By Jerome A. Price

Previously published in the Utne Reader, Nov/Dec 1990 and excerpted with permission from The Family Therapy Networker

The transition from a troubled marriage to an amicable divorce is not a simple one, yet as a society we do little to support it. The caseloads of most therapists are filled with couples who are legally divorced but still emotionally married. Unlike other important life transitions, divorce is distinguished by the utter absence of accepted rituals to acknowledge the emotional impact of this momentous, frequently turbulent shift in people’s lives.

As a family therapist, I have been interested in developing positive ways of helping divorcing couples acknowledge that whatever the ties that may still bind them, henceforth the special relationship we call “marriage” is over. I have found rituals an invaluable tool to help couples finally sever their emotional bond-whatever the legal status of their relationship. It is only when people take this step that they are free to discover what kind of new life they wish to create for themselves.

Mary and Harv had been divorced for six years but were still as tangled up with each other as ever. Their only child was eight. Since their divorce, both had found all other relationships to be superficial. Yet, despite sincere attempts to get back together, the same struggles that ended their marriage tore them apart again and again. Like many couples, they couldn’t be married and they couldn’t let go of what their marriage might be. Their ability to ignore the reality of what their marriage had become held them together.

Initially, I had tried to help them reconcile with each other. Then I asked if they would agree to an apparently crazy way of resolving their dilemma. They agreed; they no longer had anything to lose. I gave them detailed directions to a small town in Michigan’s upper peninsula and told them to take along their old wedding rings.

With an air of dramatic expectancy, they set I know off for a 14-hour drive. Following instructions, they took a two-hour boat tour up the Lake Superior coastline. They spent the first part of the trip reviewing their life together. Once they were one hour out, they went to the upper deck of the boat. There, while holding hands, they cast their rings into one of the coldest, deepest lakes in the world, a lake whose reputation, I had reminded them, has always been to “never give up her dead.”

With some couples, a divorce ritual like this leads to a renewed commitment and a decision to continue together in a new way. For others, it provides a way of bringing a difficult, ambivalent relationship to its conclusion. Harv and Mary spoke little on their drive back. Upon their return, each later told me, they were filled with extreme sadness and then an understanding that it was time to let go. From this point they went their separate ways. I have had some unhappily married couples melt down their wedding rings and forge them into new ones to symbolize their commitment to a fresh start; divorced couples who must bring up their children together could use this ring ritual to represent the beginning of a new kind of relationship. I have asked other couples to write out the details of their troubled pasts or collect artifacts and photos from their marriages, which they then disposed of in a ritual fashion.

Other ideas about how to change the tenor of divorce have come to mind. Why not a divorce modeled after a raucous New Orleans funeral? There would be mournful music played on the way to the ceremony, and upbeat, high-stepping jazz afterward. Each spouse in turn, when asked whether they wished to continue to be married to the other, could respond, “I don’t!” The minister could conclude the ceremony by saying, “I now pronounce you man and woman.”

This may sound far-fetched, but who’s to say that divorce can’t be an affirmation that life does indeed go on? I can’t help but feel that divorcing couples deserve the same amount of loving support in starting a new life that they received when they were first married.