Divorce As A Rite Of Passage

By Rebecca Armstrong

Divorce has become one of the great rites of passage in our culture. Each year, hundreds of thousands of American adults journey through fear, uncertainty and a profound sense of loss and alienation, reaching for freedom, peace, happiness, or merely relief from a relationship which has become toxic. Too often, the struggle leaves the individuals involved with a legacy of failure.

The legal ending of a marriage, whether amicable or bitter, is something the state has protocols for handling, but the emotional ending of a marriage is far more complex and potentially positive than society has been willing to acknowledge. It is one of society’s failures that so many people are still forced to bear the stigma and burden of guilt over the ending of a relationship. While an army of social scientists sell books by proclaiming the evils of divorce, it seems to this observer that divorce may be a sign of social innovation, not social decay.

Divorce may be a sign of social innovation, not social decay.

Let’s play with the notion that the way things are, is the way things ought to be, though not necessarily for the reasons that the social scientists suggest. Let’s take a look at the deeper psycho-spiritual forces that motivate our lives.

The birth of Humanistic Psychology (Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Stanley Krippner) was a liberating event in the latter half of the 20th century, in that it opened the way for humans to see themselves not merely as pawns in the greater games of evolutionary economic and social forces, but as having an autonomous will which answered also to the inner spiritual demands of a unique soulfulness. The depth psychology of C. G. Jung and his followers provided a vast treasury of research and theory about the inner landscape of the psyche that continues to inspire and guide its practitioners into the 21st century. In both humanistic and Jungian psychology, great importance is placed upon dreams, as it is noted that dreams are an avenue for the unconscious of an individual to send messages to the conscious mind for the purpose of healing and transformation. For this reason, I would like to share a dream I had during the time of my second divorce, and then make some observations on its effect on me.

In the dream, I am watching what looks like an example of cell division under a microscope. I see a small, writhing mass of matter struggling to separate. Upon closer examination, I realize that what it really looks like are those strange illustrations found in old alchemical textbooks from the middle ages, when artists tried to imagine Plato’s original human being before it was split into male and female – an eight-limbed, two-headed, bi-sexual creature. Then I hear a voice say, ‘Now see what it looks like at the cosmic level,’ and I am looking through a telescope at the vast reaches of outer space. There, looking very much like the cell division of just a moment ago, a gigantic sun is splitting down the middle. With a tremendous roar and rending, the planetary body pulls apart and great streams of matter go whirling off into the cosmic darkness. Within a few moments, however, each half of the former orb has created its own gravitational field and is spinning these gaseous vapors into its own body.

This turned out to be a pivotal dream for me during the difficult period of divorce. It had never occurred to me that there could be a release of energy of such magnitude, the idea of failure usually leading to depression and its accompanying languor, but the dream unleashed some potent vitality that had been repressed during the difficulties of the marriage. One of the things that intrigued me was that the dream borrowed imagery from some of the most ancient mythologies where the origins of the world itself are ascribed to the splitting apart of the primal couple (husband/wife or brother/sister) without whose sacrifice, no earthly existence would be possible. It also foreshadowed a myth I would encounter in a fascinating book by Jungian scholar, Erich Neumann, in which he examines the origins of patriarchy and its effects on feminine psychology. He tells of the Greek myth of the Daughters of Minyas, whose chief characteristic is a strict adherence to the patriarchal form of marriage. When they refuse to participate in the ecstatic worship of the god Dionysus – a god also known for his death and resurrection through violent dismemberment – they become mad and sink into death. Of this myth, Neumann suggests: “ the endangerment, indeed the collapse, of the patriarchal, symbiotic marriage may constitute one of the several elements necessary for women’s development. Wherever the encounter of woman and man is necessary – and here we mean the relationship between two individuals – a marriage defined solely by the patriarchal symbiosis and its collective character must be shattered, a contention borne out not only by the large number of divorces, but also by the healing of many neurotic illnesses in modern women and by their development.” (The Fear of the Feminine, by Erich Neumann)

Here we see the suggestion that a true marriage is only possible when the old patriarchal forms are cast off completely – the old forms shattered – and two people can recognize each other as individuals and not merely as representatives of the opposite sex. It is in this respect that I see the rise of divorce as signaling a positive evolution in how we relate to one another. Key to this evolution is the overthrow of one of the pillars of the patriarchal system, the notion of partnership as a permanent state, rather than honoring the natural ebbs and flows of individual development. This aspect was, of course, essential in a system where marriage was primarily a state affair and the means to orderly property exchange; economic survival and productivity; kinship ties for protection and power; and the legitimizing of offspring for inheritance purposes. Capitalism may have freed us from these old necessities, and allowed new reasons to arise for marriage which are primarily personal and spiritual. In fact, deliberately limiting the tenure of a marriage partner might be the best insurance of civility since the 22nd amendment (the constitutional limit of a president to two terms.)

Deliberately limiting the tenure of a marriage partner might be the best insurance of civility since the 22nd amendment.

Please note that I am not advocating that we “love ‘em and leave ‘em.” The notion that we use people and discard them has a distinctly unhealthy feel to it. Rather, I am suggesting that spouses, like good friends, have periods of intensive tenure in our lives – on the front burner, so to speak - and then may warm down to being comfortable friendships in the outer ring of our kinship circles. This flexibility becomes possible if we have not already weighted the outcome by decrying endings as only bad, rather than inevitable and possibly healthy.

Spiritual Benefits of Divorce

We believe that divorce is a powerful opportunity for two people to transform suffering into wisdom, to come to an understanding of their own gifts and limitations in a way that may have eluded them during marriage.

Divorce, like death, is an ending of a visible form. Whatever may happen after the death of the physical body, the form that we have known is gone and must be dealt with. So with divorce, regardless of how the relationship continues past this point, it signals an ending of the old ways. To deal gracefully with this finality calls forth a maturity which is particularly difficult for Americans today. It also leads to a kind of compassionate wisdom which is a herald of “elderhood” in its true meaning. Divorce gives us a chance to outgrow the bickering and rivalry of our “sibling society” – the never ending desire to be vindicated, to be right, to be better than, to win. It invokes a kind of humility which binds us back to our deepest creaturehood, and reminds us of our fragility, and paradoxically, ennobles us in the process.

Another Jungian author, Helen Luke, has beautifully expressed the possibilities inherent in a “good divorce” when she says:

“Divorce doesn’t always mean that a marriage has been a failure. There are some marriages in which both partners have been true to their vows and have grown through the years into a more adult love. Yet a time may come when unlived parts of their personalities are striving to become conscious. The situation may then arise in which it becomes obvious that if they remain together, these two who basically love and will always love each other may fall into sterility and bitterness, if they do not have the courage to accept the suffering of parting. Their quest for wholeness may then demand that they ignore the outer laws of church and society in order to be true to the absolutely binding inner vow: ‘to love and to cherish from this time forward’. One does not have to be living with a person, or even to see him or her ever again, in order to love and cherish through everything. A conscious acknowledgement of failures and unshaken devotion to the love that sets free, can turn a divorce into a thing of positive beauty; an experience through which a man or a woman may bring, out of the suffering, a purer love for all future meetings. The divorce is then a sacrificial, not a destructive act, and the original marriage may remain, in the deepest sense, procreative to the end of life.” (from The Way of Woman, by Helen M. Luke).

Elements of the Ritual

When Brian and I conduct a Divorce Ritual, we work with 3 to 4 couples who have been through Brian’s mediation process and who have agreed to the process. The presence of other couples who have been through the same mediation gives an automatic sense of solidarity through shared suffering. Everyone is encouraged to be open and honest, but not more so than what they feel they can bear. An opening song and the telling of a story set the stage for the first task which is the acknowledgement of gratitude. Each person has come prepared with a small token signifying an insight they have gained from being married to their former partner. This is shared and its power witnessed by the other attendants. Frequently, this is the first time that the other member of the marriage has heard something positive that came out of the partnership, and expressions of astonishment, laughter and tears are not uncommon. It is no accident that it may be the most reviled characteristic that was actually the impetus for the greatest in sight: i.e. “your refusal to move across the country for my transfer made me realize just how important that work is to me, it is my calling, not just my job.”

One of the most powerful elements of the ritual is the dissolving of the vows themselves. Couples are invited to bring with them the original vows from the wedding and re-create them to reflect the new direction they want the relationship to take. Where there are children from the marriage, clear statements about respecting each other’s involvement with the offspring are always a piece of the new vows. In one instance, a Jewish couple who had brought their Ketubah - an ancient tradition of an inscribed document detailing the responsibility of the spouses towards each other – removed it from its frame and burned it ceremoniously while the other couples stood supportively behind them.

Later in the ritual, each person is given a small white tablet (we use the largest size alka-seltzer we can find!) and has to write the one word that symbolizes what they are leaving behind. Standing in a circle, each person steps forward and tosses their tablet into a cauldron of water, until the whole surface is fizzing and bubbling in a most satisfying way. The conclusion of the ritual takes us to the lakefront (we work close to Lake Michigan just north of Chicago) where each person carries the rose petals from the flower they worked with earlier in the day, and casts the petals upon the water as a final release and blessing. Then we gather at picnic tables and share devil’s food cake topped with little bride and groom figurines who are facing away from each other. Everyone has brought a small gift for the departing ex-spouse and with much emotion (including some merriment) these gifts are opened and celebrated. There are graceful and ungraceful ways to cross thresholds, and divorce is an opportunity for two people under great duress to learn a lot of spiritual lessons very fast. Instead of simply labeling divorce a failure, it is both possible and empowering to go deeper into this heart-splitting experience and redeem it with careful ceremony, attending to the spiritual growth of both partners Learning to cross thresholds gracefully and being supported while you do so is the gift that ritual brings to human affairs. The Divorce Ritual is a way to honor this new rite of passage, which so many of us have had to endure alone and in shame and sorrow. Divorce is a powerful opportunity for two people to transform suffering into wisdom, to come to an understanding of their own gifts and limitations in a way that may have eluded them during marriage. But without a healing ritual, many of these valuable lessons can be obscured by shame or resentment or by the simple desire to forget. The Divorce Ritual has been created as a way to help us cross this critical threshold gracefully, with dignity and mutual respect. It honors the vows that now must be released and restores integrity to our lives. It may also herald a new era when marriage is truly about individuals honoring one another’s unfolding, even when that means a parting of the ways.

Rebecca Armstrong is a Humanist Minister and pastoral counselor in private practice. As the International OutReach Director of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, she is well versed in the power of personal mythology and the role of ritual in psychological and spiritual transformation. She has a master’s degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School and a professional ministerial degree from Meadville-Lombard Theological School.

Brian Muldoon, a successfully divorced father of three children, is a well-known mediator, facilitator and teacher in the field of conflict and nonviolence. A leader of men’s trainings and workshops in spiritual development, he is the author of The Heart of Conflict and the forthcoming book, The Tao of Divorce.

Cover     Archive     Editorial mission     Information for advertisers     Links     Directory     Calendar     Submission guidelines    

Suggestions? Send us email