Newsletter #41: How to Help Our Friends Whose Wives Divorced Them
Welcome back to my monthly longform newsletter. This is always free, but you can get access to additional exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, and commenting privileges by becoming a paid subscriber today.
When Your Wife Divorces You
Last month I led off with an email from a reader talking about his increasing number of friends whose wives divorced them, and how those friends were not doing well and becoming difficult to deal with.
I then noted that it is well established the women initiate the vast bulk of divorces (about 70% of them), usually not for any reason that a church would recognize as valid such as adultery or physical abuse.
In that issue, I talked directly to men who are going through this for themselves, to help them deal with the challenges. This month I’m going to talk about what we can do as friends and as the church for men whose wives divorced them without valid cause.
But first some follow-ups on last month. I asked readers who had gone through such a divorce to send their own tips. Here’s a selection of what I received.
One reader says:
In my experience, the most helpful thing people did was let me know that things would be ok and eventually be better (as you mentioned in this column). That was key for me, because I felt in shock and I was in a fog for about 6 months (which negatively impacted me in my job at the time). People letting me know that it wouldn’t always feel that way – which I had a hard time seeing at the time – helped me.
Another person said:
I have two pieces of excellent advice that line up well with your perspective. First, find five men who will take your call and who will pray with you. If you can’t find five, find as many as you can. They will probably not be able to offer you any real counsel or help, and let them know you understand that. Just ask that they listen when you need to rant, and ask that they pray with you and for you. My attorney gave me this advice.
Second, do not date for three years. This was my mother’s advice. You are a mess, she said. You will choose a woman like the one who just rejected you, or a woman equally a mess where no healthy relationship can be made.
I took both pieces of advice. The four men I lined up really did take my call at any time, and really did pray for me. They seldom had any meaningful advice or material help to offer. But they did listen, and offered comforting words. And they did pray with me and for me. Because of them I was never alone through any of what came.
Another reader was not only personally divorced, but is also a volunteer at a support organization (run by a licensed psychologist) for men being divorced who has worked with a very large number of men in this situation. He had a number of things to say.
If you can’t afford a therapist, pick ONE good friend to pour your heart out to. Also, a good online men’s issues community can be a vital backup.
Realize that most of your “friends” (church and otherwise) don’t want to hear much about it. Most of them won’t have the candor to tell you so directly. If they are “spiritual” people, they may be forced to find “spiritual” reasons to gaslight you for making them uncomfortable with your perfectly normal reactions.
Get a friendly face or two in front of yours for at least two hours at least once per week. Especially when you’d rather stay home and mope. Talk about anything but this problem. In fact, spending the time in an all-action, minimal-talk pursuit is best of all.
Not a word about any of it on social media. In fact, get off social media for a long time. You’ll see things that your ex-wife puts out there that won’t do you any favors. You’ll get started saying things you shouldn’t in the grip of strong emotions. You’ll throw away dignity you can’t afford to lose. Don’t think it won’t get back to your employer, clients, and others whose respect you would like to keep.
I was pleased to see these different people agree with and expand on things I had said. This last person also had some things to say about the divorce process itself. I had debated including anything on this in the last issue because every situation is different and there’s no one right approach. Plus I am not a lawyer of any kind, much less a divorce attorney.
But this reader highlights something that has also been my observation: divorce is an inherently adversarial process. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do mediation or that you can’t reach an agreement that is reasonable for both parties. But I have never once seen a man who decided to, in his own mind at least, “take the high road” who benefited from that decision or said afterward how great a decision it was. If your wife is dumping you, you certainly can’t expert her to appreciate any magnanimous gestures you make during the divorce process.
His take on this was as follows:
If your divorce business is not yet legally settled, confide nothing in anyone who even slightly knows your wife. Nothing. Half of them will take anything you tell them straight back to her. You won’t know which half.
Scrape up, beg, or borrow whatever is necessary to retain a super-competent attorney. Get it right the first time. If you have children, do not settle for less than 50/50 visitation. Don’t get “chivalrous” in the divorce settlement negotiations.
In addition to these notes, I also heard from three readers who are presently either being divorced by their wives or in danger of that happening. This is sadly an extremely common occurrence, yet one that receives almost zero attention from Christian leaders.
Just remember, at the end of the day, this is your life. Neither I nor anyone else can make the decisions you need to make for you. But I hope these perspectives and the ones in my previous newsletter are helpful input to you in navigating this difficult time.
Supporting a Friend Going Through Divorce
As I wrote last time, and as my correspondents make clear, men whose wives are divorcing them need a high quality support network of other men to help them through it. Unfortunately, many of them don’t find that. Many men don’t have many male friends outside of those they are connected with via their soon to be ex-wife. And even when they do have friends, those friends often don’t handle the situation well. Conversely, as the person who wrote to me originally on this topic makes clear, men in this situation are often quite a pain to deal with even for friends who want to help them.
For those of you who are in your late 20s or older, I suspect you’ve already seen friends or other members of your church who were dumped by their wives. How should we handle this? How can we best help them?
The secular men’s gurus out there can give good advice in a number of areas, but one place where I completely diverge from them is in the attitude towards people in difficulty that characterizes most of them. One common piece of secular self-improvement advice is to eject from your life anyone who is bringing you down, ofttimes even family members. Instead, they say you should surround yourself with winners and people who pull you upwards.
As with many things, there is some truth in this. There’s a reason it’s said you are the average of your five closest friends. Even the Bible says, “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). In fact, I plan to write an entire future Masculinist on this topic.
If we surround ourselves with nothing but problem people, we are likely to get pulled down ourselves. But for the Christian, the point of maintaining our own integrity, strength, emotional capacity, etc. is for the sake of others. If we are not investing of ourselves in at least one person who is in need, that should be an indicator to do some self-examination.
It’s true that men going being divorce can be, as my originally correspondent wrote, “erratic, emotional, paranoid about gossip, judgmental of others, and hostile towards anyone who has spoken hard truths to them.” That’s why they need you, a Christian friend or brother who will be there for them anyway.
I think this is actually easier to do than you might think. As I, and the others who wrote in, said, he doesn’t need you to provide some sort of genius level insights. What he really needs is someone to have regular human interaction with and to listen to him unburden himself.
In fact, I would suggest that trying to provide much in the way of insight is probably a mistake. My first rule for anyone wanting to help a man who is being divorced is: “Don’t be Job’s friends.”
Job was an extremely righteous man such that God bragged about him to Satan. Satan in turn replied that Job only loved God because God had made him prosperous. So God gives Satan permission to destroy Job’s life. He loses all of his property, his children are killed, and he is covered in painful boils. Job has several friends who take turns trying to explain why this misfortune has befallen him. They actually say all kinds of true things about God while doing this, but they are clueless and completely wrong about what has really happened. In the end, God is not pleased with them.
I am of the opinion that we should resist trying to offer too much insight as to the meaning of what has happened or what God is doing through it. The truth is, we just don’t know. Sometimes, your number just comes up.
Another trap people fall into is to try to cheer him up by talking about the gospel, quoting scriptures God’s love for us, etc. What does Paul, who did a lot of gospel preaching and actually wrote much of the New Testament, have to say? He says, “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). He did not say, “Tell people who are weeping that the reason they are so upset is that they just don’t understand the gospel.”
There’s certainly a place for reminding people of God’s word and promises. But flippant pick me ups or platitudes are not what we see in places like Job, the Psalms, or Jeremiah.
A final thing to consider is that you probably aren’t actually that insightful about intersexual dynamics and may even have a lot of false beliefs in that regard. You probably also don’t know much about divorce law either. So what you tell him may well be wrong and counter-productive. Those of you who read the Masculinist are certainly at an advantage here. But too often we have naïve views of what is actually happening in a lot of these situations.
Once you stop all of this stuff, things become much easier. I’ve written about this before but when I was at a low point I my life and struggling to connect with my church, a younger man there just decided to come spend time with me once per week. I’m an introvert, so having a simple rule to apply like, “Make a point to get together with person X once per week” (or whatever cadence applies) is something I’ve turned to again and again. People who need and want your company will be sure to make getting together happen.
Just get together on some regular cadence, listen to whatever he has to say, and try to engage on other topics. Talk about sports. Do P90X together. Tour area pizza places. Watch the next Space X rocket launch live. Go hunting/fishing/hiking whatever. And try to involve him with group activities when possible. At first, he may just want to rant at you. But over time hopefully you can involve him in activities that help push him in the right direction. Physical fitness is a great example, as there many things you could do together – P90X, Crossfit, barbell, etc.
And try to be someone who will answer his phone calls anytime you possibly can, day or night. It’s super helpful to have someone who will answer the phone when someone needs to talk. I had someone who was willing to take my call when I was in a bad place. So I try to pay it forward by being someone who is available and will answer the phone when I am in a position to do so.
Now, obviously your friend might well ask you for your opinion on things so you might have an opening to share some. It’s also the case that we have to guard against being excessively pulled into other people’s dysfunctions or becoming co-dependent in their problems. And unfortunately, as the line goes, some men you just can’t reach. There are some men who are not going to pull out of their negative decline spiral no matter what you or anybody else does.
But I want to encourage you to stay positively engaged for longer than you might think you need to. I think people who have not been through it radically underestimate the amount of time it takes for men to emotionally recover from a divorce. I pointed out that it can take three to five years for men to fully recover from divorce. A man going through that might well be in difficult emotional straits for two or more years. Expecting someone to just snap out of it after six to nine months is not realistic. Perhaps some people do (especially those divorcing young or after a very short marriage), but many won’t. Once your friend is on the road to emotional healing, you’ll be in a much better place – and have the credibility by virtue of having stood by him at his low points – to speak difficult truths to him.
Another plus side of staying the course is that you can make a real impact on his life for the better. As a specific trauma, divorce is something that we can heal from and recover from, with the possibility of even experiencing a transformation for the better on the other side. I think it’s a lot easier to help a man whose wife is divorcing him emerge successful on the other side that it is, say, to help someone with a drug addiction problem. So there’s a very real possibility that you’ll come away with the satisfaction of knowing you made a real, positive impact on your friend’s life.
How the Church Can Help Men Being Divorced
I’m going to have much less to say on this topic because I have less expertise. I am not a minister or counselor so I’m not going to tell you how to do your job if you are one. I will only leave you with this thought from one of your fellow professionals:
Every word that Scripture teaches is of utmost importance and has far-reaching implications for not only the salvation of individuals but the longterm health of the Church. Teaching the wrong things in regard to this topic or the other can impact that person’s life and many people’s lives for the rest of their lives. The uninformed pastor who supports an unbiblical divorce can be at fault for not only the separation of the spouses but cast the influential vote that decides whether children will grow up in a unified home where their parents learned to repent of their pride and mature together or be raised in a broken home.
What I do want to do is talk about the church context in which that counseling is provided. I’ve shown before that the church has been very anti-men in its public proclamations, going back to about the year 1800. I cited British academic Callum Brown’s book on the secularization of Britain in which he noted:
In evangelical stories about piety, women appeared throughout as good but not always converted; men, by contrast, almost always appeared as in a perilous sinful state until near the end. Men were the problem, given manifold temptations: drink (nearly always), gambling (increasingly after 1890), and ‘rough’ in overall cultural terms. They lived dissipated lives which caused suffering and ruination to mothers, wives, and children. Nowhere did evangelical literature have such a powerful influence in the public domain, including in ‘secular’ fiction, as in its demonization of men. [emphasis added]
A large proportion of evangelical stories of men centered on the destruction of families by male evils.
In the evangelical and temperance movements, women were both the moral guardians and the moral victims of fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons.
Just ask yourself this: have you ever read in any Christian marriage book that women initiate the vast majority of divorces? I’ve never seen it mentioned, even in books that are otherwise full of statistics. Back in Masc #11, I discussed how the church may even have become an enabler of divorce.
A recent study by British academic Valerie Hobbs sheds further light on this. In her study “The discourse of divorce in conservative Christian sermons” she does a linguistic analysis of 31 of the most popular sermons on divorce posted at Sermon Audio, primarily from Reformed Baptist and Presbyterian ministers. She found that they discuss divorce within a male-initiated framework:
In summary, despite the fact that femaleness was, as mentioned earlier, a significant semantic concept in the divorce corpus, women are framed primarily as receivers of divorce rather than initiators. Although in most cases of divorce in the United States, women initiate divorce, pastors in the corpus in this way represented divorce as a largely male action.
Hobbs appears to hold fairly standard feminist views in the academic world related to gender. Yet she notices how these conservative Protestant preachers speak about divorce.
If you are a minister, I encourage you to reflect on how you preach about marriage and divorce, and to bring it into alignment with reality where it is not. The typical church teaches that husbands are pretty terrible and responsible for anything wrong in the home. You almost never hear illustrations that put wives in a bad light, or highlight a wife improperly abandoning her husband and family. But you hear plenty going the other direction. These teachings all but encourage women to feel justified in divorcing their husbands.
People of a conservative bent tend to have a high regard for certain formalisms. For example, they care about affirming the text of the Bible as valid. So rather than liberal Christians who might view the text of the Bible as a cultural product of a previous age and thus feel confident saying we’ve grown since then, conservatives who want to alter historic Christian teaching try to affirm the text but reinterpret it to align with contemporary secular pieties.
Another such formalism is that they believe it is wrong to say something that is objectively false. So you don’t often see them do it directly. Instead, what we see is that they say things that are themselves individually accurate, but together tell an incomplete or distorted story or encourage patterns of thought that invite people to believe things that aren’t true. If called out on that they say, they can fall back on claiming that they never said any such false conclusion and that everything they said was actually true.
When you are sworn in at trial, you swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Similarly Paul in Acts said, “I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” – not an exquisitely curated selection of God’s counsels guaranteed to appeal to a 21st century audience.
Several years ago I noticed this trend of people using collections of carefully selected and crafted true statements to disguise their true position or to mislead people. Then I applied the law of projection to myself. That is, I asked, since I’m noticing this in other people, what does that say about me? Of course it revealed that I myself was prone to doing something like this myself from time to time. So I resolved to stop.
Early in the Masculinist I laid out some of my guiding principles like live not by lies, build up don’t just tear down, and have skin in the game. One of my guiding principles that I never wrote down officially until now is not to use true statements for the purposes of misleading people.
It can be very tempting to preach things that will be popular while remaining silent on those that may not. So it’s no surprise that we hear a lot about men behaving badly, men dumping their wives, etc. These things do in fact happen and aren’t especially rare. So preaching about them is speaking truth and appropriate. But when the truth about who really initiates divorce is ignored, and when female misbehavior is ignored, downplayed, or even excused, those true statements collectively equate to a falsehood.
I would encourage you to speak the truth and the whole truth. That doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to weigh in on every subject or divorce example out there. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t choose your words carefully or think seriously about how to communicate things. But it does mean making sure that the overall picture you are painting of marriage and divorce is a complete and accurate one.
Finally, I’d encourage you to consider what happens to the couple under your care in the event of an unbiblical divorce. If a wife dumps her husband, will you allow him to be driven out of the church while she remains? Do you believe that scenario is one that Christ would approve of?
What About Prenuptial Agreements?
A reader wrote to me saying:
Should Christian men consider prenuptial agreements when entering into marriage? I’ve been pondering this question after reading your most recent newsletter. I’d love to hear you address this question.
Most Christians would respond with an emphatic NO, as this would definitely not square with the servant-leadership model.
But in some circumstances you could make a case that a fair prenuptial agreement would be a wise and unselfish thing to do. After all, Christians or not, it’s really dangerous that in some cases, strong economic incentives exist for a woman who files for divorce.
I do not have a prenuptial agreement, nor do I encourage them. Prenup or not, divorce is bad news. I think it’s much more important to weigh heavily the potential risk of divorce by the woman you are considering marriage to. There are plenty of online divorce risk calculators and you’d be crazy not to understand and consider what they say about your prospective marriage. That’s especially true when there are plenty of high quality Christian women who pose statistically low levels of divorce risk out there.
However, I personally have no objection to prenuptial agreements if you want one, provided that you don’t divorce your wife and rely it on it exclusively to protect yourself from her divorcing you. I won’t attempt a theological analysis of that point, but will observe that churches regularly use contracts to protect their interests.
Some Protestant churches require prospective members to sign a “membership covenant” (i.e., contract) that was prepared by lawyers and which is designed to provide legal protections to the church.
Also, there was a just a situation where Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship seminary of the SBC, required faculty that they were terminating to sign a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement in order to obtain full severance pay.
It strikes me that these ministers, churches, and Christian institutions are happy to use lawyers and contracts to protect themselves. If it’s ok for them, then it’s ok for you. On the other hand, if you don’t think it’s right for churches to protect themselves with contracts, perhaps you shouldn’t do it either.
Churches and Men
Anthony Bradley, a professor at The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts school in NYC, recently posted this on his Instagram:
A lament. NYC is probably the worst city to live in for mid-20s/30s evangelical Christian guys. Now I understand why more and King’s College guys are leaving the city a few years after graduating, esp. the Alpha types. After 14 weeks of reading approximately 1800 pages, writing about 70 pages of critical thinking, and 42 hours of discussion about what contributes to men really thriving—studying circa 1800 to the present—the guys in my masculinity course last semester saw just how utterly deficient NYC churches are at building up the fellas. If you don’t read the history or know the data you probably can’t see it. But we’re in trouble.
Ladies will ask, “Where are all the good men?” Answer: wherever churches are providing unique opportunities for men to be sharpened by other men—for men, by men. And NCS [the New Canaan Society] doesn’t even come close to what we read in the books this semester. A proper group needs at least 3-6 hours per week. I actually felt bad for my students in my masculinity course at the end because there isn’t a church in New York that I could recommend for them to keep growing and learning about how to be better men and love well from other men.
I’ve been researching this topic for about 17 years and it all came together last semester. The best class on this I’ve ever taught. I was depressed when the semester ended. Haha. All of the women marrying guys in this class are going to have great lives. They have no idea! The data shows that a woman’s quality of life is significantly improved if the man in her life are been spending time with other men learning how to love well from other guys, esp. older guys. The best men’s groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn are all non-religious ones. Last Friday, I spent about 5 hours on the phone trying to figure out what to do about this with a theologian and a pastor. One Manhattan pastor, highlighting how pathetic it is for guys in NYC, ended with a deep sigh, “What are we going to do?” It’s taken me 17 years to get my head around some solutions so maybe one church may have some stuff soon, in the meantime most guys will flatline, increasingly become friendless, and cement themselves in domesticated passivity. Settling is just easier.
These are great observations, though I don’t think this is unique to NYC and do think there are churches that are men-friendly there even if they don’t explicitly have the kind of programs he is talking about.
It would be great if Bradley created an online course out of his class – preferably independently so he could keep more of the money from it. I would happily send out links to it here.
Child and Family Blog: How Divorce Affects Children’s Future Wealth, Not Just Ability To Earn – “Research from 16,652 individuals shows that divorce affects not only children’s ability to earn but reduces their wealth by 46% on average.”
In other words, when one spouse divorces another, which includes a wife dumping her husband, he or she not only harms the spouse, but imposes lifelong negative consequences on the children as well.
Somebody sent me a link to this “Dad, How do I?” YouTube channel. It’s from a Christian man who grew up in a dysfunctional home and now is creating short videos on practical topics like how to jump start a car or fix a running toilet, targeting young men who didn’t have a dad around to teach them this stuff.
The Guardian: Labor of Love: the baby-making reality show you won’t believe – “Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis is back with a bizarre competition series that sees men compete to impregnate a single woman”
Boston Review: The End of Family Values