American Culture

Words matter: the loaded language of "divorce recovery"

I have about three ways to get between my job and home, and one of them takes me past a couple of churches. Yesterday traffic was slow enough by one of them that I had a chance to notice a banner that I hadn’t seen before. It was essentially an announcement that the church had information on “divorce recovery” on its website. OK, lots of churches do relationship counseling. But the more I thought about it, the more that phrase bothered me:

“Divorce recovery”

The problem is the word “recovery.” It has a specific meaning, namely “the process of combating a disorder (as alcoholism) or a real or perceived problem” (as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary). If you’re recovering from something, that means that whatever it is you’re recovering from was bad for you. The logical implication is that divorce is a bad thing. And that is simply not the case.

In every divorce, at least one person in the marriage thinks that he or she has very good reasons to end the marriage. After all, if the marriage was going great there would be no reason to get a divorce in the first place. It follows that a divorce is going to be a good thing for at least one of the people in the marriage. And we almost never say that we’re “recovering” from something that’s good for us.

If the church had said “divorce counseling,” I wouldn’t have been bothered by it. It’s easy to imagine how one or both divorcees would need help adjusting to being single again. But getting someone back on their feet after a divorce isn’t “recovery,” it’s “counseling” or “mentoring.” It’s value-neutral and doesn’t paint one or both divorcees as being bad people merely for deciding to end their marriage.

I’d have the same issues if the church changed the phrase to “divorce therapy” because that makes divorce sound like some kind of illness to be cured. The same is true of “divorce treatment” or “divorce rehab” or “divorce healing.” Each implies that divorce is bad.

I understand that some churches and some people believe that divorce is wrong, that divorce is man ending something that God created, and that divorce is immoral as a result. Maybe in the case of a “no fault” divorce they might have a point. Might. But what about in the far too common cases of domestic abuse and infidelity? Is it moral of anyone to demand that a wife stay with an abusive husband? Is it OK to force a man to stay married to a woman who is unfaithful? What kind of God would demand those things of anyone? Certainly not one that’s worthy of being worshiped.

The phrase “divorce recovery” is loaded with values and implications that may or may not have been intended. Words have definitions – remember them. Those definitions create implications – be careful of them.

Words matter – use them carefully.

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