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How a New Ritual Can Help Us Heal After Heartbreak

In difficult moments, traditions connect us to our communities and our values.

Ben Rosser, used with permission.
A new chapter: Florence Williams spent time in nature to process her divorce.
Ben Rosser, used with permission.

It was a beautiful day in early May when I decided to throw my wedding ring into the river. The water in the Potomac was surging, so there was a chance this slim band of platinum would make it all the way to the Atlantic. There, perhaps it could ride the global conveyor belt of currents forever, freeing me from having to cycle through so many thoughts of the failed marriage.

My brain was like a Maytag of recrimination, blame, self-pity, fear, always in the spin cycle. I’d liked being married, and for a couple of decades I thought my husband and I did a pretty splendid job of it. We met when I was a college freshman and he was a college senior. Our brains and self-concepts were still forming, and we co-created a world of love and shared adventures and two children.

But we gradually grew less connected to each other. I wanted to keep trying. He didn’t. It sounds like a simple explanation, but it didn’t feel at all simple. I wanted him to still love me, and I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t. This question was filling me up with hurt and agitation and even illness. Finally, I saw that I needed to try to stop figuring and to let go. The next question in the pile of hard questions was how.


I got the idea for a divorce ritual when I visited the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia, during the summer of 2019. Created in 2006 as a lark by a pair of (split-up) artists, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, the museum now occupies an elegant mansion in a hilly neighborhood just down a narrow street from St. Mark’s Church and a plaque commemorating Nikola Tesla.

I met Grubišić in the bright café. A thin, goateed video producer in his 40s, he ordered an espresso and told me how he got here. It started when he and Vištica broke up after a four-year love affair. They couldn’t figure out what to do with the cheap toy bunny that he had once given her and that seemed to carry so much emotional weight. He thought it might be redemptive to tell its story.

Heartbreak, they decided, was in need of ritual. “It’s such a serious thing and there’s nothing to help with resolution,” he said, stirring his small drink. “For guys it’s even worse. You’re not even supposed to mention it, or you just say, ‘We broke up,’ and then you go out and get drunk. And it’s not something you’re used to. It doesn’t happen once a month. Sometimes people experience it maybe twice in a lifetime. How do you cope with this?”

Grubišić believes that heartbreak deserves not only institutional respect but the space for reflection. The museum provides this, although more than anything, it helps codify these wounds as a shared, universal experience. But it is the particulars of each grief—often odd and highly eccentric and worthy of a quick story—that help create the psychological distancing required for healing.

People send in objects from all over the world, along with a short text about their significance. In effect, they are shaking their heads and asking: Can you believe this story of why I knit a misshapen sweater? Or of this water bottle shaped like the Virgin Mary or of this coffee machine? The artifacts, like the memories they convey, become both enshrined and released at the same time.

Like the pain of heartbreak itself, the displays are both reverential and, at times, absurd and banal. I was struck by how the stories, like dreams, are often untrustworthy. Every relationship starts as a collaboration, but each ends with at least one unreliable narrator. The details of grief conveyed in the stories don’t offer explication so much as supplication—see how it was before it broke me, see how I still suffer. Even in one or two short paragraphs, one can sense the writer’s satisfaction. Here is their heartbreak, under the lights, presented with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This was just the kind of narrative arc I, too, needed.


What started as an emotional and creative impulse for Grubišić and Vištica now has the weight of science, and culture, behind it. Psychologists and neuroscientists have lately been studying what happens on the other side of love—the pain, the rejection, the loneliness—as well as the measures that can alleviate it. Both the power of ritual and the power of storytelling appear to be significantly helpful.

In one study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers at Harvard Business School found that people who had lost a loved one to a breakup or death seemed to recover better if they performed a ritual as part of the grieving process. “We suggest that the use of rituals serves as a compensatory mechanism designed to restore feelings of control after losses, and that this increased feeling of control contributes to reduced grief,” wrote the study authors, Michael Norton and Francesca Gino.

What exactly constitutes ritual? A symbolic activity “that is performed either before or after a meaningful event and is intended to achieve some desired outcome, from alleviating grief to winning a competition to making it rain,” wrote Norton and Gino.

In many traditional societies, rituals may become more elaborate in times of danger or uncertainty, such as before a big hunt or during war. Rituals may also pull us out of difficult emotions by requiring forethought, thereby at least briefly clicking our brains out of a limbic, emotional state and into some executive functioning, notes Ethan Kross in his book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. And rituals can connect us with others.

“Because rituals are infused with meaning, and often connect to purposes or powers that transcend our individual concerns,” Kross wrote, “they also make us feel connected to important values and communities.”

Philosophers, scientists, and artists like Grubišić know, that grief feels better when it is validated, shared, witnessed. As the poet David Whyte wrote, “Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone.”


Eliza McGraw, used with permission.
Releasing the past: Williams launched her wedding ring into the Potomac river.
Eliza McGraw, used with permission.

For all of these reasons, I was motivated in my heartbreak recovery process to seek out awe experiences, time with friends, and activities that provided both meaning and comfort. I spent a month paddling down a river in Utah, half of it with friends and family and half by myself, trying to find some peace, understanding, and bravery for the next phase of my life.

And now it was time to do something with that platinum band. I’d come to admire the idea of ritual purgation. The Japanese, who love rituals and who also divorce at high rates, have a clever solution that is growing increasingly popular. A couple, or sometimes one-half of a couple, will hire a divorce ceremony planner to help. The planner will create everything you need for a proper divorce celebration: food, flowers, and a large mallet with which to smash your wedding ring. You can hold the mallet by yourself or with your ex.

While pounding the ring does sound satisfying, it wasn’t really the sentiment I was going for. A friend told me about a woman who pawned her ring after her breakup. She received quite a lot of cash, which she handed over to the first homeless person she saw. I loved that, but my ring was pretty chintzy—we used to joke it was like the hoop on a soda can top—and because we were still in pandemic lockdown in D.C., pawn shops were closed. Where I really wanted to go was the river. The Potomac was calling out to me.

Three years to the day after my ex moved out, I fished the ring out of a cardboard box. I’d safeguarded this slender hoop for 25 years. I invited two friends who often walk with me to join the hike down to the banks of the Potomac.

I considered attaching the ring to a rock and hurling it into the gurgling river or dropping it from a great height off Chain Bridge. Both of those seemed too aggressive as well as metaphorically inept. You can’t just sink a marriage under the water and expect it not to resurface. Resolution doesn’t come that easily. The best I could hope for now was distance, perspective, and the passage of time. A fast-flowing river, I knew, was the right place for that.

Instead of a mallet, I chose lettuce. Like a heart, it’s supple and impermanent. I threaded the ring onto a thin wooden skewer, and then ran the skewer through a crisp romaine leaf. I crisscrossed a couple of other skewers through it, making a floating nest. It was a hot and sunny day. The wrens and the red-winged blackbirds called overhead. Mallards larked about in the eddies, two by two. I was glad, truly, that pair-bonding was working for somebody. Also, I liked remembering that fish eggs still hatch after being eaten and excreted by ducks.

I still believe in love. I still believe that for many of us, a strong partnership can be a wonderful way to move through an unpredictable world. In its absence, there are alternatives. The best are family, community, and an
inkling of optimism that while, yes, the world may sometimes seem chaotic and unjust, it is also beautiful and ever changing. Somehow, most things work out in the end if we can just help them along.

By the time we found a serviceable beach where the current moves in close, the lettuce boat was wilting. We hurried before it became a sad salad. My boots weren’t quite high enough, so one of my friends gave me hers. The river buckled and pulled against my legs as it charged its way past Virginia, then Maryland, to the Chesapeake Bay on its eventual ride to the Atlantic Ocean. I waded out, finding my balance while cupping the boat in both hands. The ring sparkled in its perch. I nodded in appreciation and released it to the rush of waters.

Florence Williams is the author of Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey and The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.