NEW YORK – What happens when a marriage dies? A growing number of couples are getting closure by holding "divorce ceremonies" that fall somewhere between a wedding and a funeral.
Couples at these events often exchange vows, take off their rings and mourn the death of their relationship together.
Phil and Barbara Penningroth are one such couple. When their marriage ended, they didn't want their split to degenerate into the acrimony and bitterness that often accompanies a divorce.
"Both of us wanted to part as consciously and lovingly as possible," Phil said. "From that intent we created a parting ceremony, which proved an expression of the very best of our union and helped us heal and remain good friends."
So the Penningroths held a quiet ceremony to commemorate their union. The salt-and-pepper-bearded Phil stood before his blond ex-wife. They celebrated the love and good times they shared. They grieved. They forgave each other and apologized for wrongdoing. They gave back their rings — husband and wife, no longer.
Then the ex-couple wrote a book about their experience called, A Healing Divorce. And they have been spreading the gospel of divorce ceremonies ever since.
A Growing Trend
While there are no official statistics on the frequency of these ceremonies, some family experts see a budding development.
"Divorce ceremonies are a small but growing trend," said Froma Walsh, co-director of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago. "[The ceremonies] counter the animosity and bitterness too often fueled by legal battles involving attorneys and courts that can be destructive — especially for children — long into the future."
In fact, children, common casualties of divorce are a primary concern for those who encourage the ceremonies.
"It is very important to help spouses salvage their history and friendship in the midst of an adversarial and horrible legal system of divorce," said Dr. Diane Raines of the University of North Carolina. "When that happens, there is less trauma on children."
Several organized religions are even beginning to craft ceremonies similar to weddings, baptisms or memorial services for couples seeking a divorce. While this may be new for a church or a synagogue, some suggest divorce ceremonies have been around for years, in some form, and are just now becoming ritualized.
"Almost every individual I work with has done some kind of a divorce ritual for themselves," said Raines. "What seems to differ here is the degree of public involvement in the ritual."
Many people revisit and reclaim an important site in their marital history, said Raines. Others change or rearrange the marital residence to help heal themselves after a divorce.
Whatever the form, several family experts are vigorous proponents of rituals that help people move past the pain of a breakup.
"I hope that these kinds of rituals become more and more normative," said Jane Ariel, a clinician for the Center for Contemporary Families. "Separation is happening all the time and needs to be accepted and marked."
The Penningroths share this view. Pointing to statistics that show nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, Phil said, "If half of the couples who marry, sooner or later decide to divorce, then divorce can no longer be described as 'abnormal.'"
Indeed, 43 percent of first marriages end in separation or divorce within 15 years, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month.
Normalizing Divorce: A 'Double-Edged Sword'
But it is precisely the normalizing of divorce that gives some experts pause.
"There's a major concern I have about the regularizing of the process," said Larry McCallum, a professor of family life at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
McCallum does not support marriage at all costs. Having counseled couples for years and witnessing the strains of a bad marriage he acknowledges, "some divorces are for the best."
But McCallum argues some troubled marriages last because societal constraints keep couples together. "Financial concerns, concerns about the children, social pressures, and ethical and moral issues often keep marriages together," he said, "not necessarily because they are fulfilling, but because the couple doesn't see a way out."
While difficult, these pressures can allow couples time to work on their marriage long enough to "seek ways to increase dedication" to one another, he said.
McCallum suggests it's possible that divorce rituals, insofar as they help the public accept divorce, may actually pull some couples apart.
"Clearly, this is a double-edged sword," he said. "To the extent that such a ceremony helps to define the boundary conditions for life after the divorce, there may be some good to come of it; and reduction of post-divorce guilt… is good. [But] reduction of constraint — assuming that there is hope that with work the relationship could become fulfilling — may be negative for the culture."
The Penningroths have heard these complaints before and reject them. Writing on their Web site, http://www.healingdivorce.com, they say it is "very unlikely that anyone would endure the pain of divorce just for the sake of a ritual" and they cite examples of many couples they say have benefited from divorce ceremonies.
McCallum does see a potential upside to the ceremonies. "Perhaps one good thing that might occur is that when pledges to remain civil and put the interests of the children first are made in public, there may be additional social pressure to make good on the promises."
Still, he maintains a scholar's skeptical even-handedness: "Surely this is not a guarantee. After all, the fact of the divorce already demonstrates that some promises were not kept."