Friday Feature: Elisabeth Klein Corcoran on the end of a (Christian) marriage

I think this will be helpful for many. Author and speaker Elisabeth Klein Corcoran graciously agreed to do a Q&A with me about the unraveling of a Christian marriage.

Elisabeth’s new book, Unraveling: Holding on to Your Faith through the End of a Christian Marriage (Abingdon), came out October 1, 2013.

1. When did you know something was wrong in your marriage?

I knew something was wrong before we even got married, but I was selfish and stubborn and super insecure, so I pushed through my reservations anyway.

2. That’s really hard. You talk about spending time in counseling in order to salvage your marriage. How long were you in counseling?

On and off from around year one through year sixteen, nine counselors in all.

3. It is evident that you made great efforts to keep your marriage vows. At what point did you decide to get a divorce?

The day my lawyer emailed me the petition for divorce that my then-husband filed against me.  Seriously.  The decision was sort of made for me.  My church leadership – after a fifteen-month reconciliation attempt that they walked us through – released me to legally separate, at the time stating that they didn’t believe our marriage fell under the typical biblical grounds for divorce that most people think of, but also believing that I shouldn’t have to stay in relationship with someone who didn’t want to work on the things that were laid out.  So at that point, I actually intended to stay legally separated for the rest of my life.  My then-husband filed for divorce three months after I filed for legal separation.

4. How have your friends and your church family responded to your divorce since?

My inner circle has been absolutely amazing and I could not have gotten through this without them.  I withdrew from my church family out of shame (let me define withdrew though – I attended every Sunday through our reconciliation attempt, through our separation and for about six months post-divorce, but I booked it out of there as soon as I could each week)…I just couldn’t handle it.  So many of them didn’t even know about us, or if they did, very few reached out to me.  I’ve probably done the same thing to other women, so I don’t really blame anyone for that.

5. Did you stay in the marriage because of your children? And should people stay in a marriage because of their children?

I stayed in the marriage for a thousand reasons, my children being one of them. But the main reason I stayed so long when it was so very hard was that I didn’t feel I could divorce because I didn’t – at the time – feel I had biblical grounds. (I now see things differently).

Interestingly, on the list of whether to stay or whether to go, my kids landed on both sides of the argument.  As much as I didn’t want to replicate the idea of a broken home that I grew up with for my own kids, I couldn’t bear the thought of what my son was learning regarding how to be a husband and what my daughter was learning regarding how to be a wife and what you should and shouldn’t take as a wife.

I think you must weigh your children in your decision, of course, but if you have grounds and if you feel released, I don’t think staying for the kids is necessarily the best thing to do.  Especially if there is violence, emotional abuse, or addiction running rampant and they are seeing it or its effects playing out on a consistent basis.

6. How have you dealt with the rejection you’ve experienced after your divorce?

Lots of tears.  Lots of journal entries.  Lots of blog posts.  Switching churches.  Confiding in my closest friends.  Letting Jesus remind me over and over and over again that only his opinion of me matters.  I fear I’ll be learning and relearning this lesson til the grave.  It’s my Achilles’ heel.

7. What has helped you survive? 

Friends.  Writing.  Reading.  Getting a dog.  Knowing I had to keep going for my kids.  And then, slowly the shift has been coming, of helping other women who are in hard marriages or who are leaving their marriages.  Reaching out to someone else is a huge survival tip.

8. Is it possible to thrive in the midst of such pain?

Yes and no.  I lived in a difficult marriage for just under nineteen years.  Did I thrive?  Hard to say.  I started and led a few ministries.  I traveled to third world countries.  I had and raised two kids.  I wrote several books.  I spoke to women’s groups.  I had a very full life.  But.  But I had that really full life, in part, because I was doggedly determined not to let my hard marriage take me down; not to let it steal Kingdom life out of me.  I was dying inside every single day and I was making myself do all these big things.  I feel compassion for who I was trying to be back then and what I was trying to get through.  I would be sobbing in the shower and then have to go speak.  It was brutal.  So, in one way, no.  I was absolutely not thriving emotionally; I was dying.  And yet, I believe I was still doing things that would have an eternal influence, and I believe I was thriving spiritually, because even though I was such a mess, those years were some of my closest with Jesus, because he was all I really had, the only one who really knew what I was going through.

9. What do we need to know as a church when it comes to our attitudes and behaviors toward those who’ve experienced divorce? Are there things we should not say and do? And what can we do to be Jesus to those who are hurting because of a divorce or because of the prospect of a divorce?

This could be an entire book.  I’m afraid I’ve learned this the hard way.

Things not to say to someone divorcing or divorced:

God hates divorce.  Umm, we know.  And we do too.  (But that’s not even the whole verse.)  I’m not sure what people think they’re accomplishing when they remind us of this other than to attempt to guilt us into going back.

I disapprove of you.  This one stung the most, especially because it came from someone who pretty much knew the whole story and who knew that I wasn’t even the initiator of the divorce.  But it was cruel and unkind and only served to pour more pain and shame onto an already very hurting girl.

Kids in broken homes are more likely to get divorced. Again, we know.  This doesn’t help our situation.

You can’t fill-in-the-blank {lead the ministry that you started, lead your small group, serve in childcare, teach Sunday school, host teenagers in your home, speak at the women’s event} until further notice.  Listen, this one I get.  Because this one I did, as a women’s ministry director.  But here’s the thing with this.  Unless you, as a church leader, are saying this to offer a time of protection and support and healing to the person, you are just going to, again, pour more shame onto the divorcing person.  I know you want to “protect your flock”.  But, really, from what?  Divorce is not contagious.  So, if you have someone in your ministry who is on the receiving end of an unsought divorce, ask him or her if she wants or needs a break from serving.  Maybe what they really need is to keep doing what they’re doing to feel somewhat normal, to stay connected, to feel as if they still have something to offer.  No three year old will grow up and get a divorce just because her teacher was going through one.

Are you dating yet? I hate this one.  Not so much because I don’t feel ready to date (though I don’t) but because no one has asked me, so it reminds me that I’m not date-worthy.  Yuck.

There are so many other things but what I need to remind myself over and over again is that, for the most part, people do not have evil intentions toward us (some do, and you should just steer clear).  For the most part, I think when someone says something like this, they don’t know what to say or do, so they say nothing or the wrong thing.  We need to show grace, too.

10. How does one know whether or not one should get a divorce?

I have promised myself I would never tell anyone whether she should divorce.  This decision must be made with much wise counsel and prayer, but then between the person and Jesus.

However, I will say a couple things.

If you feel you’ve fallen out of love, if you have fallen in love with someone else, if you are “unhappy”, if your spouse is annoying, I’m sorry, but those are not reasons not to divorce.  You should try counseling and beg Jesus to restore the feelings you once had for your spouse.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, if your husband has literally left you or is unfaithful, you are free to divorce.  You do not have to, but you can.

And then there’s the gray, the messy in-the-middle area.  I believe – and not every conservative Christian believes this – but I believe that consistent abuse of all kinds (and abuse is much more than just rape or a black eye, by the way) or addiction of all kinds are forms of abandonment.  You will need to decide on your own if this is where your marriage falls and if you are comfortable standing before God one day and telling him why you ended your marriage.  But, sweet one, if you are more sad than content in your relationship, if there is more conflict than peace, and/or if you are being hurt on a regular basis (in a variety of ways), something is wrong and you need to get help

11. What would you say to readers who are in searing pain right now because of a divorce situation? How can they find relief from the pain?

I would say that your life will not always be this upended and painful.  You will begin to feel normal again.  You will find a new normal, actually.  God is pretty amazing not just at creating new things but at making all things new.  I have watched him make me new (he still is) and I have seen him do it in countless other women who are surrendered to him and asking for his healing and strength.  Counseling, friends, small groups, DivorceCare, great books, exercise, hobbies, church – all of these will help you in getting your life back on track; but then God steps in and he will do something beautiful, if you ask him and let him.

Elisabeth Klein Corcoran is the author of Unraveling: Hanging Onto Faith Through the End of a Christian Marriage, speaks several times a month to women’s groups, and is a member of Redbud Writers’ Guild. During her time at Christ Community Church’s Blackberry Creek Campus in Aurora, Illinois she began and led their women’s ministry for ten years prior to moving to the city’s Orchard Community Church. She lives with her children in Illinois. Visit her online at: or  She is the moderator of two private Facebook groups: one for women in difficult Christian marriages, and one for Christian women who are separated or divorced. Email her at [email protected] if interested in joining.


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