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Families: Without This Ring…

4 minute read
Heather Won Tesoriero

J.B. Silvers and his wife Barbara stood before a minister at the Nottingham United Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, for one of the biggest moments of their lives. A dozen friends and family members stood by as they exchanged vows, promising to respect each other and asking the support of those watching. But the vows were a lot different from the ones they had taken 34 years earlier, at their wedding. “We are here to witness an end and a beginning and to share the making of new commitments,” said the pastor. “Barbara and J.B. have decided, after much effort, pain and anger, that they will no longer be wife and husband.” They were severing their marriage just as it had begun, with a ritual.

Most divorcing couples are hardly in the mood to stand up together in church and make new vows. But a growing number are finding that a divorce ceremony can bring closure and even comfort at the end of a marriage. Barbara and Phil Penningroth divorced in 1997 after 25 years of marriage and held a divorce ceremony featuring filmed highlights of their life together and poems by Robert Browning. The Penningroths found the ritual so meaningful that they co-wrote A Healing Divorce: Transforming the End of Your Relationship with Ritual and Ceremony (1st Books). Phil believes that in this post-Sept. 11 era, people may feel more compelled than ever to attempt a harmonious end to their marriage. “In a time when we’re all dealing with so much grief and pain, a ceremony that facilitates a healthy grieving process is of benefit to everyone,” he says.

Though not commonplace, divorce ceremonies are being performed in a variety of denominations, not to promote divorce but to help couples through one of the most painful experiences of their lives. Lutherans call it a “private confession ritual” and suggest that one or two close friends be in attendance–but discourage children. Unitarians describe it as a “ceremony of hope” and ask the partners to offer apologies to each other and seek forgiveness for the hurt they have inflicted. “The church is always present during a death, but here we are with a divorce, an overwhelmingly painful thing, and the church hides its head in the sand,” says the Rev. Jeanne Audrey Powers, 69, a retired Methodist minister who co-wrote a paper in 1976 examining Christian divorce rituals.

End-of-marriage ceremonies have been around for some 3,000 years in Judaism, which requires a get–a religious document that consecrates the divorce–before couples are allowed to remarry in a temple. Today the male-oriented ceremony (the husband asks for the get and gives it to his wife) is performed mainly for Conservative and Orthodox couples. But some Jewish couples have turned to more personalized versions of the get. Rabbi Lisa S. Greene of Glencoe, Ill., helped Laura Milsk design a ceremony. It took place on the shores of Lake Michigan, where Laura, sans husband, prayed and tossed pieces of bread into the chilly water. “My sense is that Laura made a journey and returned as a whole person,” says Rabbi Greene. “The ritual was a positive rather than a mournful step.”

Members of the clergy acknowledge that divorce ceremonies are not for everyone. “Ideally,” says Father Malcolm Boyd, 78, an Episcopal priest who has performed half a dozen divorce ceremonies for people of various faiths, “there should be two people trying to be honest, getting on with their lives and not wanting to harbor resentment. This could be an empty ritual without those elements.”

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Janet Swanson, 55, a writer from Minneapolis, Minn., consecrated her divorce in her Congregational church with a minister and 10 of her closest friends–but not her husband of 21 years. She was “disappointed” that he wouldn’t take part, but she says, “I saw a window of opportunity for healing, and I didn’t want to rush through it in pain and all the stuff that happens in a divorce.” At the ceremony, the minister spoke about why marriages end; friends expressed what they felt about the divorce; and guests read the part supposed to be spoken by her husband. After, Swanson says, “I felt more free of the weight of divorce.”

But can such rituals heal all the wounds of a broken marriage? “Most people are not at the stage in their divorce where they can have these ceremonies,” acknowledges Evan Imber-Black, a marriage therapist and author of Rituals for Our Times (Jason Aronson). “But the fact that people are trying to do this tells us there’s a need.”

–With reporting by Karen Cullotta/Chicago and Jacqueline Savaiano/Los Angeles

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