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About rituals and divorce

by Bernard Weiner


Before discussing specific divorce rituals, let me try to lay out the foundation for ritual ceremony and why it is so important in our lives.

Something in us knows the deep need for ritual, which is why when we arrive at key intersections where we decide to go one way and not the other, or when reality forces us to confront some monumental truth, we call upon formal ritual ceremonies to acknowledge the importance of the event. These ritualize d rites-of-passage subconsciously tell us that we're no longer just a single individual confronting a major moment but part of historical, maybe even metaphysical, continuity. In this way, we confront the aweful (and sometimes awful) mysteries.

Most of us participate in these ritual ceremonies through institutions, usually through the church or through the state, both of which are acutely aware of the social need for ritual ceremony, especially revolving around births, initiations, graduations, marriages, deaths, etc. These institutional ritual ceremonies are often highly meaningful and comforting, but may not provide all that we need -- emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. Another way of saying this is that these institutional ceremonies may be necessary but they may not be sufficient.

In the 21st Century, the power of the state and church to connect us to the deepest aspects of ourselves may be somewhat diminished for a large number of people. Maybe it's the language of the ceremonies, or the way the rituals tend to be so generically presented; maybe it's the form, maybe it's the content -- whatever, many people are finding that new kinds of ceremonies and rituals, created out of their own peculiar circumstances and needs, are providing more than can be offered by the traditional institutions alone.

For example, in addition to, say, a bar mitzvah or confirmation, parents are developing their own initiation ceremonies for their sons and daughters. Instead of simply accepting the state's legal documents acknowledging a divorce, oftentimes women and men are ceremonially acknowledging that all-important break in different, more personal ways.

In many countries, one out of two marriages ends in divorce, and yet institutions provide little in the way of emotional and spiritual closure. Divorce is regarded as a legal severing, and once the judge signs the decree, the two parties are left more or less to their own devices in picking up the pieces and moving on. The result, in too many cases, is emotional devastation and spiritual "lostness."

I should say here that I have no personal experience with divorce -- I've been happily married for nearly 25 years -- but I've witnessed several close friends as they've gone through marital dissolution. The wrenching process wasn't pretty to watch; neither was it comforting to see how often divorce is treated as a dirty little chapter that the parties should simply move through and forget.

Something must be done to ease the suffering, and my work in other ritual areas has led me to consider what might be done here. It seems so obvious that divorce is the perfect example of a key passage in a person's life that cries out for ritual closure. Without it, divorce and the wounds received from it can fester for years, leading to all sorts of negative emotional (and even physical) consequences.

Here are a few options for dealing with this major episode:

1. A blessing way. If the splitting parties are divorcing rather amicably, there can be a ceremony, perhaps even officiated by their open-minded minister or rabbi, where each of them is ritually blessed as they leave this relationship and head out into their new life. Again, if things are relatively amicable, each partner might also write a blessing for their ex-spouse, wishing him or her well. I can imagine a large candle that is blown out by both together, then each lights a separate candle as the blessing is spoken. Friends can deliver their comments. If there were children from this marriage, they should be present, observing how divorce doesn't have to be considered a mysterious, negative "end of the world," but an openly-acknowedged wound that can lead to positive developments for their parents -- and, by extension, for them as well.

2. If the divorce is not a reasonably friendly one, and neither partner wants to be in the same room with the other, their friends and families might organize a separate divorce ceremony for each of them, where the ritual blessing might be given, and where their guests can speak to them from the heart wishing them well and perhaps offering advice as they prepare to head off into their new life. Perhaps each member of the witnessing audience can light a candle for the divorced man or woman, symbolizing the supporting network that will aid him or her in the new life. If there are children from this marriage, old enough to comprehend what is taking place, perhaps they should be present, as witnesses to the closure and the positive developments that may come from moving-on.

3. In any kind of divorce, especially extremely painful ones, each spouse needs to make as clean a break as possible. A ceremony might be devised where photos and other momentos of the relationship might be brought out and displayed on a ritual table. If the divorced person is strong enough to keep a photo and such, for nostalgia's sake -- after all, despite the negatives in their former spouse, there were positive aspects as well, which led them to fall in love with their partner in the first place -- there might be a ceremony devised that would "cleanse" the objects of any negative qualities, and then they could be placed in a ceremonial box or for storage. If the divorced person's anger can not handle that sort of ritual, one might be devised where the photos and momentos are ceremonially burned or smashed, bringing to a final symbolic end the relationship and its pain. Perhaps young children should not be at this kind of ritual.

Well, these are just a few ideas. No doubt, you have heard of many others, or could devise more creative ones.

Final thoughts:
* Rituals work best, and most powerfully, when they permit the participants and the witnesses to feel they've reached the stage of transformation as a result of the ritual ceremony, and moved on to a new, different level. Rituals devoid of this transformative element do not contain the same amount of emotional and spiritual power. So, as you concoct your divorce ceremony, make sure the ritual contains the elements of ceremonial transformation -- in other word, just burning someone's photo does nothing except relieve anger; it does not lead to the next step of healthy transformation unless the ritual ceremony includes steps taken in that direction.
* I think you'll find that when you perform any ritual ceremonies at the key passages in your life and in passages of those persons close to you, everyone who participates is enriched -- not only in the energized fun of creating and doing the rituals together as a community of caring, but in the feeling that something deep in yourself has touched something deep in the culture. And then you can move on with more strength, self-assurance, and mindfulness.
* Finally, one last thing: There are potential dangers in the development and creation of ritual ceremony. Ritual ceremony involves volatile archetypal and emotional material, and great care must be exercised when dealing with these forces in order to ensure a positive, enhancing experience. These are not "toys" you're playing and play-acting with, but "hot" emotional and spiritual activities. Presented with little care, a goodly amount of personal and societal damage can be done. But, when done with love and honor and well-thought-out organization, ritual ceremony can be a great gift on an individual and societal level -- and, in the case of divorce, can help create the foundation for a moving-on from pain that can be all-important in a person's development.


With the permission of the author, Bernard Weiner, a consultant in ritual, and the author of BOY INTO MAN: A Fathers' Guide to Initiation of Teenage Sons (Transformation Press).



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