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    Meaningful Rituals Can Play a Role in Divorce, Too

    howardRecently I was in Ashland for the first time to see shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As with any city I visit, I searched for local bookstores. There are a few categories I always look for, including the wedding section. The bookstore on Main Street did indeed have a shelf devoted to weddings, but my eyes rested on the lowest shelf, where I saw a handful of books on divorce.

    The one I paged through was The Divorce Planner by Janet Greek. Its subtitle, Self-Defense for Women When They Need It Most, while gender specific, reminded me that most people, and unfortunately our society in general, view divorce in the negative. Decoupling, as with most changes, is difficult and emotionally draining. As a ritual facilitator, I am happy to write that I have participated in a number of divorce situations in which ritual has made the transition smoother.

    My first experience was my own divorce. Upon coming out, I realized that although I loved my wife, we weren’t meant to be life partners. As we’d had a Jewish wedding, we turned to our Rabbi for a Jewish divorce. The Rabbi had us write a few paragraphs on why we were divorcing, and what we vowed to each other, e.g. not to speak ill of the other. Those paragraphs were then typed as identical columns, one on the left side and one on the right side of a single piece of paper. During the divorce ceremony, the Rabbi ripped the page in half, handing one side to me, the other to my now ex-wife. While it was not a legally binding divorce in the eyes of state or federal government, the ceremony had more emotional impact on me than perhaps any I had ever gone through, or have gone through since.

    The tearing of that single piece of regular 8½” by 11” white paper was mirroring the tear I had been feeling in my heart for months, if not years. I doubt that the Rabbi lingered over the tearing, but in the moment, it seemed to me as if it was in slow motion, with each eighth of an inch of torn paper equaling a mile of emotional scarring. Surprisingly, rather than feeling painful as when one rips off a scab, the tearing helped me release the pain and torment I had been holding. This seemingly small ritual was a powerfully tangible, and, more importantly, visceral step in my decoupling.

    I have not, as yet, had the opportunity to utilize this paper tearing ritual as an officiant (neither as a non-denominational Minister, nor as a Rabbi). However, I have sat with a couple as they signed the legal documentation officially beginning their divorce proceedings. They asked me to be with them as they signed the papers, since they recognized that the family they had spent years carefully building was being permanently altered. They were eager to make this transition as soft and smooth for their child. They recognized that signing the documents held a heavy emotional weight.

    I provided not only the love and support of a dear friend, but also the objectivity of a neutral third party. No overt ritual was involved, although I did offer a one-line prayer recognizing the blessings in their lives, and asking them to be thankful for all the good things that got them to this point in their lives. I was encouraging them to think about some positives in their lives, even at a momentously difficult time.

    In Greek’s introduction to her divorce planner she wrote: “At least the same amount of time and effort should go into thinking through every detail of ending your marriage, which is likely to be much more complicated than any wedding, especially if children are involved. Dress, ring, flowers and invitation selection will be replaced by the more sobering decisions regarding a lawyer, therapist, financial settlements and custody arrangements. This time you won’t be going for romance, but you should be striving for security, independence, and, when the ink is dry, peace of mind.”

    I would add, consider how your clergyperson or a professional ritual facilitator can assist you in your transition from identifying as part of a couple to being single.

    Howard M. Steiermann is an Ordained Ritual Facilitator based in San Francisco. For more information, please visit