Divorce Debrief: An Open Letter to American Christians

By Philip Pfanstiel

This is a hard entry for me to write.  Darn you carpel tunnel and inability to smel …  I mean spel.

No, the reason it’s difficult is that I’ve always used my life as my canvas.  Whether it’s the columns, articles, video blogs (youtube: philipfiles), conversations or life lessons with my students – I’ve drawn from my life to share advice, anecdotes, humorous stories and at times actually helpful hard-earned wisdom.

So the difficulty with this article is sharing too much that will only hurt those I love.  While at the same time sharing too little will give no context to what I’m about to write.  My intention is to be discreet and I ask forgiveness if I am not successful at this (and welcome private feedback if I overshare).

I just recently finished an 18-month journey through hell – also known as a divorce.  I quit my teaching job in 2015 (after 14 years) and felt God opening up doors in Tulsa for my family.  In early 2016 I told my family that I felt God was leading us to move to Tulsa.  The next week others chose to file for divorce instead.   Not the reaction I was expecting but thought we could work through it and our marriage could be resurrected.

Fast forward 18 months (and a ton of dirty laundry that I will keep to myself) and we reached a settlement this June and the divorce was FINAL in July.  To be fair I thought it was final early last September but my ignorance/naiveté of how divorces work would have been cute it if weren’t so awkward and expensive.

Last summer (June 2016) I did move up to Tulsa.  I was hoping a long-term separation would enable us to work through stuff and eventually reconcile.  Other things happened making a pursuit of reconciliation impossible and I believe, not the correct path.

I liken it to scenes in Civil War movies where they are wanting to cut off the leg of an injured soldier.  The patient screams in protest begging to keep the leg.  In the end, I woke up without a leg and refusing to admit the obvious would make me delusional and an amputee.  So I’ve chosen to save my delusions for other things (Tony Romo and Tim Tebow both lead Cowboys to Superbowl Wins!!!).

So that is a thumbnail of my story.  My ex-wife and I are committed to our children and are working together to both provide, stay involved, connected and integral to their lives.

There is a sequence of scenes in Schindler’s List where the Jewish workers keep saying it can’t get worse … and it keeps getting worse.  The truth is that I know it could have been a lot worse.  I’m thankful for God’s hand protecting both of us from far worse.  And I’m thankful that both of us are committed to the kids.  I’d rather we fight over the kids (we each had different ideas of what was best for them) than for either or both of us to abandon and forsake them.  So we fought, came to a compromise and will both be rebuilding from there.  Now the Romans 8:28 promise is in effect and our kids have two homes and lots of new experiences and friends.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Purpose / Venting

The purpose of this letter is to vent a little and to make some suggestions to the American Church.  I also have, I think, a different take on divorce that needs to be heard (and will share that in part 2).

As far as venting.  In Leviticus 19:17-18 it says “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”

God gave me this verse early last September.  One of my plethora of problems is that I have a great memory.  And with a great memory comes an amazing ability to feel sorry for oneself.  Hence a tendency to become embittered and passive-aggressive.  I don’t see myself that way, but frankly, I don’t see myself very accurately so listening to others and God provides a much more objective view.

Walking through the healing process one of the first steps to realize is that the only person I can and have a responsibility to change is myself.  Having said that I have found that I often times suppress frustration with others until it erupts at some later time.  A friend said I needed to stand up for myself and make people treat me better.  Ironically this is the same friend that told me that since my ex left me that I should either reconcile or live under a rock for the rest of my life.

To be honest, he didn’t say the rock had to be slimy, cold and dark.  But being told that in order to obey God (more on this in part 2 of the debrief) I either had to tape back on the severed leg or be alone the rest of my life – for some reason I didn’t respond well to the advice.  Obviously, my leg metaphor doesn’t have legs and is stumbling a bit (it “knee”ds work).

“Reason frankly”

The lead: I have felt really let down, betrayed and disappointed by the inaction of fellow believers over the past 18 months.  Early after the divorce was initiated I asked numerous people, and prayed desperately for an ally, for a friend, for someone to come alongside, to reach out to me, to reach out to Tamara. Some “minister of reconciliation” (II Cor 5:11-21) that would come in and help save the leg, save the marriage, protect my children from experiencing the emotional hell that they’ve gone through this past year and a half.

But there was none.  No one stepped up.  To be fair of our mutual 160+ Facebook friends one person did email me early on.  My brother Eric did fly down shortly afterwards.  And that was it.  Now my immediate family listened, prayed and gave a copious amount of advice (mainly – “Do this Philip and everything will be fine.  What you did it and it didn’t fix it?  Well, you must not have done it right.”)  But they tried (my parents and my brother Sam were great supports) and no one in my family encouraged the divorce – and for this stance I am thankful.  Now they did do a lot of “shooting the wounded” and I’m still tender in that regard.  But I’m healing and learning to forgive, release and then forgive some more (with an occasional vitriolic venting thrown in there somewhere – usually toward God but sometimes leveled at my “brother or neighbor”).

The truth is that I wasn’t advertising it.  I didn’t reach out or try to get people on my side.  If someone is a good listener I’ll quickly open up and overshare.  Fortunately (?) there haven’t been a lot of good listeners in my life this past year.  So I get it that most people didn’t know.

The “live under a rock” friend also told me that I was dense.  And I think in many ways I am.  But the truth is that in some areas I’m very prescient.  I notice things others don’t, and don’t notice things most others do.  It’s a gift I’d like to return but “c’est la vie”

I do notice things.  I do notice when “friends” don’t return my repeated calls.  When people are cold and distant or unfriend me on FB (passive aggressive strikes back).  I’m taking my own advice and am trying to not react but be proactive.  What that means is that I’ll see things and take it to God in prayer, vent in my journal or on a walk with my dog Ash.  But I’ve chosen (or try) to not react to others, but to make deliberate actions that are taking me toward the destination God has called me.  A friend gave an illustrated example of this last night that really drove home the point (plus it was late, I’d had a few too many Pepsis so bumping into walls and tables was funny).

I did notice when my ex put a family photo of her and the kids on her Facebook this spring, she got hundreds of likes and comments.  Many of our 160+ mutual “friends” saw this and yet no one reached out to me or even asked the obvious “where’s Philip?”  Why is it that when a separation / divorce is obvious does no one respond?  Do people not care? Do they say, “Well, it’s none of my business.”  Or “How sad … Oh! Look a cat video!”  Does the reality of the implosion of someone else’s family and marriage make us turn away lest it happen to us?  Is divorce contagious?

A friend did call me up a few months back and said that he had heard from another friend a year earlier that we were going through a divorce.  Uh… So two people (fellow ORU students, followers of Christ and decent friends) had heard about the divorce and yet neither of them did what we’re called as Christians to do: reach out and be ministers of reconciliation.

I did call him back later and called him out on this – I respected him and this was disappointing.  He did apologize and we left on good terms but I’ll see if I ever hear from him again.

Frankly, I’d be okay if my group of “friends” shrank to the ones who would give a damn.  “Better is open rebuke than secret love.”  The friend who gave me a lot of harsh advice, was at least there for me even after we had a series of dust ups.  I’d rather have people like him in my life than a thousand inoffensive, inconsequential, and uninvolved people.

When Joe and Sue separated, I said nothing because Joe is too religious and intense.

When Rochelle and Tim got divorced, I ignored it because I never really liked her anyway.

When Dwayne and Lisa hit the rocks, I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.

When the shit hit the fan in my marriage, there was no one left to give a crap.

  • With apologies to Martin Niemoller

Maybe that’s a little too honest.  But here’s the thing.  I have been disappointed, felt judged and abandoned by people I thought were my friends … BUT God has been faithful.  There have been those who God has used to keep me alive and helped me to survive this past year.  My faith and relationship with Christ Jesus is stronger than ever.  I don’t write this to make people feel bad or guilty or even to get people to apologize.  The truth is that I wasn’t the first of your friends to go through a divorce, nor will I be the last.  Others may lose their marriages and more importantly their faith.  I’m hoping that this entry can be seen as an opportunity.

My challenge to Christians reading this is to step up next time.  Next time you hear of someone going through a rocky time in their marriage.  Send them a text.  Ask them out for a coffee.  Give them a call. When someone is going through a divorce, see if they need someone to talk to.  When you hear a ton of crap about someone, either get the other side or refuse to pass judgment and pray for them instead (and after praying reach out – you know the whole faith without works thing).  Being ministers of reconciliation is hard, but it sure beats the alternative.