In North America, we have formal cultural rituals for almost every life transition: funerals, memorial services, and wakes around death; baptism or baby naming, showers, and brisses for the birth of a child; wedding services and receptions to celebrate marriage; Bar or Bat Mitzvahs to signify the transition from childhood to adulthood; even housewarming parties to celebrate a new home. But very seldom is the painful spiritual process of divorce given any attention or support through the use of ritual.
Most religious groups and clergy have moved past the condemning attitudes towards divorce that were present a few decades ago. Religious leaders and their congregations have been at the forefront of helping families and individuals cope with the changes associated with divorce. The United Methodist church and some others have even written divorce services for pastors and couples to follow, but such negativity and shame surrounds divorce that few couples ask for the service to be performed — and even fewer pastors suggest it.
The Alternate Rituals Project of the Section on Worship of the Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church reached the conclusion that local churches need to consider developing rituals for use in circumstances where divorce among its members has taken or is taking place. Because the church plays a significant part in the initiation of a human relationship, so, too, it ought to play a significant part in the termination of it. The decision to break a marriage covenant is fully as overwhelming and decisive as is the decision to enter into it, and all the resources of the church and the Christian community need to be offered both to the couple and to the community that must face its own grief over a marriage that has died.
In the same document, the writer goes on to say, “Suggesting that the church play a role, through its worship life, in the ending of a marriage will surely be a controversial issue. However, if such actions occur within the context of pastoral care for the individuals involved, with an understanding of the meaning of worship and liturgy, and alongside a strong affirmation of the significance of the covenant of marriage, it would appear the church cannot hesitate to give special attention to this event in the lives of an increasing number of Christians.”
John Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian Bishop (Diocese of Newark, NJ), has also reached the conclusion that “the church must reach out to her hurting people with a faith that embraces the past in forgiveness and opens the future in hope.” His book Living in Sin?: A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (HarperCollins) contains a chapter called “Should the Church Bless Divorce?” in which he describes “A Service for the Recognition of the End of a Marriage.” After processing his thoughts and feelings about this proposed ceremony, he came to the conclusion that: “Such a service is needed by the church as a pastoral tool, to be used in appropriate situations to bring the grace, love, and forgiveness of God to a common human experience of brokenness and pain.” He is convinced that no divorced couple could walk through this service “without knowing that in the searing pain of human brokenness there is redemption, forgiveness, hope, and the opportunity to seek new fulfillment along a new path.”
The Reverend Canon David Luxton, of St. George’s on-the-Hill Anglican Church in Islington, ON recently performed this service for two of his parishioners. “I was really glad I did it,” he says. “The couple felt they needed a ritual to end their marriage — and since it began in the church, it should also end in the church. It was wonderful to be able to provide a healing service for them — rather than having only a civil statement to mark the end of their marriage.”
At the end of the ceremony, Canon Luxton and the couple’s friends, family, and teenaged daughter spoke these healing words to them: “We affirm you in the new covenant you have made: one that finds you separated but still caring for one another and wishing each other good will; one that enables you to support and love your child; one that helps you ease the pain you feel… On behalf of the church which blessed your marriage, we now recognize the end of that marriage. We affirm you as single persons among us, and we pledge you our support as you continue to seek God’s help and guidance for the new life you have undertaken in faith.”
In orthodox Judaism, as described by Adin Steinsaltz in his book, The Essential Talmud, the “divorce occurs when the husband gives a get to his wife. Get is … basically a simple written note. After recording the date and place, it contains a declaration that a certain man hereby divorces his wife, who is now permitted to remarry.”
Paul and Joan recently went through the experience in a rabbinical court. “Our divorce was amicable,” he says, “so we were able to focus on the symbolism of the ceremony. The three rabbis who performed the ceremony were very sensitive to our feelings; one of them spoke to each of us individually to help us see the experience as a new beginning.” He says they both felt a lot of sadness during the ceremony — the journey that they had begun in love and hope had ended in divorce.
“In the Jewish faith, we ceremonialize everything,” Paul adds. “Giving the get to Joan really helped us to achieve closure: here’s the ceremony; our marriage has ended; we’re starting over.” In our society, unless both parties have the courage to ask a clergy person for some kind of ceremony, there is little opportunity for formal or spiritual closure after divorce. Someone is bitter, someone is hurt and angry, someone may even be in alcohol treatment or jail — emotionally and/or physically unavailable. Therefore, although it would be ideal to have both parties present for the divorce ritual, this expectation is usually unrealistic. Except in rare cases — for instance, when the couple has used mediation successfully and the divorce ritual itself was negotiated during mediation — then a ritual (ideally including the children of the marriage if there are any) is possible.
Another reason for ritual is the shattering of identity caused by the divorce. In Portrait of Divorce (Guilford Press, 1992), Gay C. Kitson and William Holmes write “… marriage is an important part of a person’s social identity and is seen as a sign of maturity, normality, and success.” Divorce then is seen as a failure of a person’s social reality. “More importantly, in this most intimate of relationships, the person has been found wanting, undesirable, and unacceptable. No matter how successful or how respected a man or woman is in the wider community, the person who supposedly knows him or her best has thought, looked, considered, and concluded, ‘I can’t take it anymore’.”
Grieving and closure
You can start your grieving process by removing any photographs that may be in albums or on walls in a very gentle, intentional putting-away ceremony. This is done by looking deeply at each picture, allowing for the feelings to surface, and then putting the photograph in a box; when the box is full, it is taped shut and put away. At a later date, you may choose to throw away or burn the entire collection if there were no children of the marriage. If you do have children, however, you should give the box to them at some point. The photographs document a very important part of your history and are especially important to children of the union as they move into adulthood.
Ideally, this part of the grieving process will be supported by one or more professionals — spiritual or psychological counselors who deal specifically in divorce or breakup — or by a caring friend.
If you have older children, consider melting down the rings into a meaningful symbol to give them as a gift and a reminder of the love that created them.
Shelly was 36 years old, the mother of two young children and divorced approximately two years when she asked, “What do I do with our wedding album and the wedding rings: do I throw the album out, sell the rings?” I instructed her to bring the wedding album and the rings to our next session, as well as some fabric and ribbon. The following week she brought not only her photos and rings, but also a tape of the music that was played as she walked down the aisle of the synagogue where the marriage took place 12 years ago. We put the tape in the tape player while we looked over each wedding picture slowly and carefully. I encouraged her to describe and express her feelings as she stared into the faces of friends and family, bride and groom. We then wrapped the album and the tape in velvet and tied the package closed with a satin bow, to be kept for her children.
She took her solitaire engagement ring and golden wedding band from a small black pouch saying, “It hurts to even look at these now.” I suggested she could change the meaning attached to the rings by seeing them as symbolic of the union that created her two remarkable children. We then talked about transforming the rings into two meaningful pieces of jewelry. After meditating on the idea, she decided to make a Star of David tie-tack for her son’s Bar Mitzvah and to reset the diamond into a pendant for her daughter’s coming of age. I also thought it would be appropriate to let the children know the origin of the jewelry — that the pieces are representative of the love that gave them life. Shelly shed many tears during this session; however, with the ritual complete, she finally felt a sense of closure.
The author of Ending Marriage, Keeping Faith: A New Guide Through the Spiritual Journey of Divorce (Crossroad, 1991), J. Randall Nichols suggests that, “…there certainly is a lot of wilderness, pain, and confusion round about people caught in divorce.” But perhaps it need not be seen as having “fallen off the edge of the spiritual earth,” and instead the beginning of a spiritual journey.
“And could we possibly talk about the religious aspects of it — all those broken vows, for instance — in the same way, as some form of spiritual journey?” asks Nichols. “Divorce is not falling off the path of life; it is taking a different one.”
Creating your own divorce ritual
If your place of worship or religious organization doesn’t offer or support divorce ceremonies, you can create one of your own. Here are some suggestions for structuring your own ritual:
- You and your ex-spouse could each take the time to write down what you honor about your years together, and then read these things to each other. You could give back your wedding rings to each other at the conclusion of the readings. After this ceremony, you would each leave with your respective friends and family to gather somewhere private (like people do after a funeral or wake) where grieving would be supported.
- Follow or adapt a ritual such as the one offered in Marianne Williamson’s Illuminata: Thoughts, Prayer, Rites of Passage (Random House, 1994). In her chapter on divorce, Williamson advises that you ask your spiritual counselor or therapist to act as “officiator ” for your divorce ceremony, and details prayers of forgiveness and release. For instance, she suggests that each spouse say to the other in turn: “I bless you and release you. Please forgive me; I forgive you. Go in peace. You will remain in my heart.”
- Any jewelry you may have received as a symbol of the love relationship can be cleared of negative energy and charged with a positive one. The jewelry can be soaked overnight in a solution of sea salt and spring water, both of which can be bought at the grocery store. If you have any question as to the effect the sea salt solution may have on your jewelry, check with your jeweler. If you are told the solution may be harmful to your piece, you may simply use sunlight to charge it with positive energy.
- If you don’t have children, have a jeweler add a gem to the wedding ring to represent your new life. Another way of looking at it is that you are putting yourself (the gem) into a “new setting.”
- Pay attention to what you’ve been holding on to that reminds you of your ex: photos, clothes, furniture, books, and linens. Take some action to change the hold these objects have on you by giving them away, destroying them, or by packing them in boxes and putting them in storage.
Witness any resistance you may have to doing the above suggested rituals. If you notice significant resistance, you may not be ready to let go at this point. Forgive yourself and come back to it another time. If you experience mild resistance, continue to do the rituals anyway — you may be surprised at the relief you feel.
Pamela D. Blair is a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor in Hawthorne, NY. While on the faculty at Wainwright House in Rye, NY, she coordinated the Institute for Spiritual Development and developed their pioneering divorce healing programs. For the last 13 years, she has been happily and creatively married “for the first time” to her third husband. Pamela is presently a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Holistic Theology.