Single Again (from the series: Single and Married in the LDS Church)

Single Againby Mary Ellen Robertson

In a widely circulated post, sociologist Lisa Wade addresses marriage and the “paradox of declining female happiness” and ponders why the media relentlessly tries to sell women on marriage when “Compared to being single, marriage is a bum deal for many woman [sic].” Wade asserts, “Accordingly, married women are less happy than single women and less happy than their husbands, they are less eager than men to marry, they’re more likely to file for divorce and, when they do, they are happier as divorcees than they were when married (the opposite is true for men) and they are more likely than men to prefer never to remarry.”

Instead of following the trajectory I expected, I find myself fitting into the demographic Wade describes. I was less happy in a difficult marriage than I was as a single woman. My husband broke my trust beyond repair and I filed for divorce. I am noticeably and exponentially happier to be single again. And despite my initial! adamant! protestations! to my divorce attorney that I had no interest in a new relationship or remarrying, I am happily reconsidering that stance.

The idea that single or single-again women are happier than married women flies in the face of prevailing wisdom and the relentless media messages Wade describes. However powerful the data, people seem wary of accepting the assertion that marriage begets a decline in women’s happiness—as if it is risky to believe some people are truly, significantly happier after a divorce. And if you’re happily divorced Mormon, fugeddaboutit. That doesn’t always compute. People seem unsure that they heard you right when you say that.

Why is there so much emphasis on avoiding single-again life? According to Mormon theology, marriage equals happiness in this life as well as the next. Divorce doesn’t fit into Mormon cultural training. It’s the opposite of what we’re taught to believe as teenagers, at church colleges such as BYU, or after entered the roiling waters of the post-college Young Single Adult scene.

One reason why divorce is particularly difficult for Mormons is that there’s a low cultural tolerance for failure. It’s not OK to fail at things that are believed to be within your power to fix. Fear of judgment about a failing marriage keeps many people suffering in silence. Or if they do come clean about marital problems or an impending split, sometimes their revelations are met with silence or abandonment.  It’s complicated.

If there are problems in your Mormon marriage, you’re supposed to work hard and do everything in your power to save it. Just apply enough love, patience, selflessness, understanding, and prayer and it will get better through your concerted efforts. However, it’s a problem to assume there are one-size-fits-all solutions to healing a troubled marriage. This view supposes that the steps to fix a marriage are the same, whether you’re dealing with emotional or financial abuse, physical violence, infidelity, mental health issues, chronic illness, stress, bankruptcy, poverty, apathy, or evildoing.

It’s also daunting to face the judgment that can come at people contemplating divorce—if it’s so bad, why don’t you just leave? Or the impatience if you take longer to exit a bad situation than others believe it should take. Divorce also uses a lot of resources, some more readily available than others. If you seek assistance from church leaders, LDS bishops are not supposed to encourage couples to divorce even if they might personally believe it’s the best option. Additionally, LDS Church policies and practices make it so that divorced men are not “employed” in higher-ranking leadership positions. This means that the person to whom you turn for help or counsel is not likely to have any firsthand experience with navigating a divorce. It’s akin to seeking marital advice from a celibate Catholic priest. What expertise can he share on the topic?

For Mormons, it’s fundamentally transgressive to get divorced in a church that puts so much theological and social stock in marriage. It’s transgressive to give a different answer than the one people expect: that your divorce was a gift and a blessing and arguably the best thing to happen to you in years. It’s transgressive to tell people you’re happier after a life event that is widely considered a tragic failure. It’s transgressive to go “off script,” which is why I suspect so many people in difficult marriages hide their troubles and hope the situation will improve.

One of the most difficult things I finally acknowledged to myself—and eventually to others—was that my marriage was NOT WORKING. It was a difficult, conflict-riddled, abusive, and often unbearable nine years punctuated with a smattering of brighter moments, but not enough positives to offset the negatives. What made it worse: I hid the realities of my situation from nearly everyone I knew. I was embarrassed that I wasn’t “making it work,” that counseling with four different therapists had produced no discernable improvement, and that I had stayed years longer than I should have. When I first started “coming out” about the divorce, most people were supportive and kind; others reacted with various measures of surprise or pity or they backed away as if my uncoupling was somehow contagious. In some ways, it parallels the negative reaction toward people who express doubts about LDS Church doctrine or history. There is risk in disclosing one’s countercultural beliefs.

Eventually, I reached a point where I could no longer reconcile the public façade of “everything is fine!” with the misery I was experiencing in private. The shame of hiding my bad marriage and failing in my efforts to resuscitate it was unbearable, but I hid what was happening because that’s what Mormons do—endure to the end, put your shoulder to the wheel, and stoically go the extra mile. Mormons aren’t supposed to fail, let alone quit something as important as marriage—and they’re certainly not supposed to feel happier about it afterward!

As a result of my experiences, I shed the cultural belief that divorce is a fundamentally bad choice and avoidable if you just try hard enough to fix a broken union. I appreciate now how difficult it is to exit a marriage, divvy up a shared lifetime of assets, debts, and material possessions, resolve custody issues, and figure out the next chapter of life as a single-again person.

To clarify, my increased happiness in being single again doesn’t mean there was no heartache or loss connected with my divorce; there was. Other relationships changed due to the divorce—in-laws, professional colleagues, friends. Only one of my four step kids has stayed in contact with me. The process of getting divorced is arduous, draining, and expensive. Most divorced Mormons I know did not undertake their split lightly. Most stayed and tried to work on the relationship rather than bailing out. Couples with children had an even more complicated situation to untangle.

I wanted to contribute to this series on singles because I learned a great deal from exploring the other side of the coin in an essay I wrote for a forthcoming book, Baring Witness: 36 Mormon Women Talk Candidly about Love, Sex, and Marriage edited by Holly Welker. I wrote honestly about my Mormon marriage, as did other contributors, and found the reality-based stories infinitely more interesting than and preferable to the carefully curated tales of perfect marriages we so often hear from the pulpit.  I wanted to talk about what marriage was like in praxis, in the moments that were not highly polished, gushing, or intended for public consumption.

When it became clear that I would be legally single long before Baring Witness was published, I wrote a postscript for my essay and observed that discussions of Mormon divorce could easily fill another book. Gathering contributions and bringing that book into being is my next project.

Given that Mormon divorce statistics are not appreciably different from the divorce rate in the rest of the U.S., it’s surprising that Mormon divorce remains such an underrepresented, even taboo topic. Writing this article about becoming single again was a profoundly liberating and healing exercise. I’ve also learned a great deal from participating in a couple of support groups for soon-to-be single and divorced women. We’ve listened, mourned, comforted, and encouraged each other through the process. We’ve shared what we’ve learned and applaud each other’s successes. It takes a village to get through a major life event like a divorce. Through the community and commiseration in these support groups, I see that there is a much larger conversation to have—and one that our Mormon community truly needs.

My intention for a book of essays on Mormon divorce is to create the space for other divorced Mormons to share their stories, write about their experiences, and explore the complexities and peculiarities of Mormon divorce. Together, I believe we can make a valuable contribution to Mormon cultural studies and create a deeper understanding of those who have walked this path and have hard-earned wisdom to share.

If you would like to contribute a personal essay for consideration or want to know more about the Mormon divorce anthology project, please contact me via Facebook  or Maryellen.robertson[at]gmail[dot]com.

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22 Responses

  1. EFH says:

    I appreciate what you have written and I agree with what you have written. As social and spiritual beings, we cannot thrive in unsafe and negative environments and relationships, especially the ones that try to destroy our dignity as people, women, wives. Divorce and separation is a personal matter and I hope that I am supportive of people in whatever choice they make. But I hope that all of us, if faced with such a crossroad, we can find the courage and the light to do what is best of us and the children in the long run.

    • Mary Ellen Robertson says:

      Thanks for you comment. People who find themselves contemplating divorce in a religious culture geared toward families need all the support, understanding, and compassion they can get.

  2. Tabby says:

    LOVED this post! I absolutely believe divorce needs to be destigmatized, particularly in religious communities.

    Also, I recently took a psychology of love class. So much of what I learned runs counter to Mormon/American cultural beliefs, including that women are happier when they are married. In fact, as you pointed out, marriage seems to be most beneficial to men (likely due to culturally-defined gender roles). I’m glad you pointed this out.

    Looking forward to reading your essay in the new book. Another recommendation I have is “Ask Me About My Divorce,” edited by Candace Walsh. I’ve never been married and yet I couldn’t put this book down. The collection of essays is wonderful for anyone experiencing a major transition (divorce of course, but also a faith transition, death of a loved one, etc.).

    Thanks for this excellent post!

    • Mary Ellen Robertson says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Tabby! I’m starting to survey the literature and Candace Walsh’s book sounds like a great place to start.

      So much of what we believe comes from cultural and religious training–and it doesn’t always get updated as we mature. I’m hoping to enlarge the conversation about Mormon divorce, encourage others to share their stories, and help lessen the stigma.

  3. sylvia says:

    love you ME!

  4. HOA says:

    Thank you for the post. I have two divorced brothers who are men of faith. I wish I could get them to contribute to your book. They have had interesting experiences…and it would be good to here from the man’s perspective. In their case they were the abused (mentally)ones who tried to stick it out. The response from church members was very discouraging because it is always assumed that the man is at fault…There former wives were quite successful in rallying church members “against” them…for one brother it took having his doctor tell him he had all the symptoms of an abused wife and that his health would continue to deteriorate if he didn’t remove himself from the situation. He just thought he needed to try harder to make his wife happy. He still bears scars but is so glad he had the courage to leave.

    • Mary Ellen Robertson says:

      I absolutely want to include LDS men’s experiences with divorce! Their stories are less familiar and upend other stereotypes about divorce. It takes a lot of courage to leave a bad situation–and even more if you are the one being scapegoated or blamed for it. There are many perspectives that need to be shared, in part so the LDS community as a whole can respond better.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Mary Ellen, this is a beautiful message and one that needs to be repeated frequently. As a child of divorce, my only qualm with my parents’ uncoupling is that they did not do it sooner (for the sake of their kids). Taking away the stigma gives people a chance to live authentic and happy lives.

  6. Do marriages fail because of selfishness, loss of trust, a million other things, or bad decision making? I’ve read the stats, read the books, listened to multiple councils and I see bad decision making as the absolute leader. People don’t take time to understand themselves, their intended mate, they don’t understand relationships, love, or marriage.

    To share unpleasant and sad stories about divorce, to compare notes, and share the realities of being single again is worth the effort. It’s, “been there, done that”, and “who cares, so what”. To continue the drama is nonsensical. More details of problems is not needed, but the solutions of moving forward and learning new skills of how to have a positive relationship, to learn about love, and how to make good decisions.

    • Mary Ellen Robertson says:

      I see value in working through the many factors that can and do contribute to a marriage failing.

      • Michael Gebhard says:

        Having gone through a divorce after being married almost 26 years, the most important aspect for me at this stage is going through the reasons for failure and sometimes the endless wheel churning in my mind and re-hashing similar stories with others has led to to more answers in realizing what I don’t want to experience again as well as what red flags to watch out for. I think when we get married young, everything is so thrilling and magical and none of the possible pitfalls are thoroughly thought through before entering marriage. When you’ve gone years living in a negative and loveless situation, you want to know why? You can only find the answers to this question sometimes by investigating the “details of problems”. Entering another marriage relationship without analyzing why the last one failed is pursuing a fool’s errand in my estimation. No, thank you.

  7. Karla Stirling says:

    Fantastic post, Mary Ellen! You’ve framed your experience so clearly and eloquently, I’m really looking forward to your book. I’m sure your work in this area will be helpful to a great many. And I’m happy to hear that you’re doing well. Cheers to your continued success and happiness!

    • Mary Ellen Robertson says:

      Thanks for your well wishes, Karla! I think the book is a much-needed project to give voice to the divorce experience within Mormonism.

  8. B says:

    One of the things that was jarring about my divorce was that my husband received so much more support from LDS friends than I did. It was complicated, of course, but I think a large part of the reason was that I’d initiated the divorce. My husband openly admitted that he’d been the one causing the problems, but I think people identified more with his grief and helplessness at losing his marriage than they did with my apparent cold-hearted willingness to walk away from it. We’d hidden our problems well for a long time, so it probably seemed sudden and impulsive.

    I think Latter-day Saints sometimes fear that talking about divorce (or even marital problems) will normalize it and make it more common, but I suspect that divorce is less of an “easy way out” than people make it. The paperwork alone–not for the faint of heart. When I was going through my divorce, some LDS friends discussed their marital problems with me and were actually relieved to realize that their issues were not unique. It’s hard to keep one’s own marital frictions in perspective when it seems like nobody else has any. I do think it’s a little iffy that bishops can’t counsel people to leave insanely abusive spouses… I worry that it adds to the gaslighting. Pretty early in my marriage, I went to my bishop and laid out some of the crazy things that were happening (including abuse, self-harm, and suicide threats), and the bishop’s suggestion was to try to get my husband to read scriptures and pray with me more often. In hindsight, this was bonkers advice, but I put a lot of stock in it. My therapist had been encouraging me to get divorced, but I thought my bishop was more inspired. I don’t blame the bishop for anything, but I think the LDS focus on preserving marriages at all costs is unhealthy.

    I’m excited for the book!

    • Mary Ellen Robertson says:

      I suspect that people who think divorce is an easy process or an easy out haven’t been through one. There are costs to hiding marital problems, pretending everything is OK when it’s really not, or encouraging someone to stay in an abusive marriage. I hope the book will shed some light on the Mormon divorce experience and how pervasive some of the cultural messages can be.

  9. Ziff says:

    Great post, Mary Ellen. I really appreciate you sharing your experience, and I think you make really good points about how the Mormon norm seems to be so much to just put our heads down and bull through even if things are awful. And to be too ashamed to talk about it. Thanks for talking about it!

  10. Shelly Smith says:

    After my second divorce last summer I have so much to share I wouldn’t know where to start. Are you looking for any topics in particular?

    • Mary Ellen says:

      Shelly, I would be happy to send you the project guidelines, which list some topic areas I would like to include in the book. Message me via FB or send me an email–my address is at the end of the essay.

  11. Cody says:

    I would love to contribute to your book or essay or whatever from a male perspective.

    I just recently divorced and it sucks. But their are some good that has come from it.

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