It was a very tangible, and symbolic, way for them to signal the end of their 12-year relationship. The event also became a movie, “The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk.” As Ms. Abramovic later said in an interview, “It was a very dramatic and very painful ending.”
While not every separating and divorcing couple has the time, energy or desire to trek 2,000 miles just to signify the demise of their relationship, more couples are choosing to bless the occasion with some kind of ceremony. These are not, mind you, margarita-infused galas with shredded wedding dresses and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” throbbing in the ether. Instead, these ceremonies are often deeply personal and spiritual, intended to help the split couple and their families move past disappointment, anger and hurt.
“When people get married, they have a wedding ceremony, they’re making vows and promising to be with each other,” said Barbara Biziou, a wedding officiant in Manhattan and the author of the book “Joy of Ritual.” “When that dissolves, you need another ceremony to release you from it.”
She knows of what she speaks: 15 years after her divorce, on a trip to Paris, she tossed her wedding band into the Seine.
“It was pretty eye-opening,” said Ms. Biziou, who is an ordained Sanctuary of the Beloved minister. “You know how sometimes you feel like someone punched you in the stomach? All of a sudden that feeling was gone. I felt lighter, more open to meeting men and being in relationships after, and I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t felt before.”
Experts say that these types of rituals are necessary, especially since they are lacking in much of our culture. Some religions have built divorce ceremonies into their liturgy. (Judaism has a get, a Jewish divorce officiated by a rabbi; the Unitarian Universalist Church has a ceremony of hope, and the United Methodist Church offers a divorce ceremony, but not much else commemorates the ending of a relationship.)
“A marriage begins with ritual and ceremony, and it should end that way,” said Risa Marlen, a marriage and family therapist in Teaneck, (CELEBRANT) N.J., who has conducted divorce ceremonies. “The human psyche needs that closure. It warrants it. It deserves it.”
According to 2010 data from the Pew Research Center, 14 percent of all American adults (18 and older) are currently divorced or separated, compared with 11 percent in 1990. In 1980, it was 9 percent; in 1970, 6 percent.
Divorce ceremonies run the gamut, be it elaborate affairs witnessed by friends and family or vows spoken by the former couple (or half of the former couple) and, sometimes, their children. And though they vary in scope, the incense and patchouli factor can be high. While they aren’t legally binding, they offer a more palatable alternative to court hearings, bitterness and exorbitant lawyer fees. (The ceremonies are typically $350 to $750.)
When Jean Ando, 71, a retired reference librarian in Manhattan (CELEBRANT), and her husband divorced after 40 years of marriage, they held a simple ceremony in a labyrinth near the apartment they once shared. They each walked into the center, shared memories of their life together and wished each other well.
“I think we hugged, and maybe ended with a handshake,” Ms. Ando recalled. “We then walked out separately to symbolize our moving on in separate paths. We’d had a fairly simple wedding ceremony, and it was sort of nice to end it with a simple divorce ceremony.”
Charlotte Eulette, on the other hand, went all out for hers. Ms. Eulette, the director of the Celebrant Foundation and Institute in Montclair, N.J. — from which Ms. Marlen also received credentials as a life-cycle celebrant to conduct all sorts of ceremonies signaling life’s various passages. About seven years ago, she realized that she was still grieving the end of her 11-year marriage and that it was preventing her from moving on. So she decided to host a divorce ceremony for herself.
“My divorce took a lot out of me, and I wanted to be able to realize that this is not something I’m embarrassed about, it’s something I’ve been through in my life and I will also hold sacred the time I spent in this marriage,” she said.
She invited about 80 people to a nightclub and handed them each candles. She wore a shimmery cocktail dress and marched into the room to the sound of beating drums. As Ms. Eulette reclaimed her maiden name, her mother slipped a ring onto her daughter’s wedding finger. “She said, ‘This is the love that your family has for you, and it has no beginning or end,’ ” Ms. Eulette recalled. There were laughter, tears, applause, music and dancing.
Sharon Shores, 58, a social media business-marketing consultant in Denver, was married for 10 years and divorced in April 2011. Ms. Shores asked her ex-husband if he would join her in a “dissolving ceremony” that would verbally, emotionally and ceremonially terminate their marriage bond.
In October, the former couple stood before a roaring fire at a lodge in Lakewood, Colo., with views of the Red Rocks Amphitheater and the Continental Divide. Nick Meima, an (CELEBRANT) officiant from the Celebrant Foundation who led the event, had sent out a questionnaire in advance, asking the couple to describe what they were letting go of and what they would miss about each other. At the ceremony, he handed them a rope made of two different colored strands. The couple took turns expressing what they were leaving behind while cutting the cord. “When it was all over, they each had half of the rope,” Mr. Meima said. “And then I extended it, and I said, ‘Now you are literally at loose ends, and it’s up to you to choose how to weave these things together in your new life.’ ”
Ms. Shores said, “The ceremony provided a way to acknowledge the good things we had together, and provided a continued path for forgiveness and moving on.,” She added: “Emotionally, it was more draining than I thought it would be. At the same time, it was very releasing.”
While divorce ceremonies are important to the participants (or, at least, one of them), they can be especially necessary for the children of divorcing couples.
Not long ago Kevin Bain, a retired high school teacher and life-cycle (CELEBRANT) celebrant in New York, led a ceremony for a couple who had been together for seven years and had one child. “They told me the loveliest story of how they met, how they got married and how they came to terms that it wasn’t right,” Mr. Bain said. About 25 friends and both sets of parents showed up to a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. “It was like a small wedding, but it was a divorce,” he said. “They were not upset or bitter, but they wanted to each feel that when they went their own way to feel free and released. It ended with them taking vows to always remain close friends and that the child would be their priority for the rest of their lives.”
Stephanie Dedovitch, 27, of Milford, Pa., was 10 when her parents split up. She wishes there had been some kind of ceremony for her and her sister. “I felt torn in half, and I didn’t understand what had happened, but also why my mother was acting the way she was acting,” said Ms. Dedovitch, whose mother, Teresa Dedovitch, a Universal Life Church minister, conducts divorce and other ceremonies today.
“I felt it was my fault. I really wish there was something like that. For younger kids it’s more a marker in their life, and for older kids, I think they can better understand the words that are being spoken. I think both my sister and I would have benefited from having closure.”
Dr. Lawrence Birnbach, a psychoanalyst and an author of “How to Know If It’s Time to Go,” believes these ceremonies are necessary for people to move on. “Divorce is a new passage, an entrance into a new life,” he said. “In many religions a funeral is not a funeral, it’s a memorial, and the person is going on to something better.”
After a couple of years, he added, most people who divorce realize that “it’s not the end of a life or one’s happiness, it’s a beginning as well.”