Sadly, many couples are unable to reconcile. In some cases, one partner refuses to consider reconciliation. In other cases, it’s not wise for reconciliation to take place. In other circumstances, one spouse enters another relationship, making reconciliation impossible. And the list goes on.
Yet, in many cases, particularly when children are involved, former spouses must still interact with each other. Often their encounters are characterized by caustic verbal exchanges fueled by deep-seated bitterness. These confrontations drain people of their emotional energy, infuriate others, and tempt some to retaliate.
If you provide pastoral care to anyone who frequently has conflict with an ex-spouse, or even an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, here are a few principles you can share to help this person be more civil with the ex.
Remind them they can only do so much
Counselor and author Brad Hambrick reminds us of what Paul says in Romans chapter 12, verse 18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Brad says, “Paul recognizes that all our efforts to try to pursue peace and reconcile relationships may not produce the result we want. So Paul is very realistic there. The divorced person is not responsible for the other person’s response to his efforts. He’s only responsible to do what God is calling him to do.”1 If the person has done what he can to be at peace, he should leave that person in God’s hands and keep moving forward.
Encourage them to have realistic expectations
Often a person will come into a situation with a script of how things are going to go: she will make her point; her ex will understand with no objections; and if he does have an objection, she has the perfect counterargument. Then, as usual, nothing goes as planned.
Dr. Stephen Viars, senior pastor at Faith Church, Lafayette, IN, suggests encouraging people to reset expectations for such encounters, focusing on what they can control. He says, “It may be helpful for former spouses to focus on what they are going to do, how they are going to respond. They shouldn’t build their expectations upon what a former spouse is going to do or not do. Because when they begin to build their expectations on something that they can’t control, they are setting themselves up for pain and disappointment.”2
Dr. Crawford Loritts, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Roswell, GA says, “When I’m encouraging men and women who have to speak up to an ex that’s disrespectful or deceitful or abusive in some way, instead of saying, ‘You can’t treat me that way,’ which oftentimes just encourages the other person to respond, ‘You wanna bet? Watch me,’ you have to say, ‘I won’t let myself be treated that way.’ And so, that’s how you speak up for yourself.”3
Counselor and author Leslie Vernick suggests helping estranged spouses see their relationship as a destructive dance. She says, “When I’m teaching couples who are in a destructive dance, I tell them one way that you change the dance is you can’t change your dance partner, but if you stop dancing the same way you’ve always danced, the dance changes.”4 Make sure that the person you’re caring for understands that changing the dance doesn’t mean things are going to necessarily get better (remember Romans 12:18). But it does mean that the person has taken a wise step toward change and possibly peace.
Looking for a proven divorce-recovery program your church can offer? Consider DivorceCare.
Remind them that their ex isn’t always the source of the conflict
When someone is playing the blame game, Leslie Vernick suggests an illustration to help the person see how he or she is contributing to the conflict. She takes a bottle of water with a bit of dirt in the bottom of it. Then she says to her counselee, “I’m going to shake the bottle, and I want you to see what happens.” Then she shakes the bottle real hard, and all this dirt comes up to the top. She asks, “Did shaking this bottle make it dirty?” After waiting for the response to what the counselees always think is a trick question, she says, “Shaking the bottle didn’t make it dirty; it was always dirty. You just didn’t see the dirt on the bottom.”
Shaking the bottle just exposed the dirt that was there. And Jesus said the same thing when He said, “Out of the overflow of your heart, your mouth speaks.” When people speak ugly words, they’re not making their ex respond in kind. The situation is exposing the things in the individual’s heart.
Suggest that they be sensitive to their ex
Now, another good way to avoid conflict and move toward civility is to take into account the personality, style, strengths, and weaknesses of one’s ex-spouse. While it’s tempting for people to focus only on what works best for them, that approach is shortsighted. Encourage your church members to understand how their ex works, to know what the ex is made up of, and not to expect their ex to be somebody different.
For example, if your church member knows that his ex dislikes uncertainty, he can communicate the details of a child-exchange well before the day of the meeting. That way, the ex-spouse won’t be tempted by the lack of clarity surrounding the plan.
Encourage them to ask for forgiveness
We often encourage people to forgive those who have sinned against them. This is often very important when it comes to a divorce situation. Equally important, however, is encouraging individuals to ask forgiveness for their shortcomings.
Dr. Viars explains, “Many people are so quick to think about the ways other people were mean to them. And I understand that can be a very, very powerful thing. However, they don’t take time to practice humble analysis.” For Dr. Viars, practicing humble analysis involves the person assessing how he may have contributed to the conflict or responded improperly during or after it. To that end he encourages person to ask himself:
- Did I instigate the conflict/provoke my ex?
- How did I respond after I was treated wrongly?
- Did I return evil for evil?
- Did I develop beliefs about other people like her (the same race or gender, etc.)?
Dr. Viars points out, “While the person sinned against wasn’t responsible for what was done to him, he is responsible for his response.” He adds, “One of the reasons that many people are stuck in their past is that they were sinned against and they responded in a sinful way and they’ve never dealt with their part. Until they deal with their part, he who covers his sin shall not prosper.”5
These are just a few suggestions you can offer to people who are in the midst of the divorce process or have already been divorced. If you’re looking for more resources on helping those in your church, visit DivorceCare.org. DivorceCare is a thirteen-week, Christ-centered, divorce recovery program. It contains helpful principles like those in this article. And many churches have found that it’s an incredible outreach ministry.
- Church Initiative interview with Brad Hambrick, [month & year].
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Stephen Viars, [month & year].
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Crawford Loritts, [month & year].
- Church Initiative interview with Leslie Vernick, [month & year].
- Church Initiative interview with Dr. Stephen Viars, [month & year].