Marnie Cortez* was about to get divorced for the second time. Her first marriage had been a disaster. For five years she had navigated life with an emotionally abusive alcoholic, afraid of leaving and having to raise the couple’s 4-year-old son, Nick, by herself. When she finally gathered the strength to get herself and her son out of a toxic situation, the ensuing divorce drama was riddled with spite and regret. It was the last thing she wanted to endure again.
“The only thing harder than my first marriage was my divorce,” she admits. “But I made the right choice for me and for Nick, and almost a decade later I fell in love again.”
Marnie and her second husband, Victor, were married for 12 years before things started to unravel.
“It wasn’t the same as with my first husband,” she recalls. “Vic’s a wonderful man, and at one point he was the love of my life. We just grew apart.”
So at age 52, Marnie found herself on a beach with the man she was divorcing and her adult son, giving back her wedding ring and thanking her husband for all the good memories and positive moments they had shared over the years.
“It was Vic’s idea,” Marnie says about the makeshift divorce ceremony. “He knew how traumatic my first divorce was, and he didn’t want either one of us to walk away feeling bitter. This was like a way to decide to be adults and to say ‘I still care about you,’ even if we aren’t in love anymore.”
Divorce rates in the United States may be on a slight decline, but divorce ceremonies are becoming more and more common. In fact, the idea of memorializing a divorce is making its way into the church.
“We have prayers for people headed into surgery, prayers surrounding death. But the church has been lacking in caring for people in the midst of divorce,” says the Rev. Heather Shortlidge, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, Md.
According to Shortlidge, it’s not just a Presbyterian thing, with many other Protestant denominations jumping on the bandwagon. A recent revision in the Book of Common Worship has taken big steps toward addressing the need many couples feel to be recognized by their church during a devastating moment in their lives.
“When a marriage ends, it’s one of the most painful things we can experience,” explains Shortlidge. “Ritual can be a healing thing in people’s lives.”
The ceremony, as outlined in the liturgy, may involve the couple handing rings back to each other, expressing gratitude for the blessings their marriage created, and words of scripture. Children can be involved, which can be extremely helpful to the healing process following divorce.
“Children can often recognize symbolism — it’s tangible — more than words,” says Shortlidge.
The decision to add liturgy surrounding divorce and an actual divorce service to the Book of Common Worship was not without controversy. Pastor Kimberly Bracken Long was primarily responsible for most recently editing the marriage section of the Book of Common Worship. In a piece published this year in the Pray Tell Blog, Long explains, “Whenever the idea came up in conversation, someone would balk. ‘We don’t want to bless divorce,’ they would say, while others insisted that a liturgy would not connote the blessing of the church but would be an act of pastoral care.”
Shortlidge agrees that the new addition was needed.
“Church is always there for weddings and celebrations, but where are we during the pain when a marriage ends? We know that marriages end. We don’t live in the dark ages where we pretend that doesn’t matter.”
The creation of a religious space for divorce is not a new idea. The Jewish religion has always had a ceremony surrounding divorce, although in this case, the line between ritual and legal document is a bit harder to see. A get or gett is a legal document presented to a wife by her husband that releases her from the marriage and states that the rules of adultery no longer apply. The document itself is outlined meticulously in Jewish law, with specific requirements as to how it is written. The giving of the get is more ceremonial, where the act of the husband handing the divorce document to his wife is ritualized.
But the new divorce ceremony trend does not always need to include a religious affiliation. Couples of all faiths, including same-sex couples, have recently chosen to memorialize their separation in an attempt to bring meaning and healing to their parting. Some invite guests to witness a return of rings, some thank each other for the good times, and often — when children are involved — divorcing parents use the event as an opportunity to demonstrate respect for one another, choosing ceremony over acrimony.
“If you don’t end something well, you can’t start the next thing well,” reflects Shortlidge. “Good endings create good beginnings.”
*Names have been changed to Marnie, Nick and Victor.
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