Divorce Ceremonies

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Jun 02, 2001 12:00 AM
I told some poker chums over the weekend I'd be talking about "divorce ceremonies" on CBS's "The Early Show." A new book, "A Healing Divorce" by Phil and Barbara Penningroth, claims a divorce ritual can help end the acrimony.

"Right," said one buddy. "Do you do the marriage vows in reverse? 'With this ring I promise never to love thee, neither in sickness nor in health, etc. etc.'"

Life is better than parody. For I watched in awe as CBS ran a film clip from the former Mr. and Mrs. Penningroth's divorce ceremony, including a heartbreaking marital highlights reel and yes, an exchange of nonwedding rings. "With this ring I release you as my husband," said a grainy Barbara.

On the CBS set, Barbara spoke first. She was at first "devastated," she said, when her husband wanted a divorce after 25 years of marriage, but the divorce ceremony was a way of living in "forgiveness." Philip, a child of divorce himself, got in his 2 cents' worth: It's the "way we do divorce" in this culture that causes all the acrimony.

Then it was my turn. I said our high rates of divorce are hurting children, adults and society. Divorce is an inherently difficult and potentially damaging event. Children whose parents divorce are at higher risk of school failure, suicide, mental illness, premature death, child abuse, physical illness, juvenile delinquency, adult crime, poverty, premature sexuality and substance abuse.

Case in point: A new paper from the Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis (available online at www.heritage.org/library/cda/cda01-04.html) on the marriage gap facing African-American children confirms that, while children of unwed moms face the greatest risks, children whose parents divorce were four times more likely to depend on AFDC than children whose parents stay married.

How can a few words mumbled over a candle, earlier vows having proved ineffectual, somehow massage away the sting of divorce? Sure, we have rituals for other painful life transitions, such as, say, funerals. Here's the stubborn difference: That death is inevitable, while the death of love is a choice.

Actually I had only 30 seconds, so I didn't really get all that in, but you get the general idea. There's something brutal at the very heart of the divorce process that Phil and Barbara, whom I liked very much and wish all the best, were trying very hard to deny with their prettied-up ritual. A divorce is when one person, in this case, by the sounds of it, Phil, says to the woman he's promised to cleave to for the rest of his life that he's tired of the deal. Divorce says, "I'm not going to take care of you, I won't be responsible for you, you aren't part of my family, I'm free to find someone better to love." Pardon me, Phil and Barbara, but I just don't believe there is any very nice way to say that.

"What's the name of your book?" Barbara asked me, off camera. "'The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better-Off Financially,'" I replied. "I certainly agree with that," she said, it seemed to me a tad wistfully. She wanted me to know she wasn't there to promote divorce, only to try to help divorcing people make the best of it. I believed her. "You have enormous generosity," I told her. Her whole face lighted up.

I may be a marriage romantic, but I'm a divorce cynic. The realities behind this particular divorce ceremony seem to me to be something like this: After some difficult and unsatisfying years, a husband called it quits. Then he turned to his bride of 25 years ago and said, "Make me feel better about this." So she did.

Go ahead and have a divorce ceremony if you think it will make you feel better. Phil and Barbara's made me want to cry.