photo by Wasim Ahmad
After her divorce, Shelly Coryell went to a priest hoping to remain part of her church. In that meeting, the priest told her she had gone against the Catholic law and that she had broken her sacrament with God. Coryell, 47, of DeWitt, N.Y., expected the priest’s reaction, but his harsh reaction surprised her. “He made me feel like I was this terrible sinner,” she says. “I felt like I was being judged every time I was there. I just felt bad and uncomfortable.”
Finding the courage to leave her small church community became the catalyst Coryell needed to forge her own spiritual journey. “I had to have faith that things would work out. I went through feeling unloved and unwanted,” she says. “I wasn’t a terrible person for deciding to give up on the marriage. [My divorce] was inevitable, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me because it happened. It was something I had to grow from.”
Women going through divorce tend to re-examine and redefine their spirituality and their faith, according to Keith J. Edward, Ph.D., a La Mirada, Calif.-based clinical psychologist who specializes in marital and individual therapy. He says women enter into marriage with a sense of security, trusting that their vows, said before God, will last a lifetime. “Divorce forces them to rethink their worldview in light of this experience because it doesn’t fit with what they expected to happen,” he says. “Women of faith have some sense of God’s providence, and the experience of divorce is a trauma that is difficult to absorb and believe God’s goodness is still a reality.”
Regina Staloch, president of Michigan-based Catholic Divorce Ministry, helps others heal and find solace after divorce. Staloch says she feels a deep commitment to helping divorced and separated women “cope with their loss of dreams.” She experienced the pain firsthand when her husband asked for a divorce. “What do I have to do, jump through hoops to save a 24-year-old marriage?” she says. “I was told the sheriff would deliver the divorce papers. I learned there are no guarantees.” Staloch found a support system in the Catholic Church, and she encourages women like Coryell to seek out people who do understand. “Just because one priest might consider them an outcast, go to another parish. Go to where you feel accepted,” she says.
Coryell re-examined her faith by searching for what she thought a congregation would provide. “I went church shopping for about a year. I really felt a sense of community was lacking in my life, that being a member of a church would provide. [Two decades later], I still haven’t found one that I felt like I belonged in or wanted to belong to,” she says. Coryell believed her own higher power would guide her to that feeling.
With divorce, Edward says, so much of what one relies on emotionally is lost. Realizing that loss — of what you have invested your identity in, of what you have trusted and counted on — can shatter more than just emotions. “You need to reorganize what was not healthy about those attachments, especially in a divorce, something is going on that is not healthy and you are a part of it. It forces you to reorganize and reintegrate who you are and your worldview,” he says.
The Catholic Divorce Ministry is one organization that helps divorcées sift through the feelings and emotions of a separation by striving to correct the stereotypes and misinformation. Staloch says some Catholics decide to leave the church because they fear they’ll be forced to. The church doctrine, however, does not state that. “No one is excommunicated just because they went through a civil divorce,” she says.
Conversely, Kathleen Collins, 54, of Tarrytown, N.Y., found solace in faith. Religion restored her hope in life after a strained marriage had all but depleted it. “I feel I don’t have the rope around my neck anymore,” she says. “I knew deep down, intrinsically, that God loved me so much and that it was time for my life. I did not need to be lied to and manipulated anymore. My religion was my home, where I felt loved and accepted for being me.” Collins used a centering prayer, a form of meditation, to hone in on the emotions and feelings she experienced during her divorce. “All your senses — your intuition, your discernment — everything is heightened, and you don’t know it’s happening. And there is great healing that is going on in centering prayer. I got rid of so much baggage through centering,” she says.
Many psychologists have incorporated meditation into their practices to help people through traumatic experiences, Edward says. “It is a very powerful way for people to have inner peace even in the face of personal trauma,” he says.
But religion and spirituality are not a cure for all life’s troubles. For all the benefits religion can provide for women, Edward says, it can also add to their detriment. When religion becomes defensive it can lead people to avoid certain truths about themselves and about the world. If religion stifles a person from not being open and honest about all possibilities, it can add to the pain. “Religion can take on a very powerful defensive role, and that is unhealthy. Unhealthy because you’re not seeing all the reality you need to see in order to make the best choices in the future,” Edward says. Not being able to admit failure or see faults in oneself are ways that a person inhibits growth. People need to reflect spirtually on transformation, and to change the meaning of their lives they should take an honest look at their experiences and learn from them, he says. If you don’t, you’re likely to make the same mistakes again.