years ago. Today, I am navigating a blended family, co-parenting, and doing ministry. Life isn’t easy, but God has been good to me.
Honestly, I feel exceptionally lucky to have what I have today. The pain from the divorce was unbearable. But, it did cause me to grow, learn more about myself, and love others better.
If you are going through a divorce, my heart goes out to you. In this article, I list the lessons I’ve learned and insights I’ve gained through my experience. My hope is that this can help prepare you and give you a little bit of guidance and a whole lot of hope that God is with you and has great plans for your life, despite how bleak things may feel right now.
#1 God Isn’t Done With You.
My divorce came with so much shame. I grew up in the church, dreaming of doing ministry since I was 11. But, when I was 20, I got my girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of church. The only reason we even got married was that we felt like we had to.
Eight years later, we were both miserable. It seemed like I was given the option between 50 more years of unhappiness and pain in a marriage that wouldn’t change or rejection by God and my faith community.
I chose the former option.
But, did God really reject me?
I know that God doesn’t like divorce. But, I also know that he knows me. He knows the dead end I faced. He knows how desperately I was striving to be more like him.
In the end, life cannot be totally black and white. Ideally, there would not be divorce. But, when there is, God still loves his children like crazy and is not done with them.
Strangely enough, I did not first start full-time ministry until after my divorce. In hindsight, God was using my divorce to make me more dependent on him. Because I was divorced, my options for ministry dropped dramatically. So, when a door opened up, I knew that it was only by the grace of God.
#2 Divorce Comes in Different Shapes and Sizes.
Your divorce may look totally different than your friends’. Some divorces involve kids, but others don’t. In some, there is abuse, but not all. I was in a far different emotional state in the midst of my divorce than eight years after. Two years after the divorce, things were still very fresh. But, it didn’t stay that way forever.
All divorces are painful and emotional. But, all the emotions aren’t the same. Give yourself time to heal and grace throughout the process.
#3 Most People Won’t Know What to do With You.
I lost so many friends during my divorce. Friends I had for 20 years avoided me like the plague. Conversations were short and awkward. Eye contact was dismal. This disengagement communicated: “Your divorce is a deal breaker for our friendship.” Later, I realized that people were simply uncomfortable and didn’t know how to respond.
Rather than avoid and disengage, others overstepped, thinking they could fix me. They chewed me out. They played pretend counselor. They threw the Bible in my face. One person even rallied the pastors of the church to deal with me.
The more these people tried the fix me, the worse they made things. I was already in a painful, vulnerable space. And now, I had shame dumped on me and my own decisions stripped from me. While their intentions were honorable, the impact of their process was horrible and only caused more pain and more trauma.
However, there were some friends who truly helped.
They listened and validated my pain. They said things like “I wouldn’t want to spend the next 50 years in an abusive relationship like that either.”
They included me in fun things and didn’t assume that I wanted to be kept to myself.
They didn’t add to the hate by saying that they “never liked” my ex or that her lasagna sucked. They even helped me have more compassion and see her the way Jesus does, without invalidating my emotions and experiences.
They made suggestions and posed questions, without insisting that they were always right and I had to listen to them.
They appreciated the fact that they wouldn’t fully understand all the emotions I was experiencing.
Most friends won’t be like that. But, there will be a few.
#4 Look Less. Become More.
After divorce, it can be tempting to think that the grass is greener on the other side. You may be thinking that finding the right spouse will fix everything.
Now, I see how much more important it is after your divorce to work on becoming instead of just looking for your next partner. If you can become healthy and have a strong character, you will be set for a healthier marriage and family, as well as have an easier time finding someone else who is healthy.
Here are the practices that made the biggest difference for me:
Spend time with God. Besides going to church, reading the Bible, and praying, I went for walks in the woods and on personal camping trips. These times away transformed my life.
Read “Everybody Always” by Bob Goff. This book changed everything for me and how I treated my ex and other difficult people in my life.
Find life-giving friendships. (You can find an group at Anchor here)
Get professional counseling. In counseling, I was able to uncover the complicated emotions I was dealing with. I also learned a lot about myself like my stubbornness and need to always be right. Honestly, I wish I would have gotten therapy much sooner, while I was still healthy.
Nowadays, I will still spend time on personal retreats. Even though that might take me away from my family for the moment, I am coming back way healthier. I have come to realize that it is better to be around 50% of the time and 100% healthy than to be around 100% of the time, 50% healthy. Remember to take care of yourself.
#5 There’s a Reason 66% of Second Marriages End in Divorce.
If you thought marriage was difficult, try remarriage. In a second marriage, you are bringing together two families that have most likely been hurt. You are also navigating the challenges of co-parenting and step-parenting.
As you are navigating these challenges, it’s important to stay patient and flexible. Your partner isn’t perfect, but they are an adult. Think the best about them.
One issue, in particular, that tends to cause the most strife in a blended family has to do with disciplining the kids. Nothing gets a parent frustrated like a step-parent setting different expectations, accountability, and consequences.
In this case, I suggest step-parents yield to the parent's wishes. Have frank conversations about your role in parenting and setting boundaries, before the time comes.
Above all, remain respectful and loving. Openly fighting with your spouse in front of the kids can be traumatic and force children to replay their fears and pain of the first time their parents got a divorce. Work things out peacefully. And it might not be a bad idea to work things out privately too.
#6 When It Comes to Co-Parenting, It is Better to Be Kind Than Right.
Your ex will most likely do things that you don’t like. You will disagree with their parenting style. You may not get to see your kids as much as you’d like. Or you might be unfairly given too much of the burden of raising and providing for the kids.
Here’s the tough reality and hear me out on this. You have an opinion, but your opinion frankly doesn’t matter. If you keep fighting and trying to control and fix your ex or the situation, that will tend to cause more trauma and strife for you and your kids.
As long as your kid is not in danger, there is not much you can do to change the circumstances.
It tends to work out better for everyone if you can work to remain kind and flexible with your ex. Consider their needs and honor them as an adult.
Divorce and remarriage are difficult. You will come away from it with lots of scars. But, my prayer for you is that you will come out the other side with more hope, more compassion, and a renewed awareness of God’s love and purpose for your life.
James Nelson is the Children's Pastor at Great Lakes Church in South Eastern Wisconsin. In his blended family, James and his wife, Kimi, have seven kids. James enjoys listening to the latest leadership podcasts and camping.