I wore cowboy boots until I was almost eight years old. It wasn’t that I was such a fan of westerns, although I did spend those years in Kansas City and Omaha. It was that I didn’t know how to tie my shoes. I struggled to master the complexities of the loops, and the over-under, rabbit-down-the-hole process. It was just easier to pull on my boots and get going. I struggled with similar dynamics for the last couple of years as I’ve tried to navigate my way through a divorce.
A few months ago I had a conversation with my former mother-in-law that was at best, uncomfortable for both of us. It was the first time we’d seen each other since my former spouse had made known to her family her intention to divorce me. And when we stood face-to-face the first time once the divorce was in process, it was awkward, and difficult, and emotional. For both of us.
We had a brief conversation, that ended with me standing there saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to do this.”
And she replied simply, “I know. None of us do.”
And then, not knowing what to say or do next, I walked away.
Experiencing a divorce has been the most painful, confusing and overwhelming experience of my life, even worse than losing my father twenty-four years ago. And as it unfolded I found myself grappling for answers. Not about why, or why not, or what the hell happened, but how. How do I do this?
By “this” I mean, how do I stay on a path of improvement, of discipleship, of being honorable, a good father, a loyal employee, without getting lost in the tidal wave of ugliness that divorce washes ashore?
I ultimately had to resign myself to someone else’s will, a determination to end my marriage. It was hard enough to get to acceptance of that demand, but then I had to figure out how to become my best self as I moved on. I knew one thing: I didn’t want to end up like so many people I’ve seen; angry, bitter, and a trail of bad decisions and damage in their wake.
So how was I supposed to move forward, honoring the covenants of my marriage while simultaneously preparing to dismantle it. When I talked to married friends, for all of their best efforts, they didn’t get it. How could they? They were kind and sympathetic, but they didn’t know how to do this “thing” of being a disciple experiencing divorce.
I talked to others that had experienced divorce but that had limited value. For the most part, the people I talked to were either angry or indifferent about their own experiences. Both were coping mindsets I didn’t want to be in.
I talked to lawyers. Really not helpful. Because they all wanted to do their jobs, which for a divorce lawyer means having your back, even if that means destroying the other person. I wanted nothing to do with that. For whatever brought my former spouse to make this decision, there was no way I was going to tear her down in court. My children love their mother, as they should, for all that is good about her. Her other decisions don’t negate the love that exists between my children and her.
I talked to church leaders. They were immensely helpful at keeping me on the right track, encouraging me, listening, ministering, drying my tears, being honest about my faults. They were invaluable in helping me stay on the path to discipleship, but even they could not advise me on how to navigate the divorce.
I looked for literature. There’s a lot of practical advice out there that is helpful, but not a lot that considers divorce as a Christian experience. There was no shortage of literature on building a marriage, battling pornography in a marriage, dealing with same-sex attraction with your spouse, but absolutely nothing, especially for men, on how to handle a divorce well as a Christian. And if you are Mormon like me, there is even less available as formal guidance. No books, no support groups, not even a pamphlet. As I said, I had great priesthood leaders but that is a hit-and-miss proposition at best. They all tried hard, but I think it would be hard to find the same caliber of guidance that I enjoyed from my leaders as a rule of thumb.
So I didn’t know what I was doing, how to “do” the divorce thing. It was like the lyric from “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads. “And you may ask yourself, well… how did I get here?”
But just like my cowboy boot problem. I slowly found my way. When it came to tying my shoes, I learned it eventually. My parents, and all five of my brothers and sisters, each took turns teaching me whenever I was willing to take in a lesson, and eventually it all came together.
Seems like our whole lives are like that. We encounter some new challenge, an unexpected demand, that requires a skill we don’t already possess. So we find a way to manage until we learn what we need to overcome it, to master the new requirements. We pull up our bootstraps and keep practicing the lessons with everyone that will teach us, and eventually we get there, better equipped, more capable, and in the case of my eight year old self, more fashionably attired in something besides cowboy boots.
The last couple of years have felt a lot like my shoe-tying days, or rather my non-shoe tying days. I’ve been living in a season of not knowing how to do new things. I didn’t see it coming, I didn’t want it, but since I didn’t have a choice, I had to learn.
I had to learn how to “de-couple,” (my counselor’s phrase) from my spouse, while simultaneously driving the pilings even deeper in the relationships I have with my children. In all of that I was grappling feverishly to not become an uglier version of myself.
I didn’t know how to do it. As I felt myself crumbling I found myself on my knees, praying desperately for solace, for guidance, for hope. And I found it. Slowly. God first whispered in my ear that eventually things would be okay. And I didn’t know how that could be, but I had to trust in my Heavenly Father. I didn’t really have another choice.
And through faith, prayer, spiritual counsel from trusted leaders, family, friends, counselors, co-workers, lawyers, and a lot of literature, I eventually found my way. Sometimes I did it well, and sometimes it was just downright clumsy, ugly even. I found good advice, and some that proved to be disastrous. Some of it was just so stupid and out of order that I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. All of it was shared with love and concern by people who cared, and the ones that didn’t care were getting paid so they at least had a vested interest.
And here I am. Not done with the journey, but much farther along, richly blessed and uplifted through the trials, transforming into a better version of myself, in possession of fortified faith and a greater understanding of God’s love for us and Christ’s atonement.
I still don’t know how to do it. I don’t know if I can write the book that is so desperately needed, the book about how a Mormon man can navigate a divorce and still keep his faith intact, but I can write this blog. One post at time, one experience and lesson at a time. And maybe one of you out there will find it useful. I know I have.