As women who were once little girls, I imagine we had hopes and dreams of what our “grown-up” life would look like. However, the life I imagined looked very different in reality. If you had told me I would be divorced and going through an annulment by the time I was 30, I would not have believed you.
From my own experience and ministry in working with divorced Catholics, I heard false narratives from many Catholics (and non-Catholics) that they believed to be true about divorce and annulment:
An annulment means your children are illegitimate in the eyes of the Church.
Getting a divorce means you are a bad Catholic and that God is disappointed in you.
An annulment is just “Catholic divorce.”
I will be judged or treated differently for getting a divorce.
If I get a divorce, I won’t have a place in the Church anymore.
As a woman who went through a divorce and an annulment, I have wrestled with some of these narratives in my own life. I’ve also heard similar perspectives from many divorced Catholics over the years through working in parish ministry, becoming trained to do annulments in my diocese, and writing.
I used to wonder, “Why would God allow me to go through such a difficult experience? Would that be my only experience of marriage – ever? Would I find what I desired and was looking for in a life partner someday?”
The beautiful thing about pain and suffering is that they offer us two options: We can become bitter and resentful – or we can grow, thrive, and experience healing.
In my experience, an annulment is an invitation into deeper healing. But before we dive into that, let’s look more at what an annulment actually is.
What Is an Annulment and What Does It Mean?
A divorce is a civil, judicial act that ends a legal marriage in the eyes of the state. When someone is married in the Catholic Church, they are becoming married both legally and sacramentally. Catholics believe that sacramental marriage is designed by God to imitate the unbreakable bond of love that He has with His people, the Church. This is why Catholics believe that sacramental marriage is an unbreakable vow, “til death do us part,” and why some people say that “Catholics don’t believe in divorce.”
While a divorce ends a legal marriage, an annulment has a different role for a sacramental marriage. An annulment is a decision saying that what was believed to be a valid sacramental, Catholic marriage is declared by the Church to have never been a marriage in the first place.
What it boils down to is this: On the couple’s wedding day, it looked like a marriage took place and it appeared that both people had proper intent and will to live the marriage vows until death. What is required for a valid, sacramental marriage is the full knowledge and consent of both individuals for the vows they make. However, after a thorough investigation, the annulment process can find reasons or circumstances that impact the full, free consent of one or both people. These things include undiagnosed mental illness, coercion, or addictive behaviors that existed long before the wedding day.
In these cases, the Church would say that a marriage never actually happened (even if a couple had the best of intentions and thought they were doing the right thing!). Therefore, the marriage is considered null.
Receiving an annulment opens up the possibility for someone previously married in the Catholic Church to again pursue a sacramental wedding. Sometimes non-Catholics also go through the annulment process to become a Catholic or to marry a Catholic person.
How to Get an Annulment in the Catholic Church
The annulment process is the same in all dioceses across the world. Start by going to your parish and reaching out to a priest, deacon, or trained lay person. Tell them you would like to begin the annulment process. It begins with answering an in-depth questionnaire about everything from your background, childhood, personal emotional issues, the marriage relationship during dating and courtship, and what happened to break down the marriage. As an objective body studying a case, the marriage tribunal wants a detailed look into the marriage so they can better understand it.
After you fill out the questionnaire, you need to provide several witnesses (typically 3 to 5) who have a long personal history with you, and who knew you and your spouse leading up to and during the marriage. These witnesses corroborate your story and experience while shedding more light onto your marriage. They also send in their own responses to a set of questions.
Both parties in a marriage are not required to get their own separate annulment, only one. Typically, one of the two wants the process to begin, and that is the case that will get finalized.
The length of the annulment process varies between dioceses, with a larger diocese usually taking longer. My diocese tells people to expect 12 to 14 months from the time a case is accepted (when the time clock begins) to receiving a decision. My own annulment took 11 months, but I have a friend who lives in my diocese and her case took 6 months. What delays an annulment case the most is the witnesses taking forever to send in their testimony. Choose your witnesses well and help them understand how important it is to submit their testimony in a timely fashion.
A common fear is what will happen if an annulment does not go through. Yes, that is a possibility. However, the vast majority of cases do go through. I have asked this question of several priests I know who work locally in our diocesan tribunal. The United States has the highest rates of annulments in the global Church and about 80% of them go through. If an annulment did not go through, you would still be sacramentally married in the eyes of the Church.
An Annulment is Ultimately about Healing
I have spoken with a lot of divorced people over the years, and this process can feel invasive and even a bit insensitive. Perhaps you are left wondering, “Geez Patty, why the heck would anyone go through such a process?” I won’t minimize that it sounds like a lot to go through for the blessing of being married again in the Catholic Church. However, I would invite you to think about how digging deep like this is healing, because we can’t move forward until we face and acknowledge what has happened.
What I find to be the most healing part of the annulment process is answering the questionnaire on an individual basis because you have to take responsibility for your own baggage, issues, etc. You cannot heal from pain unless you see where you need to learn and grow. This process allows you to see your life, relationship, and marriage with a clearer perspective.
The summer before I decided to leave my marriage, I met with a wise priest at our local seminary and he said to me, “Patty, God hates divorce [the fact that it has to exist in the world], but He does not hate divorced people.”
As I went through my own annulment, I started to believe that this process exists in the Church out of the great mercy of Jesus.
Why? Because whenever one of His children is suffering, that matters deeply to the heart of God. The annulment process is a way through which Jesus wants to bind up the wounds of divorced people. It is not just a set of logistical hoops to jump through – it is an avenue of personal healing, with the grace and friendship of Jesus accompanying you every step of the way.
For Women Like Me, Divorce Doesn’t Define Us
If this is you, or someone you love, I am here to tell you that taking the time to heal is worth it. You are always worth it. It might feel difficult – even painful at times – but the grace of God will go with you.
You are not defined by the fact your marriage did not last. And yes, you 100% still have a place in the Catholic Church. We need you, just like we need every other person. Your experience and your story matter. Our Church needs you because your perspective needs to be spoken, cared for, and understood.
You are not bad. God does not think any less of you. Do not burden your heart with shame. Nurture your heart and speak kindly to yourself. Do the messy, hard healing work with Jesus. I promise He won’t let you down. The annulment process is a sign of God’s compassion, meeting you right in the messy middle of what you are facing.
You are not walking alone through this – you never have and you never will. I am cheering you on.
Editor’s Note: We know that the topic of divorce can be especially hard for adult children of divorce. We believe that both children of divorce and divorced Catholics deserve compassion, healing, and a listening ear. If you’re an adult child of divorce, we encourage you to check out our articles on healing or to visit Life Giving Wounds, a Catholic ministry for adult children of divorce.