Rituals of Divorce

There are many rituals associated with marriage. Now experts say it's equally important to develop a divorce ritual after your divorce becomes final. This article, by a leading expert in the rites of life passages, can help you find the closure you need.

By Rev. Dr. Rebecca Armstrong
Updated: September 25, 2014
Divorce Recovery

The papers are signed, the weary trips to the lawyers are done, the house is sold, and you've unpacked your boxes in your new home. You've got a checkbook with only your name on it and a future that stretches out into the unknown possibilities of the rest of your life. But instead of relief or jubilation, you've got this uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach -- something is still not right, something is still unfinished.

Sound familiar? Whether you're one of those individuals who operate from the imaginal right brain or from the analytical left brain, you may benefit enormously from a Ritual of Divorce. As a minister and mediator I have worked with couples on their way in and out of marriage for more than 15 years. During that time, I have come to honor the power of ritual to transform feelings of hopelessness, stagnation, depression, and resistance to the inevitable into sensations of startling new hope. My long association with mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) has given me insights about the nature of ritual and the power of story to shape our lives.

What is ritual - and why does it work?

Rituals are often relegated to the scrap heap of outmoded ways of thinking and acting. Modern humans, it is asserted, shouldn't need ritual -- we can think our way into a better future. But the power of ritual is not some mysterious mumbo jumbo. Ritual owes its power to some simple truths about human nature. The first truth, as Blaise Pascal so rightly observed, is that "La coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point." The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.

Humans do not live by reason alone. The emotional sensibility operates under a different set of suppositions that are more tactile in nature than the cool abstraction of rationality. The emotions respond to sound, smell, rhythm, color, movement, taste, touch, music, drama, poetic language... We surely understood this on our way into the relationship through the "rituals of courtship," why doubt it is still true on the way out? Rituals that involve the senses are powerful because they speak directly to the part of us that needs to be healed, comforted, transformed -- the heart.

Symbols as the basis for ritual

A second observation about ritual comes from the great psychologist Carl Jung, who asserted: "The psychological mechanism for the transformation of energy is the symbol." And Joseph Campbell elaborated on that idea when he explained that the function of ritual was to give order to human life at the deepest levels. To grasp the significance of these remarks, we need to understand how important symbol is to ritual. A symbol can be any "thing" which connects the psyche directly to something else which has great value or importance to us. A stone, for instance, that we put into our pocket at the mountain peak may remind us of all that our mountaineering life meant in terms of courage, stamina, independence, freedom, and daring. That stone will carry far greater weight than its actual size may suggest. A small coin, worth only a few pence by the current exchange rate, may be considered priceless if it came from the hand of a dying comrade during battle as a final token of remembrance. The psyche uses this image of a particular object as a magnet to attract a whole complex of powerful emotions, memories, yearnings, assumptions, and values. When an object becomes laden with these "extras," it becomes a symbol. By manipulating the symbol, we can move the emotional complex. This is the meaning behind Jung's words.

Examples of symbols in ritual

The anthropologist Colin Turnbull recounts the story of a tribe of pygmies whose ritual for getting married involved the man and woman in the construction of their marital residence, a hut covered by huge, waxy leaves from their forest home. The intent to divorce was relayed when one member of the couple dismantled the home starting with the leaves. In another African society in Uganda, the marriage bed is supported by many small sticks that the couple has tied together to make them strong. If a woman needs out of the marriage, she takes the bundle of sticks apart and breaks them, one by one, over her knee. Not only are these rituals socially accepted methods of communicating the change of status, they are also symbolic and visceral reminders of the undoing of the relationship.

This is important to remember when we look at how to approach a divorce ritual for ourselves or for a friend. There are a growing number of books and websites which offer ideas for do-it-yourself rituals, but what will make a ritual "work" (yes, this is like rocket science, it either will fly or it won't!) is finding the right symbol, the one that will break through the emotional blockage and release the energy. It can be a real puzzle to deduce which symbol will work, but a good place to start is to look at what symbols were introduced in the making of the relationship, either intentionally or accidentally. It might be as obvious and solemn as the engagement ring, or it might be as unusual and poignant as the funny papers in the weekend Tribune!

"We had always cuddled up on Sunday mornings and read the paper together, sharing tidbits that we found interesting, outrageous, or amusing. After the breakup, I realized that the funny papers were no longer funny. In a sad ritual I burned them up and felt that my innocence was going with them. After I did the ritual, though, I felt cleansed and extremely sober, like all the silly fantasies of childhood were finally gone. For the first time, I felt that I caught a glimpse of who I was going to be as a real "grown-up," and it gave me tremendous hope for a better future."

If the funny papers are the symbolic glue holding the promise of eternal togetherness, then burning the funny papers is the right ritual for you!

Reverse marriage rituals

A divorced couple came to me when the wife had reached a state of near panic. Over the years of the marriage she had felt that she was slipping further and further away from any sense of self. As she described it, she was " disappearing." Leaving the marriage had not stopped her sense of invisibility. I queried them a bit more, but her anxiety did not seem to be making sense given the apparently normal life she was living. The ex-husband was bewildered, somewhat annoyed, but willing to help if he could. On a hunch, I asked them to describe their wedding ceremony. It had been a traditional Christian wedding that included the lighting of the Unity Candle. The couple was told to take the two candles and light the center one, then blow out the two tapers. The minister talked about how they were no longer the people they had been, now that they were married, how the Unity Candle represented their life as a re-light it and remember their vows.

"You blew out the candles that represented your lives as individuals?" I asked, to be sure I'd heard right.

"Yes," replied the husband. "And then we read something about how the two shall be as one, from the Bible, I think."

"Well, my friends," I announced. "I think we need to do a reverse ritual here."

The wedding ritual snuffed out the couple's separate selves along with words to the effect that 1 + 1 equals...one! No wonder there was a disappearing act! I opened my cupboard of ritual supplies and took out a tall white pillar candle and two tapers. Setting up an impromptu altar, I asked them to join me by the candles and I lit the center one.

"Let this be the Unity Candle that you lit long ago. Its flame burns bright because it draws upon the lives and wills of both of you. Without your individual selves, there is no marriage, no third candle without the first two. Therefore, I ask you to take your tapers and light them from this Unity Candle. Take the flame of your own spirits back. Set your light strong and straight in front of you and never let it be blown out."

After they had lit their own candles, I asked them if they wished to release the energy from the marriage and take back their hearts into their own keeping. When they both assented, I asked them to blow out the flame of the Unity Candle together. The effect was astonishing. The man began to weep while the woman immediately brightened up. The color came back to her cheeks and she breathed deeply and sighed. "Yes. That is what I needed. I have myself again."

These type of ritual works because it marks a return to the symbols that had held meaning for the marriage, and thus opens the doors back into that same energy field where a change could be initiated.

Spontaneous divorce rituals

Often the best rituals are those that are spontaneous, that come from a place that feels instinctual -- you just know that it feels "right."

One month before meeting her husband-to-be, B. had prayed in front of a larger-than-life statue of Kuan Yin that seemed to have a numinous power. "I made my prayer to find a husband. When I met my husband, who was from the Far East, I naturally attributed some magical power to that prayer before the statue."

After five difficult and unhappy years of marriage, and just prior to receiving the finalized divorce papers, B. was desperate to feel free of the relationship. The problem was that whenever she tried to remove her wedding ring, she would experience a physical tremor and nausea that made it impossible to go through with the plan. As she was leaving her apartment one afternoon her gaze fell upon a small, jade statue of the goddess Kuan Yin that sat on a shelf with other objets d'art and she suddenly felt the same power emanating from it that she had felt in front of the large statue. "I knew, in a flash of inspiration, that this statue had sufficient power to be able to 'hold the ring' that I had been unable to relinquish. I immediately removed the ring and placed it underneath the statue and a huge wave of relief rushed over me." The ring remained under the statue for a full year, at which time B. had to move out of the apartment. When she lifted the statue and picked up the ring, she realized it had lost most of its power over her. She returned it to the jewelry store where it had been purchased and had it re-set with a different stone.

In this example, the heart seized upon the chance to re-assert its optimism by placing the symbol of defeat under the feet of the statue of hope. However crazy something seems, honoring one's intuitive impulses around ritual usually leads to a successful outcome. After all, your deep heart knows what symbols will work and will try to get your attention in any way it can. The heart seeks healing and wholeness.

Divorce as a rite of passage

Divorce is no longer a failure. It is a rite of passage. It belongs to the class of challenges that come with age and experience and, if handled properly, will lead the initiate into a greater humanity, deeper humility, and higher moral ground. Well known scholar and author James Fowler (The Stages of Faith) alludes to a challenge of this stature as "the sacrament of defeat," a necessary passage for faith on higher ground. Rabbi Perri Netter, who went through his own divorce with this attitude of spiritual questing, reminds us that the ancient Jewish sage, Rashi, called divorce "a Mitzvah," that is, a sacred action. To make a ritual around something is to bring it into the light of holiness. It is a redemptive move.

A ritual of divorce honors the deep self; it salutes the soul and its suffering. By being both subject of and witness to the pain, it becomes possible to redeem it and turn it into wisdom, into a sacrament. Entering fully and honestly into your own pain awakens the heart of compassion, making it possible to freely forgive your former partner and move on. As the wise old woman Helen Luke so beautifully expressed it:

"Divorce doesn't always mean that a marriage has been a failure... A conscious acknowledgement of failures and unshaken devotion to the love that sets free can turn a divorce into a thing of positive beauty; an experience through which a man or a woman may bring, out of the suffering, a purer love for all future meetings. The divorce is then a sacrificial, not a destructive act, and the original marriage may remain, in the deepest sense, procreative to the end of life." (from The Way of Woman, by Helen M. Luke) 


Rev. Dr. Rebecca Armstrong is a minister and mediator in private practice in Chicago specializing in Human Rites for Life Passages. For 12 years she worked for the Joseph Campbell Foundation, traveling around the world leading seminars in the myth and ritual. She has graduate degrees in religion from the University of Chicago and the Unitarian seminary and holds a mediation certificate from Northwestern University. For more information and resources, visit her website, www.2AGREE.net. For more articles about divorce and healing, go to Divorce Recovery

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