Ending Divorce Ceremoniously
By Liza N. Burby
In 1971, Phil and Barbara Penningroth created
their own wedding service. Twenty-five years later, when Phil asked his wife for
a divorce, they planned their divorce ceremony.
“Most divorces end in pain, sadness and anger.
We didn’t want to end our relationship with all that and we wanted to bring
closure,” says Phil, who then co-wrote “A
Healing Divorce: Transforming the End of Your Relationship With Ritual and
Ceremony” with his ex-wife, Barbara Penningroth.
A divorce ceremony isn’t legal, but it’s a
spiritual way for couples to end their relationship with forgiveness and
healing. Phil explains that although most people don’t realize it, all
marriages end in ritual, with a court hearing, signing legal papers, and more
often than not, combat between ex-spouses and their lawyers.
“Unfortunately, such ritual is usually angry,
impersonal and demeaning and creates wounds that may not heal for years, and
often permanent estrangement. By shifting the focus from adversarial legalities
to issues of emotion and spirit, a parting ceremony can help a couple remember
and celebrate what was good and beautiful in their relationship and grieve what
they must let go,” he says.
Says Barbara Penningroth: “I had planned my
father’s funeral a few months before and I saw the similarities. I had been
angry about the divorce but I needed to look at the good parts of our
relationship, so I decided to do this. I had a lot of grief about my life not
turning out the way I wanted. The ceremony helped me to see that we each brought
something to each other. The ceremony forces you to look at what good did come
from it and makes it easier to move on.”
While the idea of a divorce ceremony isn’t
exactly widespread, Phil says it has been around for a while. Some religions
even have them built into their liturgy, such as United Church of Christ,
Unitarian Universalism and Reform Judaism. Others adapt a ceremony, like
Episcopalians and Methodists.
The ceremony the Penningroths adapted from others
consists of four components that take place with witnesses, such as family and
friends. Typically, the first step is an expression of gratitude about the
relationship. “Usually divorce is an estranging experience in which couples
emotionally shut the door on their past life and say it’s all bad,” says
Phil, “But there had to be some good too.”
Though she didn’t have a divorce ceremony when
she and her first husband separated 12 years ago, Beth Graham of Huntington Bay,
N.Y. says she and her husband did spend a few sessions with their marriage
therapist talking about what gifts they each got from the other during their
“Once it was clear the marriage wasn’t going
to work, and the therapist helped us to work through the anger about that, she
then helped us to shift toward having a sense of appreciation for what we’d
given each other,” says Rev. Graham, who is also the minister of the Unitarian
Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, N.Y. “I’ll always be grateful we were
able to do that. It was a bittersweet way to mark the end of our time together,
and I was able to let go much more completely because of that opportunity to
The second part of a divorce ceremony, says
Barbara Penningroth, is a clear expression of forgiveness. “In relationships
everyone hurts the other whether intentionally or not. This is the point at
which you simply ask for forgiveness from each other,” she says. “Next, the
couple talks about letting each other go, in essence releasing each other for
future experiences. Finally, there is the powerful symbolism of exchanging their
Some faiths have a ceremony in their liturgy,
such as Judaism, which has a Get, a Jewish divorce. Once a Jew has a wedding
officiated by a Rabbi, they can’t remarry in a Jewish ceremony even though
they have a civil divorce, unless they have a Get.
This was the case for Rachel Landau and Marty
Lipnick who were divorced in 1981. Lipnick, who lives in Huntington, N.Y. says
his ex-wife approached him a few months after their legal divorce about the Get.
“It was important to her, so I agreed to it.
After the ceremony, we had lunch together. The Get, wasn’t, in my estimation,
a very meaningful thing to go through. But we were and still are friends, so I
was glad to do it for her,” he says.
Says Landau, who now lives in Boca Raton, Fla:
“I felt that since we were married by a Rabbi, we weren’t really divorced
unless we were unmarried by a rabbi too. That is, since we had a ketuba, a
Jewish marriage certificate, we needed a Get, regardless of remarriage. …
After the legal back and forth, and then the final divorce, and in hindsight, I
believe the Get was a more personal closure for me. … The Get wasn’t a
ceremony to establish a friendship. The Get was an ending. The fact that we went
for lunch after was a beginning, even though it took a long time until there was
a friendship, other than communication about the children. The friendship
developed over time.”
Victoria Beach, a psychologist with Park East
Associates and Divorce Mediators in Great Neck, N.Y., and Manhattan, says she
believes in order for any divorce ceremony to work, both people would have to
want the divorce, but wouldn’t have enormous animosity toward one another.
She says that in many ways it’s better to get
to the point at which you can talk about a ceremony, as opposed to denying what
you feel, suppressing anger and resentment or avoiding confrontation.
“It’s certainly healthier in some ways than
those who have enormous battles. At some point after a divorce you have to look
back in order to prevent whatever caused the divorce from impacting the next
relationship,” she adds. “These are good survival skills. Besides, it’s
much more difficult to have an enemy than a friend.”
The Rev. Mark Bigelow, pastor of the
Congregational Church of Huntington, N.Y. says he thought the idea of a divorce
ceremony such a good one he wrote his Master’s thesis on the subject 15 years
ago. However, as a minister, he has never been asked to do one. Perhaps
ironically, he says, now that he’s going through a divorce himself, he
doesn’t feel a need to have one either.
“But I understand why it can play an important
part in people’s lives. Marriage isn’t just a legal situation, nor is
divorce,” he says. “But when you’re done with all the custody and
financial arrangements, you’re tired. A ceremony would be one more thing to
The Rev. George A. Robinson, minister of the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Flushing, N.Y. says that while there has been a
rite of divorce in the denomination’s liturgy since 1966, it’s fairly
uncommon for anyone to utilize it.
“I’ve counseled people on the way to divorce,
but I’ve never presided over such a ceremony. I think this is an ideal that
requires time to reach. Mo