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Untying the knot: Jenkins on 'Sacred Divorce'

  • Social knots
    Social knots  Sociologist Kathleen Jenkins examines the myriad strands of American religious life, looking at how people are reconciling faith and divorce.  Photo and photo illustration by Joel Pattison
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For the faithful of every creed, the beginning of marriage is a religious and spiritual event. But what about when the marriage ends?

“I’m interested in how someone seeks meaning through their religious community when they’re divorcing,” said William & Mary sociologist Kathleen Jenkins, “but there are plenty of religious people who may not turn to religion to make divorce meaningful.”

Numerous quantitative studies have looked at the numbers of people within religious communities who divorce, but Jenkins, associate professor and chair of William & Mary’s Department of Sociology, says there’s been very little qualitative study of the set of religious experiences that make up the end of a marriage.

Jenkins is one of the scholars breaking ground in that territory. Researching a book, to be titled Sacred Divorce, she observed support groups and workshops for divorced people and interviewed more than 100 self-described religious people as well as clergy from seven religious traditions.

She found that people engaged in religious communities experience divorce in unique—yet similar—ways. At the same time, religious groups are responding to the country’s divorce culture with techniques and ideas from another of the nation’s prevalent social forces: the therapeutic culture.

The establishment of formal support for people who divorce is a relatively new trend in many religious communities. For instance, a group of Catholics started a divorce ministry in the 1970s after Vatican II, when the church was adopting broad changes and dealing with concerns about the high divorce rate.

Although having dedicated programs or support groups for the divorced appears to be a recent change, “I think that people have probably been using religion for dealing with ending relationships for a long time,” said Jenkins.

Beginnings and endings

She acknowledges that it may seem counterintuitive for religious communities to offer divorce support, especially in religious traditions that have long discouraged or even condemned divorce. The larger American culture promotes the desirability of long-term, companionate marriages. At the same time, we Americans often embrace the concept of divorce as a gift, an opportunity for new beginnings, said Jenkins.

She also noted that even as the divorce rate has decreased slightly in America over the last several decades, many American religious groups have begun to acknowledge the reality of divorce among their members.

“We live in a society where more than any other Western nation, we begin and end relationships at high rates,” Jenkins said. “American religious groups and institutions are part of that larger culture.”

Jenkins spoke with people in different stages of divorce from seven communities: black Baptist (mostly National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.), black Pentecostal (Church of God in Christ), Jewish (Reform Reconstuctionist, Conservative and Jewish Renewal), evangelical (primarily non-denominational), mainline Protestant (United Methodist, Presbyterian), Unitarian Universalist and Catholic (primarily Roman Catholic).

She also interviewed lesbian congregants from some of the Jewish and Unitarian communities who had dissolved committed life partnerships. Jenkins noted that her sample was not representative, and described it as “purposive,” meaning that she sought out a specific group of people—those who were involved in their religious communities as their relationships were ending.

Each religious tradition has its own approach for caring for their divorced or divorcing congregants, ranging from support groups to pastoral counseling. Jenkins found a common thread in that all incorporated therapeutic techniques. This makes sense, Jenkins said, considering the pervasiveness of therapeutic culture in our society.

“Religion and the therapeutic are so connected in our culture that it’s very hard to separate them,” said Jenkins.

The divorced/divorcing participants in these ministries are expected to do what Jenkins calls “divorce work,” a combination of the common psychological models of grief work and marriage work. She explained that grief work provides strategies for dealing with the typical emotional components of loss, such as anger and disbelief. Marriage work promotes self-improvement and the learning of relationship-building abilities such as communication skills in order to prepare people for new relationships.

“All of these communities—to different degrees—value life partnership. Even when they are talking about helping the divorced, it’s helping them figure out what went wrong last time and how to do marriage better,” Jenkins said. “But they also talk about divorce as a gift. Divorce becomes an opportunity, an opportunity to grow closer to God, an opportunity to become a better individual.”

Adapting symbols

Although they all follow a similar therapeutic script, each religious group also draws on its own symbols, traditions and messages. For instance, the black churches, more so than in other traditions, talk about God as an “imminent provider,” Jenkins said. The imminent provider concept means God provides not only for the faithful’s spiritual needs, but their material ones as well. 

By contrast, Unitarian Universalists focus on ethical reflection and creating rituals. “That’s in line with a lot of therapeutic models of being a creative self and working your way through,” said Jenkins.

In the Jewish community, different versions of the get—the traditional Jewish divorce ceremony—or the mikvah—a traditional bath for conversion—are sometimes conducted.

“The differences among these religious traditions basically comes down to how they would use their own religious symbols and how those would fit with the therapeutic process,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins found that the experiences of divorced and divorcing individuals did not necessarily follow any script.

For instance, people going through divorces are often portrayed in therapeutic literature as being very emotionally vulnerable and even potentially dangerous, but Jenkins found that some of her subjects were anything but. In fact, one woman Jenkins interviewed talked about feeling quite happy about her divorce. At the same time, she was concerned by the financial implications of ending her marriage and reached out to her religious tradition for help in dealing with the stress of facing a new and uncertain fiscal future.

Additionally, in many of the ministries, the newly divorced are asked to refrain from dating, to focus on the divorce work they are engaged in. However, Jenkins found that many of her interviewees dated anyway; some of them even got married to new partners they had met through divorce groups.

Jenkins also found that many people sought creative outlets, such as music and art, to help them through their divorces. She noted that some drew on a number of resources—often across religious divides.

“One woman used Divorce Care (an evangelical Christian video-based ministry), a Catholic group, yoga, her own private prayer, music, painting,” Jenkins said. “There were all these different ways she talked about for getting in touch with God, while in the center there was her mainline Protestant church that she went to.”

It didn’t surprise Jenkins, who said a plural divorce-therapy approach is, again, reflective of the larger culture.

“One of the things that sociologists write about now is that religion is pluralistic,” she said. “Very rarely are we on one institutional path. We are pulling from lots of different sources.”

A few of the people whom Jenkins interviewed engaged in divorce rituals, including the Jewish get, with members of their congregation—sometimes even with their children involved in the ceremonies.

“Those were emotional, very emotional,” said Jenkins. “In one case, I interviewed the clergy who helped put one together, and he said he wouldn’t do it again. It was too painful.”

‘Like a funeral, only worse’

Jenkins said her interviewees reported that smaller, more private ceremonies worked better. “People said rituals were helpful, but they also understood that it felt harsh,” she said. “They would describe it like a funeral but only worse in some ways.”

Jenkins said that divorce is still seen as a very private, solitary process, even within religious congregations. Though resources and support are now more readily available to divorced people in religious communities, many of the people whom Jenkins interviewed still reported experiencing a twinned sense of silence and shame within their congregations.

Interestingly, that sense of shame was reported more or less equally by members of both conservative and liberal religious traditions. The shame is the result of the culture, which sees marriage as an enterprise and divorce as something that occurs because of a lack of effort and skill, said Jenkins.

But she adds that the silence also comes from a lack of ways to talk about divorce—both in religious settings and within society in general.

“We live in a divorce culture,” Jenkins said, “but we still have limited ways of saying, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your divorce.’ Even that doesn’t sound right. What do you say?”