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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 relationship.

“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 remember.”

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 rings back.”

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 do.”

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

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