Divorce and Devotion: How Does Religion Factor In Splits?

What does a divorce mean for your own faith, if that faith specifically disavows divorce?
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Now that the dust has settled on the Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise's split, is it possible to discuss the role religion can play in a divorce without the conversation turning into a debate over Scientology?

As a divorce attorney who deals with various reasons why people consider divorce or separation, I can tell you that grappling with matters of spirituality at the end of a marriage is more common than you may think, even in this day and age. Sure, I see plenty of couples facing situations strikingly similar to Tom and Katie's alleged disagreement over the religious upbringing of their child. However, there's another facet of the spirituality issue that I think shows up more frequently -- namely, what does a divorce mean for your own faith, if that faith specifically disavows divorce?

Take for example, the marriage of Suzanne*, a client, and her husband Steve. She was raised Catholic, but stopped attending church once she went away to college; his 1960s flower children parents had rejected organized religion. Though they married in a Catholic church ceremony to please Suzanne's family, the two lived a pretty much religion-free existence for the first few years of their marriage. And then one day, Suzanne rediscovered her faith, not long after her mother was diagnosed with cancer and right around the same time her husband began having an affair.

Suzanne became extremely devout during this period, attending daily mass and joining a Catholic prayer group. Her mother recovered from cancer, which was cause for much rejoicing, but then she found out her husband's affair and his plans to divorce her in order to marry his mistress. The irony wasn't lost on Suzanne as she contemplated what this would mean for her ability to be a faithful Catholic if she was about to become a divorced Catholic.

Whether or not a couple ever enters a church or synagogue after their wedding day, it is not uncommon for people facing divorce to circle back to questions of religion and faith, even when the situation is not as stark as Suzanne's experience. In general, most religious denominations look upon marriage not just as a covenant between two people, but also between the couple and God, as in "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder." This seems to be where the spiritual conflict arises.

It may be a relief to finally cut ties with your spouse, however if you are filing for divorce, does this mean you are also filing for divorce from your deity -- and cutting those ties at precisely the time when you may just need your faith the most? And what about people like Suzanne? What does it mean if one spouse views divorce as a sin against God, but the other spouse has no problem with it?

As most thoughtful spiritual leaders will tell you, it is impossible for a person of faith to break their connection with God. You as an individual are distinct from being part of a couple. While your beliefs may hold that God is not pleased when couples break their marital covenant, you should also recognize that you, as an individual, have the ability to reconcile with God --whether through acts of atonement, prayer, or other means best determined by you and your minister or spiritual leader.

If there's one thing that I can say about marriage from my experience, it's this: no matter how deep your faith or how strenuous your objections, you cannot maintain a marriage if only one of you wants it. It's always good, of course, to explore options for individual counseling, couples' therapy, or marital counseling with a minister or licensed clinician, but if the connection between you and your spouse isn't there, it's unlikely those efforts will change anything and, maybe, consideration for a more peaceful divorce can be in order (could this better explain Tom and Katie?). However, if both parties have beliefs deeply rooted in faith, both individuals seeking reconciliation with God may end by finding reconciliation with each other.

If you've come to that crisis point of recognizing that divorce is going to happen, even against your beliefs, then my advice comes down to two simple steps: 1) find a divorce lawyer who will help you get through the process with as little pain as possible, and 2) work with your minister, priest or rabbi to help you heal your spiritual rift and find peace in your new relationship with God. When you reach the other side of this difficult time, you may find your faith is even stronger as a result.

*Names have been changed.

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