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Self-identified Christian women and divorce: the recovery and discovery of self.

Divorce is a common experience in the U.S. where divorce rates are higher than any country in the world (Munson & Sutton, 2006). Latest numbers from the United States Census Bureau report that, for every 1,000 persons living in the United States in 2009, 6.8 individuals were married and 3.4 experienced divorce; a rate of roughly 50% for the population at large (Census Bureau, 2013). Reliable data for current divorce rates among Protestant Christians are not as easily discerned. In a 2008 national poll of 3792 adults, the Barna Research Group found that among adults who have been married, one-third (33%) have experienced at least one divorce. Among those surveyed who identify as "born again" Christians, the statistics related to divorce are the same, at about one-third of marriages. "Divorce recovery" programs have been developed and offered in many settings, both secular and religious, for several decades. The literature on divorce, however, lacks theoretical explanations of the process that self-identified Christian women experience when separated/divorced.

For the authors of this study, a concern emerged in our interactions with female clients who placed a high value on their religious beliefs. They came to us with stories of deep distress related to separation/divorce and many accounts of increased stress due to their interactions with Christian friends and with clergy. This study grew out of a desire to understand more fully the process self-identified Christian women experienced in separation/divorce. The objective nature of the changes with separation/divorce (decreased financial and social resources, increased responsibilities for children, relationship conflicts, etc.) did not fully account for the emotional turmoil these individuals recognized in themselves, particularly the change in self-representations they reported. The influence of their belief systems and religious practices filled their stories.

Divorce is rated among the most stressful of difficult life events (Amato, 2010). Divorcees have been shown to exhibit substantially higher admission rates in psychiatric clinics and hospitals than individuals in intact couples, and they more often suffer from anxiety, depression, anger, feelings of incompetence, rejection, and loneliness (for reviews, see Amato, 2010; Gahler, 2006). Ancis and Neelarambam (2009) reported negative physical and psychological symptoms in women in legal proceedings related to divorce. These included a constant questioning of self, migraines, chronic fatigue, and disruptions in sleeping and eating. Amato (2010) reviewed studies from the previous decade and concluded that both crisis and chronic strain models were supported related to divorced individuals. That is to say, individuals who divorce experienced both short and long term impacts. Amato also commented that the findings were "scattered" related to divorce adjustment with some evidence that pre-divorce factors (such as levels of conflict within the marriage and economic status) may influence post-divorce adjustment and that more research is needed in this area. Kalmijn and Monden (2006) discussed the influence of marital quality on post-divorce adjustment and noted that divorce for women triggered higher depression levels, whether the marriage was highly conflictual or not. Evidence does not allow the conclusion that all divorces created lasting negative impact; however, women on average reported high levels of stress post-divorce in the general population. Additionally Kalmijn and Monden pointed out that depression levels lowered if women re-partnered after divorce. For many divorced women who self-identify as Christians and report placing a high value on their religious beliefs and practice, the strong prohibition against divorce in their faith communities and in their personal belief systems is coupled with a restriction against remarrying. We speculated that these extrinsic and intrinsic beliefs could increase the negative health impacts for self-identified Christian women who divorce.

Many authors have researched and theorized about the concept of the self in human experience from a psychological and theological perspective. By the late 19th century, William James gave us insights into the "I-Self" and the "Me-Self" (James, 1890). Winnicott (1965) differentiated the False Self from the True Self. In psychoanalytic theory, Kohut (1984) grappled with the self and the needs and disruptions that led to pathology. More recently Harter (2012) traced the development of self in childhood and adolescence through empirical studies that reflected many earlier theorists' work (e.g. Allport, 1961; Horney, 1950; Maslow, 1954; Rogers, 1951). Harter particularly noted the impact of experience in facilitating the emergence of a true self verses a false self, echoing Winnicott's formulation. In her conceptualization the former true self emerged naturally in an atmosphere of non-contingent parental support, sensitivity, and responsiveness, while the latter took over in settings of contingent child-rearing practices. (See Harter, 2012, pp. 364-367, for a discussion of the multiplicity of selves and the controversy around a unity of self verses the more fluid post-modern conceptualization of the selves which harkens back to early psychologists like James). Balswick, King, and Reimer (2005) explored theological perspectives in human development, noting the reciprocal nature of the process in the self mirrored in others, creating opportunity for the self to form, change and grow. Vitz and Felch (2006) in The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis discussed the philosophical underpinnings of the self and variations of the concept through the centuries. Eric Johnson (2012) suggested terms like the Christian's "Perfect" Self (the unhealthy, Ethical Self related to the biblical term, the old self) and the Christian's Working Self (the healthy, Ethical Self related to the biblical term, the new self) in his discussion of a Christian view of the self. In the family systems literature Michael Nichols (1987) recommended a consideration of the "self in the system" and warned strongly against neglecting its import in any attempt to understand and intervene with counseling clients. The language of the self has thus remained central in much of our understanding of human experience.

Researchers have investigated the view of self or self-representations and the interactions of self and other for several decades. Castonguay's (2000) review noted that individuals in psychotherapy who effectively change their view of self achieve mental health benefit regardless of treatment approaches. Hall (2004) presented a strong argument for the inseparability of psychological and spiritual issues of the self and offered a detailed description of implicit relational knowing based in emotional information processing, attachment theory and object relations theory. Numerous authors have asserted that patterns of relationship between self and other shape the individual's experience of self and God outside of the individual's conscious control or knowing (i.e. Benner, 1998; Hall, 2004; Rizzuto, 1979). Hill and Hall (2002) contended that the view of self and the view of God (God image or God representation) must be understood within a relational context. Davis, Moriarty, and Mauch (2013) clarified terms related to this line of inquiry, differentiating God image (the individual's emotional and experiential conceptualization of God in relation to the self) which implied implicit relational knowing functioning out of the individual's awareness from God concept (the individual's doctrinal and cognitive conceptualization of God in relation to the self). The literature has also introduced God image as a target of psychotherapy interventions (O'Grady & Richards, 2007; see Moriarty, Thomas & Allmond, 2007, for a review). Moriarty, Thomas and Allmond crystalized the change target in various models of psychotherapy related to God image aptly, "As the self changes, the God image changes" (p. 248). MacKenna (2002) suggested ways that God image maintained a rigid defense system or allowed for a more healthy self image development related to God image. The literature has maintained that how a person views herself and views her God is an important area of research.

There is a gap in understanding the transition self-identified Christian women must transverse when experiencing divorce, particularly related to their strongly internalized beliefs about God (God image and God concept) and the self. The purpose in this study, was to develop a substantive theory of the process that self-identified Christian women experience when separated/divorced and further to explore how their beliefs, religious practices, and faith communities influence that process related to the self. By clearly describing the process of change in the self that this population experienced as a result of separation/divorce and related changes in their descriptions of their God image, effective interventions by mental health professionals and clergy may be developed to address the mental health risks this population faces as identified above.



Participants for this study responded to an invitation to dialogue about their experience as "Christian women who have divorced" from notices placed on several listserv sites related to churches and through contacts at counseling agencies. Volunteers were all women between the ages of 29 to 65. Participants were self-identified Christians who reported that their religious beliefs and practices had impacted their process in undergoing divorce. All participants came from the Northeastern region of the united states. They identified themselves as Anabaptist (6), Baptist (3), Methodist (1), Episcopalian (1), and Non-denominational Evangelical (4). Fourteen participants identified as White or Caucasian; 1 participant identified as African American. 2 participants were in divorce proceedings at the time of their participation; the remaining participants had been divorced between 2 and 30 years and had been married prior to divorcing between 1.5 and 32 years. All participants received individual, couples or pastoral counseling.


Data were collected by holding face-to-face, in-depth focus groups with participants. These groups were guided by the research questions, but were not firmly structured to allow for the discovery of new ideas in the participants' report. Data analysis was guided by the principles of grounded theory (Bryant & Charmaz, 2012; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Creswell, 2013). Initial focus groups were recorded with digital recording devices with the written permission of the participants and transcribed verbatim. Notes were made during follow-up interviews, again with the permission of the participants. All transcripts were micro-analyzed to identify important concepts presented in the data. During this open coding phase of the study, core categories were pinpointed and coded. The central phenomenon of the transition of the view of self (VOS) in the participants emerged (see Figure 1) and conditions that influenced the emerging process were detected and coded. Strategies and their consequences that the participants indicated they employed in the context of the process were labeled as well. These concepts were developed through constant comparison and thus the theoretical framework presented in this study was created to explain the main themes of the data. Following the preliminary data analysis, individual interviews were held to disseminate the initial analysis and to gather feedback on the themes suggested. Additional comments or corrections from study participants were used to edit the process model presented in Figure 1. The follow-up interviews particularly focused on the Recovery and Discovery of the Self in the model and so the central phenomenon of a transition in the VOS was identified and later confirmed.

Sample size in grounded theory is determined by theoretical saturation which follows the general guideline that data should be gathered until themes repeat and reach saturation. A sample size of 15 women was used as a baseline and theoretical saturation was achieved. Repeating themes were evident in the final focus group which was held several months after the initial two groups. New thematic information was not emerging in this group. Due to the importance of doing an in-depth analysis of the rich experiences our participants offered and the need to understand the detail of these experiences in order to identify the structure of the process they underwent, we concluded our sample with 15 women.


The participants' descriptive accounts of their experience of separation/divorce included spiritual and psychological language related to the process they experienced. Thus the model presented in the Figure 1 was created to capture the intertwining nature of the process participants described. This process incorporated a movement through various iterations of the VOS with alternative regression loops (note arrows in Figure 1) that elongated the transition over time for some participants. The movement through the process was characterized by seven stages: Disrupted Self, Self in Conflict, Saving Self, Dying Self, Recovery of Self, Discovery of Self, and Emerging Open Self. Not all participants that we interviewed felt confident that they had worked through all the stages of the model. An important element of the process was that for various reasons, women may loop back (see arrows in Figure 1) rather than moving steadily forward throughout the process. External circumstances (i.e., interactions with ex-husbands, with children, with clergy or others in their faith community) and internal features (i.e., psychological mindedness of participant, attachment issues, trauma history) prompted women to loop back or to remain in a particular stage. When asked what conditions helped women progress through the stages two answers emerged repeatedly: support from faith communities, particularly from clergy, and participation in professional counseling. Eleven participants had engaged in professional counseling with their husbands prior to divorce or as individuals during/after the divorce or both. Four participants did not engage in professional counseling, but did receive pastoral counseling.


Disrupted Self

Initially participants described the disruptive experience of considering divorce or separation either as a result of their own dissatisfaction or by their partner's initiation. Their narrative accounts were filled with references to God's "hatred of divorce" and their view of self as a person who would never participate in divorce. The teachings of their churches strongly discouraged divorce. They reported how considering divorce caused them to fear they would displease God and be condemned. Participants with less conservative theological views of divorce also reported a dread of proceeding with their consideration of ending their marriages. One woman feared, "Letting God down." Another woman stated, "so, I was very fearful of going against God's will and getting divorced because I love the Lord and want to do His will."

Foreclosure on the consideration of divorce was sought by all participants, but when this failed, they offered detailed reports of their distress with a strong focus on the disruption in their self representation. statements that indicated a VOS as one who obeyed God became disrupted when the consideration of divorce was fully engaged.

Self in Conflict

Our participants then entered a confusing period of psychological unrest as they struggled with conflicting desires to leave the marriage and to preserve it. For many women divorce is not their choice, but the result of their partner's choice. Still both initiators and non-initiators reported great distress as the conversations of marriage dissolution were begun with partners and disclosed to others. When the possibility of the divorce became known in their faith communities, they wrestled all the more with Christian teaching and described their surprise that they would be in such a position. They encountered difficult conversations with members of their churches who sought to influence them to remain married. One woman reported,
   Someone always had something in
   the Bible that backed up the fact that
   divorce was wrong ... holding your
   marriage together--that being dependent
   on your husband--was all biblical
   teaching. I had this war going on
   in my brain that I can't possibly ...
   after seven years of fighting off
   divorce, I'm going to have to go
   through with it.

They grieved as they reported thoughts about displeasing God regardless of their role in seeking the divorce. They described symptoms of depression and anxiety in this period. Many battled with indecision in the face of partner infidelity, neglect, conflict, and even abuse. For the women in this study the decision to divorce/separate impacted the foundations of how they viewed themselves in addition to the many external implications the decision had for them (i.e., financial impacts, the wellbeing of their children, and the effects on their social networks). They repeatedly identified tremendous internal conflict around this stage of the process. They had moved from the consideration of divorce, into an expectation that their marriage would end. This effected a period of conflict within the self in addition to conflicts with their partners and members of their faith communities. Some were counseled by clergy and other church leaders to remain in their marriages regardless of conditions, including threats of physical harm and incidents of abuse. The inner turmoil and distress increased during this stage, with various reports of anxiety and depression.

Saving Self (Preservation of the old VOS)

The women recounted a period of intense effort to save the marriage in an attempt to preserve their status in their church communities, in their family systems and within themselves. They recalled despair related to the way they saw themselves and the change they predicted in themselves as a result of divorcing. They described how they poured more time into their relationships, seeking counseling or other means of conflict resolution with their partners. This often meant that they returned to former means of pleasing their husbands as they suspended their own desires for change. They noted telling themselves that they could tolerate behaviors that hurt them or that they could refrain from behaviors that caused conflicts with their husbands. They tested the limits of their psychological coping strategies turning to denial and repression. Rather than face the reality of their relational conflict, they internalized the causes of the conflict and attempted to change themselves. One woman stated, "I had to figure out what was causing so much anger in my marriage. Was it me? Was it my husband? What was it a mix? I just really was trying to pursue what things I could change about myself that could maybe make the marriage better." Another woman phrased it succinctly, "I turned myself inside out trying to make this marriage work." Another told us, "I lived for years just absolutely knowing even though I couldn't accept it consciously that I was hanging on by a thread ... I was terrorized." For some women this process continued for years, while for others their psychological frameworks led to the dissolution of the marriage more quickly. In this phase of the process, participants sought to preserve their VOS as committed wives who held tightly to their marriage vows and so pleased God and others. They acted out of old patterns, often blamed themselves and attempted to change their emotions and evaluations of their husbands through "will power." When these strategies to deny or repress genuine experience failed, they faced a deeper emotional and spiritual crisis.

Dying Self

After the internal struggle failed to produce sufficient change, the women entered a phase of despair in which their former view of themselves had to change. They could not continue to see themselves as they once had. "I can't be perfect." "I have to deal with a life I never expected." Another noted, "There was this internal struggle between my religious convictions and the emotional mess I was in ... the self-esteem had just been crushed." Still another described her internal dialogue, "I thought I must not really be as connected to God as I thought ... so much shame with this idea that I was going to go ahead and do this." One questioned herself, "Was it my lack of faith?" Another woman framed it this way,
   I grew up in a Christian home and my
   faith was that divorce is not an option.
   I didn't want to feel that I was a failure
   in some regards by, by just, not
   trying. Everything I thought I could do
   to continue in the relationship.

In this phase, the women described deep levels of despair, thinking themselves defective human beings, forced to see themselves in ways they had never imagined. "I've ruined probably the most important precept of what I know in the Bible." "I just felt very removed from God."

Another woman captured it in this prayer, "God, I know you're there. I believe in you, but I cannot keep doing this." Their descriptions often referred to the self rather than to the relationship or spouse. "I'm a broken mess here." Or they described the way they thought of themselves having to change:
   I think one thing for me in this experience
   has been, I was always that
   kid who tried to do everything I was
   told, and not make any mistakes, and
   not do anything wrong. And by and
   large, as a kid, and young adult,
   that's pretty much how things went. I
   wasn't getting into trouble a lot. I
   wasn't a rebel or anything. And this
   was like, the big place where I did
   something wrong ... inside of me
   there's a piece of me that still feels
   like there is something wrong.

The women described the ways they began to see themselves and finally their decisions to let go of the former VOS that attempted to perform for God and others, to let that die. For some this involved distancing from their former beliefs and church involvement. They described changing their habits of prayer, bible reading, and church attendance. Some left churches they had attended for many years. They described new realizations that emerged about their actions to resolve the troubles in the relationship by attempting to please their partner, or control him or prove their value. In the midst of the desperation they felt when they saw these actions fail, they also found that they had to let go of the former VOS as a "good girl" or as a "faithful follower." They identified this stage as a kind of dying process or an emptying of the self.

Recovery of the Self

Over time the women were aware of shifts in their VOS. They felt glimmers of hope again and a growing strength. The self seemed to be recovering or coming back to life. Many noted this as a redemptive process in which they understood grace more deeply.
   I looked on myself as just a mess ...
   unsalvageable in some ways. And
   now? I look upon myself as living
   into redemption. I see the mess, but
   it doesn't define me anymore. I think
   it's having survived something, and
   on the other side knowing I am okay
   with God. That God does love me.

They noticed that they had a new sense of self-esteem that they associated with personal experiences of God in the midst of releasing the False self they identified as functioning within their former marriages. One woman stated succinctly, "[This] has changed my ideas of what God does and who I am." Additionally they stopped "turning it all on myself" and described various repairs to the self that often centered on a regaining of autonomy after feeling despondent and dependent in the former stage. After the former period of isolation and the sense of losing everything, they identified a kind of recuperation phase based in new behaviors often involving self-assertion. One woman remarked, "I didn't know the strengths I had in me until I was forced to use them." In the process identified in this analysis, this period of recovery was like a convalescence in which the participants recovered from the negative impact of their lost relationship and the negative VOS that their former marriages had reinforced in them.

Discovery of the True Self

The next phase of the process involved discovering new elements of the self and while closely linked to the former stage in recovery of the self, it stood apart in the women's report of a previously unknown self, a truer version of the self. They talked about a new VOS that differed from memories of how they viewed themselves while married. A major distinction they recognized in this stage was a movement toward others with new conviction about how to relate from a more authentic or "deep" place in the self. "I'm much more empathetic to other people than I used to be," one woman noted. Another commented, "It's caused me to cherish relationships more, to go deeper in relationships than I did before." Still another wondered about the transition in VOS. "When I think back ... who was that person?" The women repeatedly noted their sense of the growth and expansion of their capabilities.
   I saw myself as dependent. I think
   one of the reasons why I got married,
   which I didn't know at the time, was
   that I felt like I had to have somebody
   to help me in life.... And I feel
   like God started to show me how he
   is sufficient. I'm okay. My dependency
   to somebody else was actually
   really hurtful for my relationship with
   God and me and my kids ... [This] is
   a huge way in which I've grown.

These reports of finding new capabilities through necessity and through their religious practices highlighted this stage of finding, not merely recovery from the injuries to the self, but a new experience of self that the women describe as more whole, true and genuine in their interactions with others, including God.
   I always felt so unequipped and not
   whole enough to deal with life on
   my own. But I am really relying on
   the Lord now, and I really do have
   faith that he'll carry me through and
   that he still has good plans for me
   and that he still loves me. And I just
   didn't have those certainties before in
   my life.

The discovery of the True Self also brought participants to a new freedom from performance. "I used to say I was good because I thought I was doing what God wanted. So I would say, God loves me because I-because I--because I. But now I know God loves me because He--it has nothing to do with me." Another one of the women described this sense of discovery in this way,
   I used to define myself as being
   divorced and having a broken home.
   I don't do that anymore. You know, I
   used to have that shame ... But I
   think the most defining thing, and
   that God really worked in me-and
   I'm sure he's never finished-is just
   being truthful. I mean, I lived a lie.
   And just coming to terms with that,
   and now it's like, I have nothing here
   to have to hide.

The self post-divorce had new aspects that the participants discovered and this new VOS brought hope to the challenges in their lives.

Emerging Open Self

The final stage described by participants was viewed as an aspirational phase that many noticed in their process, but also felt they would continue to seek. They described their VOS opening up and reported less worry about how others perceived them. They specifically noted that their anxiety levels were lower than they remembered prior to the divorce. Often they described a more holistic view of God as their source of identity. One of our participants expressed this very directly, "I'm so glad I can look to [God] as my source of identity and not my marriage." Additionally they discovered an eagerness to engage in the world and in service to others that was new post-divorce. One woman reported, "Life doesn't stop at this. God doesn't stop at this. And you can still be doing really amazing things ... for the church. I mean, you can be very central to the church. And that meant a lot to me." A key element they traced was a release of control and a more receptive approach to change. Their pessimism about themselves had waned and a new optimism emerged. The self was now vulnerable and trusting, with less attention to control. Participants found meaning in what they saw as a new way of being in relationship to their world. "I have things to do that are meaningful. I wouldn't have that before. Before I thought I was, or wanted to be, in control of things, and now, I know I'm not. Nor do I think I want to be in control so there's a freeing in all of that that I really appreciate now, a freedom to accept whatever comes in life."

The women who had been divorced only a few years (5 years or less), noted that they felt pulled into earlier stages of the process by their experience of continuing shame or guilt. They acknowledged their thoughts of themselves and their emotions fluctuated frequently and they did not think they fully grasped the True Self or the Open Emerging Self. Those women who had been divorced for 5 or more years, commented that they also questioned themselves at times and inadvertently fell into old patterns of thinking and behaving related to issues of dependency or performance. The VOS seemed to slip back into earlier stages and they wondered if they had lost their grip on their True Self.

In analyzing these narratives, this final more aspirational stage of the Open Emerging Self was included to capture this fluctuating VOS. Several of the women who had been divorced for five years or more and were chronologically older (45 years and older) wondered if change in VOS was a constant that they should nurture, with the self emerging anew continually. They questioned whether there was one True Self to hold onto and wondered if a healthy process included a newer self emerging throughout their lives, thus the final stage was marked as the open, emerging self. The women cautioned that they knew they would not be hopeful or free of guilt and regret every day. They acknowledged that the fluctuations in mood would probably persist, but they added that the openness they had gained would help them to accept this and continue to grow.


The Recovery and Discovery of the Self process occurred within the context of on-going involvement with communities of Christian faith for all our participants. For our participants remaining connected to a church was an essential context. This theme of connection to a social and spiritual network carried across all the stages of the model. At times the attempts to engage with others in faith communities disrupted the women's progress through the phases of the model causing them to re-evaluate their faith perspectives and their relationships with others including God and with the self. These disruptions triggered a loop back to a former phase of the model (see arrows in Figure 1). For some participants these interactions prompted a move to a different faith community that provided more support for the transitions occurring in the self. The theme of the desire to remain involved with a faith community was central in the data and the women described how they sought these connections, even when painful interactions followed. Many tearfully remembered difficulty in the early phases of the process related to interactions with clergy and congregants. Being newly single again was complicated as they navigated seeing friends who knew them during their marriages, co-parenting with ex-husbands who may have also been a part of the church, and dealing with clergy or other leadership who wanted to correct them in some way. In spite of these painful interactions, the participants found ways to remain engaged in a church and reported that this choice was a vital part of the context in which their process of recovery and discovery developed.


Several psychological and theological authors further elucidate various aspects of the Recovery and Discovery of the Self model. Zeitner's (2012) Self Within Marriage conceptualization of the "SelfDyad" poignantly illustrated how marriages disintegrated when the selfdyad (partnered relationship) failed to support the self of each individual. This mirrors our model's Disrupted Self and Self in Conflict phases where pre-divorce women saw themselves as unsupported, bound, and disappointed. Larry Richards (in House, 1990) comments on the ubiquitous, often violent collision of emotional experience and strongly held religious beliefs during divorce:
   For most Christians there is also a
   sense of guilt, the awful realization
   that somehow they have failed,
   falling dreadfully short of God's ideal
   of a permanent, lifelong relationship.
   Even the "innocent party" feels guilty
   ... The mandate for "no divorce"
   rings from many pulpits. And "no
   divorce" is counseled by many pastors
   who, though they hurt for
   abused wives and for husbands who
   have been deserted, feel they have
   no right to encourage something that
   is contrary to God's will. (p. 215-216)

Stratton (in Vitz & Felch, 2006) illustrated four "off-center" relational strategies that "are chosen as in the garden to protect a self that feels naked and vulnerable," (p. 263). Stratton's descriptions of controlling, pursuing, withdrawing, and complying mirror the types of desperate strategies our participants reported using in their efforts to salvage shreds of a crumbling self in the face of an ending marriage. Failure of such strategies inevitably led to the fourth stage of our model, Dying Self. Susan Harter's (2012) description of how shame impacts the self seems to echo the cries of our participants who have failed at multiple attempts to save their marriage and the self. Harter (2012) explains:
   In the experience of shame, the I-self
   denigrates the Me-self in its entirety,
   leading to overall self-abasement ...
   The negative evaluations pertain to
   the self globally, in that one views
   oneself as a bad person ... they
   reflect a self that is fundamentally
   flawed, defective, or inadequate,
   thereby implicating the entire self ...
   One's core identity, therefore, is
   threatened. Shame reflects painfully
   harsh and denigrating judgments by
   ourselves, about ourselves. We find
   ourselves to be defective, inferior,
   flawed, tiny, insignificant, dirty, and
   unworthy. (p. 212, italics in original)

Following this phase, the VOS of participants was marked by resurrection-like experiences of coming back to life again after divorce and the recuperative phase of Recovery of Self. The Discovery of Self stage of our model harkens back to Winnicottian views of how a good enough holding environment nurtures initial and ongoing emergence of one's true self. As noted by Parker (2011, p. 179) in Winnicott and Religion, Winnicott (1986, p. 148-149) used the words "everlasting arms" to compare God to the mother's holding. This vivid image reflects the types of environments in which our participants transitioned into a more hopeful VOS and God image. Whether facilitated by a "good enough therapist," (11 of our participants reported participating in profession counseling of some sort), a caring faith community (all 15 of our participants reported finding support via a connection to a continuing/new faith community) or tender care from friends and family (all of our participants noted changes in their social support networks and the importance of finding ongoing support), our participants' VOS and views of God and others were dramatically transformed during the Discovery of Self stage of our model. Further investigation of the precise cause(s) of such transformation is needed. The implications of these findings suggest that mental health professionals consider ways to support the VOS or stimulate change in the VOS in clients in this population who seek treatment (Moriarty, Thomas, & Allmond, 2007).

One repeated theme from the reports in our study was the value the women placed on their connection to faith communities in spite of painful interactions that occurred related to these relationships. All 15 of our participants made some reference to the importance of remaining connected or establishing new connections to faith communities. Prior to separation/divorce the women described their struggle with church teaching on divorce as "not an option" while their marriages were dissolving in all manner of relational conflict: infidelity, domestic violence, addiction, emotional abuse; and their mental states were negatively impacted: higher levels of depression, anxiety, and self-harm ideation. Their accounts included personal reckonings with the belief that "God hates divorce" and their internalization of this belief as condemning of the self. The resulting coping strategies often involved initial isolation (self-imposed and other-imposed); a painful identification of self-negation with its relational roots in the original family and revisited in the marriage; a deep consideration of the consequences of this self-negation; and finally, a shift in the fundamental VOS. They described a transformative process in which the self recovered from negative evaluations and then a discovery of the self as more autonomously and intimately connected to God. Our participants identified this dissolution of the marriage with a temporary dissolution of self or a cycle of disruption, dying, and rising in a personal sanctification process. The transformation of the self, preceded by an unraveling of the former VOS in the dissolving marital relationship and a letting go of the need to defend this self representation, resulted in a new energy for living and relating to others associated with their relational intimacy with God. These outcomes confirm researchers' conclusions that clients who effectively change their VOS achieve mental health benefits regardless of specific treatment approaches (Castonguay, 2000). For devout Christian women facing divorce, as so many in our culture do, these findings suggest that naming the process of divorce as a disruption in VOS, followed by the transformation of VOS offers a potentially hopeful conceptualization that psychotherapists and clergy could consider as they create interventions in counseling with devout Christian women in this situation. Noting which stage a particular woman is experiencing could also inform the language used to offer counsel. A woman in an earlier stage of the model may be better served by empathic listening rather than directive challenges while the later stage woman may benefit from more stimulating interventions.

The limits of this study are similar to other grounded theory studies. Selection bias is a possibility as those who volunteered for this study might differ from those who did not accept the invitation to participate or from those who reside outside the northeastern region of the United States. In spite of our efforts to safeguard credibility and dependability, it is possible that a different team of researchers and participants would have varying results. Only one of our participants was a woman of color and so Caucasians are over-represented in this sample. Also the women who participated in our study were not screened, but self-identified as Christians. Individuals who self-identify as Christians differ in many respects and while the study sought to name the participants' faith concerns related to divorce, readers should interpret our findings in light of the variations individuals may bring to the term "Christian." Although these limitations should be respected, the authors took care to employ a variety of techniques including peer debrief and member checking to ensure that conclusions were closely tied to the data and grounded in the women's experience.

Many questions remain in relation to this proposed framework of the discovery and recovery of the self among Christian women who divorce. Empirical inquiry into the model's usefulness to female therapy clients would be very interesting. Broader exposure of the model to other populations, particularly more diverse groups, would be significant and perhaps offer variations to the model.


Given the frequency of divorce among Protestant couples pastoral leaders and faith communities would do well to consider how to help women progress spiritually as well as emotionally through the transition of divorce. Careful consideration of the ways that God may invite these women to deeper faith experience and expression should not be neglected. With grace as the central feature of the Christian message, developing ways to offer grace to women transitioning through divorce seems particularly relevant. Many of the participants in our study reported being confronted by church leaders and Christian friends as if they were defective human beings because they were divorcing. They were rarely invited to tell their stories. Given the high level of distress they reported, finding individuals who would simply listen became vital. For many, the repair of their marriages had been an all-consuming goal for lengthy periods of time, and when they were confronted by church leaders or Christian friends who offered simple solutions, based in little knowledge of their circumstances, and designed to provoke guilt over leaving the marriage, they fled those people, often distancing from God for a time as well.

Support of the self in the transition figured largely into our participants reported ability to return to their churches and to renew their contributions to them. How can church communities and leadership honor scriptural teaching about marriage without condemning those who have experienced divorce? Holding this primary question in mind and coupling it with an understanding of the transition in the woman's VOS could reduce the frequency of incidents that prompted our participants to move away from church involvement.

For many of our participants, the emergence of a more open self, capable of autonomy and interdependence, was a product, at least in part, of their participation in psychotherapy. Christian therapists who practice with Christian women experiencing divorce could consider using these findings to develop interventions that help clients explore the VOS with an eye toward acknowledging the descent in the VOS and encouraging the rising of new more adaptive and redemptive views of the self. By continuing to study women who have productively used the ordeal of divorce to transform the VOS as healthy and capable, intervention strategies may be created that support this process.

Gwen M. White

Deborah M. Berghuis

Eastern University

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Gwen M. White, Psy.D., Eastern University, 3 Falls Center, Suite 1, 3300 Henry Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19129;


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Gwen M. White, (Psy.D. in Psychology, Immaculata University) is Director of the Doctor of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy program at Eastern University. Dr. White's interests include religious and spiritual development across the lifespan, spirituality and trauma, and the integration of practical theology and psychology.

Deborah M. Berghuis, (M.A. in Counseling, Eastern University) is a psychotherapist in private practice and doctoral student at Eastern University. Her research interests include women and divorce, clinician self-care, and sustaining spiritual/psychological wholeness in caregivers of trafficking victims.
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Author:White, Gwen M.; Berghuis, Deborah M.
Publication:Journal of Psychology and Christianity
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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