Divorce Ritual

  1. Marking the Divorce Transition With Ritual
  2. Lack of Social Context for Divorce
  3. The Legal Divorce Ritual
  4. New Divorce Ritual – Mediation
  5. Religious Divorce Rituals
  6. Beyond the Legal Process
  7. Reasons for Divorce Ritual

Marking the Divorce Transition With Ritual

Divorce is major life transition though, as yet, one without a ritual to mark and support the passage and to orient the community to the family’s transition. The legal process is the only current social context for this important and personal transition. We need to create a more sensitive and accepting social understanding of the family in transition. Ritual can help us do so.

Simple and thoughtful rituals, private as well as more public, can assist the individual and the couple:
-to grieve the end of the marriage;
-to acknowledge the change in their social position;
-to acknowledge the transition for the family, immediate and extended;
-to enter a new chapter of life.

Personal, family and community rituals can focus on cleansing and healing, communication and connections, reconfiguration and renewal, and can bring closure to the separation process.

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Lack of Social Context for Divorce

Social relationships and social status change dramatically for both members of the divorcing couple and their children, their families and their friends. Divorce is an unrecognized, unmarked rite of passage, one that challenges the social order and threatens chaos. Outside of the legal process, there is no social context for the divorce, meaning a way of understanding divorce and its impact on social relationships. What were once valued family connections—mother-in-law, brother-in-law, aunts, uncles and cousins by marriage—are now severed, or are they? Who are you to me now? What does this divorce transition mean to our relationship? These uncertain relationships are proliferating as divorce becomes more commonplace. We, as a society, can utilize ritual to redefine these social relationships and to create a social context for understanding and facilitating, if not celebrating, the divorce transition.

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To the extent that we have a divorce “ritual” in our culture it looks something like this. After too many years of marriage, struggling to be heard, to be held, to be loved, one decides it is over. He tells her simply, “I want a divorce.” And there it begins. She is stunned and afraid. She makes frantic calls for advice and receives it from one and all, “Don’t trust him.” “Take care of yourself.” “Protect yourself.” “Don’t be stupid.” “Make him pay.” “I always knew he was no good.” “Get a good lawyer.” And she listens. She searches and finds a “good lawyer” who assures her that he will take care of everything. He advises her to collect documents, to keep a journal of events, not to talk to her soon to be ex, and perhaps to empty the bank accounts. Now he is stunned and receives similar advice. He also finds a “good lawyer” who advises him to separate his income, to cancel the credit cards, not to talk to his soon to be ex, and to keep records of all transactions. The lawyers begin the formal ritual by filing papers with the court setting forth their clients’ claims. The context of the relationship is now the legal world of attorney conference rooms and the courthouse. Each is supported by certain friends and ostracized by others. Life is uncertain. This ritual is expensive and destructive. Each effort to vindicate oneself is met with greater emotional turmoil and damage. Each feels powerless and angry leading to more aggressive behavior which only increases the sense of powerlessness and hostility. The process looms. Time drags by. Is there any end to the conflict, hurt and expense? Eventually resolutions are made, not satisfactory to either but the beginning of the end. Finally the day arrives when in the morning mail each finds the Judgment of Dissolution filed by the court. “This is it?” they each ask themselves. And it is.

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New Divorce Ritual – Mediation

Perhaps it is time to lose our warrior divorce ritual in favor of a more healing and transformative ritual. After too many years of marriage, struggling to be heard, to be held, to be loved, one decides it is over. He tells her simply, “I want a divorce.” And there it begins. She is also stunned and afraid. She reaches out for support and advice and her friends do not let her down. They encourage her to take time for herself to digest this transition in her life, to take care of her health and her family as they approach this life crisis together, to seek communication with her spouse to help them both move forward and to resolve the many issues that confront them both. She does all of this and takes her time. She educates herself about the process and learns of an alternative to adversarial divorce called mediation. She discusses it with her spouse and they agree to try it. They meet together with a “good mediator” who takes time to explain the process to them and encourages them each to be gentle with themselves and each other in the process. The mediator provides a structure and a space that allows them to do the work of the financial separation and legal divorce with support about moving forward with their respective lives and assisting their children through the transition. Papers are filed with the court setting forth their agreements which have been negotiated and address each of their most important concerns. They have a final meeting with the mediator who invites them to discuss their future relationship and their relationships with other members of the family and their social circle to construct a vision for these reformulated roles and relationships. They each have the opportunity to say good-bye to the other and to the marriage. They express appreciation for the work they have completed in making a healthy divorce transition and are ready to reenter the world with a new vision for the future. Even within the context of the legal process, we can recreate the divorce ritual to call upon our better instincts for compassion, connection and healing.

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Religious Divorce Rituals

Certain religious traditions have longstanding divorce rites or rituals.
In Judaism, a divorcing couple obtains a “get”, which formally ends the marital union. It is a process under the Jewish law in which a rabbi presides and drafts the operative document. Both parties acknowledge the process and the husband authorizes the writing of the document which is then written by the scribe and signed. The signed document is presented to the wife and once she accepts it the divorce takes effect and is final. The rabbi retains the original document and issues a certificate of proof to both parties. The parties are each then free to remarry.

In Islamic countries, Muslims abide by both the secular and religious laws, but consider the procedures under Islamic law as the more significant or real rite. The Islamic divorce process begins with the husband saying that he is divorcing his wife. He should do so at a time when she can begin her waiting period, meaning that she is not menstruating and is not in a cleanliness period during which the couple has had intercourse. The waiting period lasts until she has completed three menstruation periods, three cleanliness periods or has given birth. During the waiting period, she stays in the marital home but uses a separate bedroom. All her expenses are borne by her divorcing husband. The divorce is complete when the waiting period is over and the divorce takes full effect. The woman leaves and goes back to her family. The purpose is not only to establish whether the woman is pregnant or not, but also allows the couple to reconsider their situation.

In Catholicism, marriage is considered an indissoluble bond and divorce is not allowed or recognized. However, there is a process of annulment whereby the couple can seek to have the marriage annulled by demonstrating that the elements of a sacramental marriage were not present at the time of the marriage. The couple prepares an application setting forth the factors for the absence of the required elements usually focusing on the ability to consent to the marriage. The application is reviewed and evaluated by a tribunal of canon lawyers. If the annulment is granted, the couple is free to remarry in the Church. Otherwise, the marriage remains in effect even though it may be terminated under the civil law.

Each of these rituals is more legalistic than religious but operates under the religious law and effectuates an end of the marriage, returning the couple to the status of unmarried individuals. The secular rituals have also followed the legal process and been fairly limited to the legal context.

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Beyond the Legal Process

A more in depth view of marriage and divorce may yield a more meaningful ritual. First, our current cultural understanding of divorce is an outgrowth of our beliefs about marriage. Despite the 50% divorce rate, as a society, we continue to romanticize marriage and to regard divorce as a personal failure. Challenging this understanding, Jungian author, Helen Luke, writes as follows:

“Divorce doesn’t always mean that a marriage has been a failure. There are some marriages in which both partners have been true to their vows and have grown through the years into a more adult love. Yet a time may come when unlived parts of their personalities are striving to become conscious. The situation may arise in which it becomes obvious that if they remain together, these two who basically love each other and will always love each other may fall into sterility and bitterness, if they do not have the courage to accept the suffering of parting.”  Luke, Helen “The Way of Woman”

Rev. Rebecca Armstrong has written compellingly about the need for divorce ritual and the benefits of creating a spiritual and social context for the divorce.

“We believe that divorce is a powerful opportunity for two people to transform suffering into wisdom, to come to an understanding of their own gifts and limitations in a way that may have eluded them during the marriage. Divorce, like death, is an ending of a visible form….To deal gracefully with this finality calls forth a maturity which is particularly difficult for Americans today. It also leads to a kind of compassionate wisdom which is a herald of ‘elderhood’ in its true meaning. Divorce gives us a chance to outgrow the bickering and rivalry of our ‘sibling society’—the never ending desire to be vindicated, to be right, to be better than, to win. It invokes a kind of humility which binds us back to our deepest creaturehood, and reminds us of our fragility, and paradoxically, ennobles us in the process.” Armstrong, Rebecca “Divorce as a Rite of Passage”

A more compassionate and accepting view of divorce challenges the social structure as we hold onto the view of marriage as a lifelong commitment and divorce as an anomaly. As Van Gennep has argued,

“[R]ites of passage serve to order chaotic social changes that could threaten to disturb society…Rituals are the means for changing and reconstituting groups in an orderly and sanctioned manner that maintains the integrity of the system.” Bell, Catherine, “Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions,” Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 37.

Ritual has come to be recognized not simply as a reflection of the existing structure of social relationships but as a “major means of working and reworking those social relationships.” (Bell, p. 39)
For a culture so rich in ritual, we have sadly failed to come to terms with the phenomenon of divorce in our society. Rituals address many life crises, critical moments when individuals move from one status to another.

“[L]ife crisis rites display a three-stage sequence: separation, transition, and incorporation. Through this sequence of activities, rituals effect the person’s removal from one social grouping, dramatize the change by holding the person in a suspended “betwixt and between” state for a period of time, and then reincorporate him or her into a new identity and status within another social grouping.” Bell, p. 36

Victor Turner extended the analysis of structural conflict in social life and “argued that many forms of ritual serve as ‘social dramas’ through which the stresses and tensions built into the social structure could be expressed and worked out.” (Bell, p.39)

Turner analyzed these social dramas in terms of “four main stages: a breach in normal relationships, followed by an escalating sense of crisis, which calls for redressive action, and eventually culminates in activities of reintegration of the alienated or social recognition of their status.” (Bell, p. 39-40)

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Reasons for Divorce Ritual

Meaningful divorce ritual will challenge the existing social construct of divorce as anomalous and as a personal failure. Tracking with the four stages of the social drama outlined by Turner, the ritual would acknowledge the breach in the marriage relationship, the crisis of separation, the need for redress, resolution of the economic and family issues of the couple, and reintegration of the two individuals and their families back into the social network with an acknowledgement of the change in status. Divorcing couples certainly experience the three stages of transition identified by Van Gennep, separation from the community, often ostracized by family and friends at a time when they most need social support and contact. Then the “betwixt and between” state that endures throughout the course of the divorce process which can go on for months and even years, during which the financial, social and emotional status is highly uncertain. Finally, the divorce is completed but remains unrecognized, unacknowledged except potentially by a small support group. The community does not receive any information or guidance on how to absorb the transition and how to treat the individuals and the family members. In some ways the betwixt and between stage continues indefinitely as the couple struggles to redefine themselves without the recognition of the larger community.

Simple community rituals can assist in the transition, the healing and the renewal of the divorcing family. Rituals may be communal ceremonies or private rites. It may be a simple as writing a letter to family and friends notifying them of the divorce and subtly suggesting how they might respond to the individuals and family members, such as, “We both value your friendship and welcome the opportunity to remain connected with you.” A family ceremony may be helpful to allow family members to create new understandings of their relationships rather than simply feeling that they are left hanging, severed. Even a simple ritual for the immediate family to release the couple to move forward and to reaffirm the parents’ love and commitment to the children could be very powerful.

Creation of ritual for this important social and family transition can bring healing and understanding at a difficult time.

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