Reports were received from 32 focus groups in 22 dioceses. A total of 201 people participated. Many participants had lengthy marriages. Twenty years plus was common, and some had been married for more than 30 years, one for 42 years. Most had children. Between one-quarter and one-third have received an annulment.
(1) Reflecting on the marriage
Positive aspects: The most frequently mentioned was children. Many noted compatibility with their spouse, security, and “always having a date.” They enjoyed doing things as a family, working together, and sharing responsibilities, especially around parenting. A few were happy because their spouse converted to Catholicism.
Negative aspects: These responses were more diverse. Communication issues (fighting, constant arguing, and inability to problem-solve) were major. Some found out that their spouse “turned out not to be the person I thought he was.” A significant number cited differences over religious practices. Some problems arose because the spouse was not Catholic or, if Catholic, did not follow church teaching. Some lamented that as a couple they were not Christ-centered. As one noted, “Not having a solid relationship with Christ was a major negative.”
Domestic abuse—emotional, sexual and physical—was present in many marriages. Some cited alcoholism and infidelity. Other problems included in-laws and job-related separation (a particular problem for military families).
(2) Life since the divorce
Positive aspects: Again, children was the major response. Many found that their relationship with their children improved, as did relationships with other family members. Many spoke of freedom—freedom from abuse, fighting, financial concerns, or trying to be someone they were not.
Divorce was often the catalyst to personal and spiritual growth. People developed self-confidence and a sense of independence. For some, the divorce prompted them to return to the faith or to grow stronger in the faith.
Challenges: These included the difficulty of being a single parent and a lack of role models for the children. Some were trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with their children. Others feared an ex-spouse’s influence on the children. Communication with the former spouse about children, child support and property is sometimes difficult.
Others noted the loss of companionship, loneliness, and financial concerns. They spoke of the need to move forward and establish their identity as a single person. For some this means learning to forgive and to trust again.
Respondents use a variety of resources to help re-establish their lives after a divorce. The support of family and friends is crucial. Spiritual resources include the sacraments, prayer, Bible study, and Renew groups. Some people said that it is hard for a younger divorced person to find a compatible group in the church.
(3) The annulment process
Those who sought an annulment often said that they wanted closure or the ability to re-marry in the church. (“Divorce is all about pointing a finger at your ex, and annulment is about you and being happy and healthy in your future.”) Some had received encouragement from a priest to apply. A few pointed out that it can take time before one is ready to start the process.
Those who did not seek an annulment had many reasons for not doing so. Some do not intend to re-marry so they see no need for an annulment. Some do not believe in annulments. Some were deterred because they heard it was a difficult and complicated process. Many did not want to “re-traumatize” themselves. Some said they could not afford it, especially in their reduced financial circumstances following the divorce. In some cases the adult children did not support a decision to seek an annulment. Some were reluctant to ask family and friends to give time to what can be an uncomfortable process. One woman, married to an abuser, did not want her former husband to know anything about her, including that she had converted to Catholicism.
(4) Experiences of the annulment process
Positive: Many felt that the process helped them to understand what went wrong in the marriage. It opened old wounds but allowed them to heal. Some came to a better understanding of themselves; they became a stronger and better person. Having an advocate was helpful. One person reported that the experience was “very easy” because the priest interviewed her and helped her to fill out the forms.
Negative: Some noted long waiting periods (four years in one case) and anxiety that the annulment would not be granted. For some the process was a financial burden. Some felt like innocent victims because their spouse had left the marriage without giving them a choice. Another noted that it is difficult to get witnesses in an abuse situation since abused people do not want to talk about it.
(5) Did you see your diocese or parish as a source of help with your marital difficulties?
In some cases an individual priest was helpful, but many “never thought of the parish or diocese as a resource.” Some doubted that a priest, with no personal experience of marriage, could help. Several reported negative experiences when they sought help. (“I called the parish office for help but was offered no resources.”)
(6) If your diocese or parish was helpful, what resources did they offer to help you deal with marital conflict?
Those who had positive experiences often cited their parish priest (“I talked with my parish priest. He was wonderful.”) Respondents did not expect priests to offer professional counseling, but they hoped for guidance and support. Some priests put people in touch with a support group or recommended a counselor.
(7) What can the diocese or parish do to help couples who experience problems in their marriage?
The Church needs to acknowledge, first, that good people have real problems in their marriage. Priests should be honest about this. Pastors and pastoral staff should be able to recommend counselors. One suggested that counseling be subsidized. Another suggested a lay “marriage advocate” who could help people to find resources and who might be more approachable than a priest. Workshops to help couples improve marriage skills, especially around communication, would be helpful.
(8) What can the diocese or parish do to help support persons who are divorced and separated?
Many spoke of the need for resources (lists of counselors, reading materials, websites) that could be posted on a parish and/or diocesan website. Parish-based support groups are important. One suggested that dioceses standardize their programs for divorce care and help parishes to choose those that reinforce Catholic teaching. Young adult ministry leaders could invite divorced Catholics into the community. Some asked that parishes sponsor activities that are not always family-centered. Continuing education for priests and parish staff is essential.