Join us as we sit down with family law attorney, Kimberly Brown, to discuss the cultural and religious stigmas that have historically clouded divorce with a sense of shame, and why it's time to shed this thinking and view divorce through a healthier lens. In this interview, Kimberly discusses the following:
• Is Guilt Different Than Shame?
• How divorce tends to put people at high risk for feeling shame, largely due to lingering stigmas that still surround divorce.
• America’s cultural DNA and how it influences how we think of divorce.
• Why divorce is thought of differently for men and women.
• How the shame of getting divorced can perpetuate domestic violence.
• Theology and religion’s history surrounding divorce.
• “Until Death Do Us Part”: Its history and contribution about shame and divorce.
• Do some Judeo and Christian texts understand and permit divorce?
• The many words for love in Hebrew/Aramaic.
If you would like to speak with one of our family law attorneys, please call our office at (503) 227-0200, or visit our website at https://www.landerholmlaw.com.
Disclaimer: Nothing in this communication is intended to provide legal advice nor does it constitute a client-attorney relationship, therefore you should not interpret the contents as such.
Steve Altishin 0:31
Hi, everyone. I'm Steve Altishin, Director of Client Partnerships here at Pacific Cascade Family Law. Today, I'm here with Attorney Kimberly Brown, to talk about why many people feel a strong feeling of shame when getting divorced, and also why it isn't necessary to feel ashamed about it. So how you doing today, Kimberly?
Kimberly Brown 0:54
You know, it was kind of a wild start to my day, and I'm kind of glad that I'm sitting here and we're going to be chatting a little bit, so that I can feel confident in an area that I love to chat.
Steve Altishin 1:05
I love it. Crazy mornings are crazy! So before we start in, it is kind of a unique topic we're going to talk about, so why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you feel so strongly on this subject.
Kimberly Brown 1:26
So I'm a follower of Jesus, as I like to put it. I come out of what is traditionally called the Christian tradition. I was saved at 15 years of age, but I had an earlier encounter with Jesus as a young child. And when people ask me, who have struggled with the church and some of the teachings of the Church, how can I be a Christian? Or how can I agree with a particular issue that they're struggling with? I always say to people, for me, I have met Jesus. And once you meet Jesus, it's difficult to turn away. And so my faith is extremely important to me, and something that is at the forefront of who I am and how I am in the world. And, I am an attorney who does divorce work. And so I have to think about how does faith and our culture's divorce link together, interact, or support each other or tear apart those two areas of my life? I have explored being a pastor. I have started in seminary and about a year and a half into it realized that I was spending a lot of money on something I was not going to use, I was never going to be a full time pastor in a church setting. I pastored a small church up in Seattle for a couple of years. I love that work and would love to do more of that work. But sometimes when you're a lawyer, business kind of keeps you busy and it's hard to do two jobs at once. I did that for a couple of years, loved it, hope to do some more of it. I'm a lay leader in my local church. And I love religion and politics. The two things people tell you, you should never talk about.
Steve Altishin 3:16
Oh, my kind of person. Before we get started, let's just talk a little bit about shame, and guilt, because in my mind, they aren't necessarily the same thing. I mean, I can feel guilty about something I did. And you know, maybe rightly so. But shame makes me believe that I'm just bad because of something I feel or what I think. So if I come in your office saying I feel guilty about getting divorce, it might be a different conversation than if I came in and said I'm ashamed of myself. Or am I way off base?
Kimberly Brown 3:56
No, I think most people do feel shame. We muddle up the words guilt and shame and so often people will use the word guilt in my office when they really do mean shame. And often, it takes a little bit of time for the two of us to to work in to what they're feeling. You have to be cautious as a lawyer, because we're not therapists, we're not pastoral councils. What we are is lawyers. But I try because I've had at my office, in times past, I was near a fairly large church here in the Portland area, and have a lot of people coming in from the Jesus tradition with shame around their marriage needing to end that I want to talk to them about that. And it is true-- shame is about, I'm a bad person, I have not followed God and therefore I am not worthy. I am sinful. All of that kind of language out of the Christian tradition, out of the Jesus tradition, is very, very prominent, I think, in followers of Jesus, especially in North America and the United States in particular. And guilt is about you did something wrong, you broke a law, you crossed a boundary, that sort of stuff. And I think that guilt is good. If you've done something wrong, it allows you to take a little bit of step back and see where you might need to make amends.
Steve Altishin 5:28
So let's say I'm feeling ashamed. And, you know, I've been married, and I don't want to be married. And I'm ashamed because, I mean, most marriages use the words, I promise to stay married till death do us part. So what if I come in and I say to you, 'doesn't that mean I need to stay married?'
Kimberly Brown 5:54
So, I think the language of our marriage ceremony comes out of tradition. We have to remember that. Because marriage and divorce have changed in our culture, you'll see some of those vows change a little bit, but for people who come out of religious traditions, there is usually some kind of vow of till death do us part. We have to remember why that language is in those vows, and we have to go back and remember that most people who enter into the Sacrament of Marriage today, we're talking about today, and come from a faith based tradition, they are entering it so that themselves and their spouse are uniting in a relationship that includes their relationship with the divine. In the Jesus tradition, we would say God. So God is at the cornerstone of that relationship. And depending on what church tradition you come out of, the words that are put to you is God made man and woman, male and female, and the man shall leave his house and he'll cleave unto his wife or join his wife, and they shall be one. And then they go to Matthew 19. And God said, do not break apart what God has joined. And so we carry that, even when we are not religious, in our bodies. And while divorce is more prominent in the United States and in most Western countries, and more acceptable in the courts, the laws have changed and stuff like that-- within our communities, we still find that our family members or our friends want us to struggle and stay together, because they don't know what is actually going on in the relationship. So how often do we hear clients come into our office and they say, you know, I'm really ashamed. I told my mom that I was going to go see a lawyer because I wanted to divorce. And she was like, well, don't you think you should try a little harder? Or, you know, my friends don't invite me to their house anymore because my wife and I have separated so I feel lonely, because I think they're angry at me. And so even in our communities, while culturally we seem to be more accepting of divorce, our communities and our families still put the pressure on us that we should stay together. Subtly sometimes, but it's still there. And so we feel like, oh, maybe I should stay till death do us part.
Steve Altishin 8:33
But that's not necessarily, like you said, today. I mean, languages change, traditions change, and people falling back on a theology or religion to not to get divorced, is that necessarily what the religion or theology was even saying? Do we know that?
Kimberly Brown 8:57
No, no, I don't think so. And I do want to say that, in the secular society, one of the reasons-- I do want to say this--we have what I like to call the 'theology of the fairy princess' story. And that is that the books that we read as children, the prince and the princess get together and they live happily ever after. Nobody tells people when they get married, that marriage is not about meeting your soulmate, and having everything be perfect thereafter. Nobody says it's not going to be perfect. They just imply that it will be and the truth is, it isn't perfect always. And I think that most religions--even the Jesus tradition, in its most conservative interpretation--all make room for relationships that are not healthy. And in particular, relationships that are so unhealthy that you are not honoring the divine, however you name the divine. If you have a relationship that is supposed to be modeled on a holiness covenant or a way in which we are to be together and honor each other and God, and you have an abusive spouse, that is a dishonouring of the Divine. If you're not a person of faith and you have an abusive spouse, we simply say it's wrong. It's wrong to be in a relationship where you are being abused, it's wrong to be in a relationship where you are struggling to deal with a person's mental health issues, and they're not able to be present in the relationship. And they're not able to uphold they're part of it. And so we have to make sure that when we talk to people about marriage, or when we talk about marriage, and we talk about divorce, that we explain that there are many reasons why people need to get a divorce. I read this line, and I'm not going to name the comic, because he's kind of a disgraced comic right now, but he said something very accurate, that I really found poignant. And he said, divorce is always good. Because how many people do you know that have a good marriage, and everything is going well, who decide to get a divorce? And we don't see that very often. There are very, very few circumstances, and I've had one or two, where their marriage is good, but there's reasons why we should divorce people. And that has to do mostly with with people who are poor, minimal assets kind of stuff and are trying to get some help to pay for nursing care costs. But that's a whole nother conversation we can have down the road. But people get divorced because something has gone awry in their marriage, something has happened that makes it not bearable any longer. Even when you impose a religious ethos, or religious theology, over the top of that, people are supposed to be in a relationship that brings you life, Steve. That feeds you, that nourishes you, and that makes your life better when you're with your spouse, makes your life more full and more holy when you are with your spouse. And to have things happen in the relationship that are not healthy, that don't make you more whole, that don't make your children's life better, that's that's not good for the people involved, or the society as a whole. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating everybody should just run out and get a divorce when the first little argument happens after you get married. That's not what I'm talking about.
Steve Altishin 12:50
So God doesn't hate you if you get divorced?
Kimberly Brown 12:53
God never hates you. I just want to say that as loudly as I can. God never hates you. Out of the Hebrew Christian traditions, and the Islamic traditions, I think that it's very clear. We are created by God in the image of God for a relationship with God, because God loves and adores us. God does not make anyone sinful or bad or wrong.
Steve Altishin 13:19
Then why don't the scriptures we have say that, or do they say that? Are there places they say that but maybe people don't, they don't kind of come out that way after years?
Kimberly Brown 13:32
Most of us learn our traditions from a teacher. We don't learn them by ourselves. We don't read. Very few followers of Jesus read Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. Scholars do, but we don't. The people who lead our churches, many have gone to seminary, but not all of them do. They may have taken Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. But we always have to understand there is no Bible, there is no Bible in our existence right now, that is not a translation of a translation. And so the choice of words is given up to the person who translated the book you are reading. We read our scriptures in North America, in the Christian tradition, from English, right? And for many years, until some very very recent scholarship and archeological findings, our scriptures were translated from a Greek translation of Hebrew texts that did not exist in our time. That we did not have copies of! It was a Greek translation of scriptures that disappeared-- the Hebrew text, the Aramaic text, disappeared, and all of our translations came out of 70 people-- the mytheology says 72 People sat down and translated from the Hebrew to the Greek, in the early first century. It's called the septuagint translation of the Bible. And that's what we have. But people translated it from a different language, people made choices about what books were in, and which books were out of the Canon when when they were putting together the Bible as we have it today. We have to be careful about translation. And I'm not going to bore you with a word--kind of let's look at one word and break it apart--but when we're taught about a particular issue, we are talking about it from the theology of the person who is teaching us, who has been taught by somebody else who is teaching us. So the first thing I want to say to people is, go to your texts, go to your texts, and read them for yourself. In the Hebrew and Christian texts, Moses gives people permission to get a divorce. In the Christian texts, we find in Matthew, the strongest example in Matthew 19, where Jesus says, well, you're only allowed to do that because you're hard hearted, and God really wants you to stay together. But then Jesus goes on and says, but marriage isn't for everybody. So those texts have places where we can find permission, I guess, is the word you used, to get divorced. But I go back again to both the rabbi's and in the Jesus tradition, who say that the law of God is wrapped up in, you shall love your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. And you should love your neighbor as yourself. That's all the interpretation of all of the laws, and the Hebrew or the Christian texts are to be filtered through that. And I ask the person who is being abused by a spouse, do you love your self so much that you know that God would never want that for you? Do you love yourself so much, that God would never want that for you? Because you must believe that about yourself, before you can give that grace to the neighbor who needs the divorce.
Steve Altishin 17:34
It sounds like sort of, like you said, translation after translation after translation, which my head went to the the old game of playing telephone where you'd whisper something and by the time it got around you, it was something completely different because everyone puts their own spin on it. And so people, I know, attribute a lot of things to the religious influence, or their theology, or their religion, but even that, and other factors go into shame, you know, factors that don't appear to be religion, or come out as religion, but really didn't start as religion.
Kimberly Brown 18:15
Right. Right. I think the most clear example of how tradition versus actual word of God is actually what filters through to us, it's the patriarchal societies, out of which, at least the three faiths that we call the People of the Book--Islam, Judaism, and Christianity--come out of a more patriarchal culture. The tribes of the Middle East, that the Jews and the Hebrews come from, were very patriarchal societies. We talked, for example, today, in our culture, we will say, marriage is between a man and a woman by many Christian traditions, that just comes out like that. It's like that. But if you go to one of the founding figures, Founding Fathers, you might say, of the of the Hebrew tradition from which Christianity and Islam come out of, we look at Jacob sometimes called Israel, and Jacob had 12 children by two wives and two concubines, we might call them in today's tradition. Nothing in the Genesis texts or in the early texts say that marriage must only be between one person and of one gender and one person of another gender. And in those same texts, where they do give permission for divorce--in Islam, divorce is much more permissive than it is in the Hebrew and in the Christian texts-- but when we go to the reasons why somebody might get divorced, it usually is that the man is allowed to ask for a divorce if his wife is unfaithful. But the wife isn't necessarily allowed to ask for divorce if the husband is unfaithful. I do not believe that God says the man is allowed to be unfaithful, and the woman is not. Except maybe God does, because in the Hebrew text that we have, Abraham had children by Sara, and his child was born of his wife's maid. And then Abraham decides after Isaac is born to kick the wife's maid out. and the child of his loins out, into the desert to die of starvation and thirst. But for God's intervention, that would have happened. I'm not thinking in our culture of today that that's something that we really want to promote as good loving relationships. So we have to be careful when we take these texts, and they're used to teach us a very, very thin, sometimes not extremely truthful, understanding of what the Scriptures and the text t ell us.
Steve Altishin 21:15
This really has gotten into our DNA as an American culture. It's not even necessarily now, like you say, related back to a particular religion, it's just a cultural thing. And like you said, patriarchal for sure. So, you know, we've been talking about shame, and how it comes up. I kind of want to circle back a little bit. This isn't just, you know, a small, small percentage of people who feel that way, is it? I mean, this is something that-- in your experience, let me know--is this more or less common just to feel shame about getting divorced?
Kimberly Brown 22:00
Oh, I think it is, I think it is very common to feel shame in divorce. I think because more and more people are not attending church, more and more people are not involved in a religious tradition, either in a temple or in a mosque. People are much more secular, and do not spend a whole lot of time reading scripture or being guided by a particular faith tradition. And yet, we know that from the very early times of Jesus, Jesus's crucifixion and then, within about 300 years, our western culture began to be influenced by the teachings and interpretations of the teachings of Jesus. So I would say that much of our law, much of our cultural 'what is right, and what is wrong', comes out of a particular way of understanding the Christian traditions in the West. And in the Middle East, the teachings of Muhammad and of God, who in the Arabic word God is Allah-- you will hear that, but it just means God-- so God in the Muslim world is taught in a certain way. There are texts that are not part of the the actual scriptures that we read, that are bound in leather book with red writing on some parts and all the rest of that that are used for understanding and the Christian tradition. You think of St. Augustine, most everybody, even if they're not people of a faith tradition, they know that St. Augustine was some kind of churchy guy, they might say, an early churchy guy. Out of the Hebrew traditions you have the Talmud which are understandings, rabbi's understandings of what the words mean. You have, I can't at the moment remember-- outside of the Quran, there's another text, kind of like the Talmud, which is the understandings of what they think the Prophet actually meant, the Prophet Muhammad actually meant, and so we have all of those external texts that at different times in the areas that we're talking about, church and state were one. The Puritans came to the United States because they wanted-- this is so funny to me because of some of our politics of today-- the Puritans came to the United States, specifically, because they did not want church and state to be together. They came out of England,--Henry the Eighth was, by the way, who founded the church of England because he wanted to divorce let's just remember that, or eight divorces or whatever it was--they didn't want the Church of England to be then the only church for the state of the United Kingdom and that area. They had a different understanding of what the Scriptures said. Because the Church of England, once the dominant tradition and it was united with the government, they had to flee first to the Netherlands, some of them, and then to the United States. And then their understanding of what good living --let's call it good living--what proper and good living is influenced the development of some of our culture, and our ways of being. And then fights about whether or not the Quakers, or the Puritans, or the Church of England, which we call the Episcopalians, or the Baptists started happening in different regions of the United States. And so that is how all of this stuff came into our understanding of who we are as a people of the citizens of the United States. When we say I'm a proud American, I'm a citizen of the United States, it involves traditions that we're not even aware of. We're not even aware that that's there inside of us, in our DNA. That, you know, we have to be these entrepreneurial, self starting, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, go conquer the West, young man, even though you need a lot of women along the way to help you. They're not included in that, but we have this ethos of who we are as citizens of the United States, that influences a lot of what we do in our culture, not just marriage and divorce. But you know, what it means to be successful, usually involves dollars rather than your happiness.
Steve Altishin 26:31
Yeah, that makes so much sense. We are almost out of time wow. But I just want to ask one last kind of thing, and what you might tell people. If you can't overcome this shame, or somehow understand it better, it;s got to make a tougher to go through the divorce and to really come out with, you know, the fair and just ending that a divorce should come out with.
Kimberly Brown 27:01
There's very little, I think, that that lawyers can do to help people overcome the shame other than to reinforce an understanding that no one is called to be harmed in the world by another. And that there are sometimes things in our own lives that make it hard for us to be the kind of spouse we might want to be. So if I struggle with mental illness, because of childhood trauma, I might not be able to be the spouse that I want to be to my spouse. All of that involves therapy and counseling. And I believe prayer helps and is necessary, I don't believe it is alone sufficient to help you. And so as lawyers, I think our job is to help people get to where they need to be, which is in a place where they can be their best selves. We need to have a huge amount of resources for therapists to refer people to. We need to make sure that the therapist we refer people to are trained, accredited, licensed. We need to have a huge resource of spiritual leaders who will help people who are struggling from their faith traditions, that we can send people to that they might be able to have conversations and learn about the areas of the sacred texts that so many people have in their faith traditions, where they might find the grace of the Divine, leading them towards, in many cases, a divorce being necessary. So that's what we need to do.
Steve Altishin 28:50
I don't mean to trivialize this, but it's like it takes a village to raise a person. It really kind of takes a village to get a good divorce and be happy afterward.
Kimberly Brown 29:04
It does, right. We do our clients a disservice if we don't have the tools and resources that they need for areas that we're not experts in. We are experts in the law, that is where we are.
Steve Altishin 29:16
That's exactly what we're here for also, I agree with you 100% Oh, my gosh, we have to stop. I hate them. We have to stop. This was great. Great insight, great understanding of where shame came from, how it fits into a divorce, and you know why it isn't necessary or good. So, Kimberly, thank you so much for being here. And thank you everyone else for joining us today. If anyone has any further questions on today's topic, you can post it here, or you can call and get connected with Kimberly. And other than that, I just want to say until next time, stay safe, stay happy, be well.