Must We Say We Did Not Love?
Honor the relationship that ended through a new story and rituals.
Posted June 11, 2019
What is the story of your marriage and divorce?
When speaking with your friends or family, what is the story you tell of your relationship? Are you talking mainly about the arguments or misdeeds, betrayals, disappointments, and losses? Do you focus on the negative experiences and overlook or even deny the positive experiences? Is it possible that you are defending yourself from your own feelings of responsibility, feelings of regret, or perhaps you want to justify the decision you made to divorce or your behavior during the divorce?
“Tell me why, my erstwhile dear, my no longer cherished / Must we say we did not love, just because it perished?”
As a psychologist, I hear my clients’ stories and have noticed a pattern. My clients say things like “He was a narcissist who only cared about himself.” “I saw her temper but I thought it would change after we married.” “He was stingy about money.” “He didn’t care about me or the kids.” “She spent money like it was going out of style.” “He was an addict (addicted to porn, alcohol, sex).” “He never really loved me.” “She cared more about her friends than me.” “I wanted to go to marriage counseling but he wouldn’t go.” “Everything she said was a lie.” “He cheated on me.” “We had nothing in common.” “She was lazy and wouldn’t get a job.”
When I ask about the early days of the relationship when most couples are deeply in love, even those stories are often distorted and negative: “She was using me for my money and I didn’t know it,” or “he was so jealous of my friends, but I thought it was love.” “She said she wanted kids, but then once we were married she changed her mind.” “He ‘checked all the boxes’ but there was no romance.”
I am certain that there is truth to the stories my clients tell me. But in the telling of the story, the nuances of the relationship are lost. It is hard for many divorced people to remember the good feelings, the good experiences and the positive intentions of the other. Those good feelings and experiences led them to marry, and often to have children. During the divorce, those positive experiences are re-interpreted to fit a simplified story that puts blame on the other. It tells the relationship story in black and white. And often, that story becomes fixed, repeated over and over, and set in stone.
Imagine how different the experience of a divorce can be when we can recover the good memories and tell a more balanced story.
I believe that revising that story, recognizing our own part in the ending of the relationship, and forgiving the grievances, would greatly benefit our own recovery and our children’s adjustment to the new family structure. Importantly, it would help to heal the relationships with the larger extended family and community network. It would help us move on to the next phase of life. It would also allow for the possibility of a ritual to mark the transition. You can work toward these goals even if the other person doesn’t.
How can you recover those positive memories and tell a more balanced story?
If you are open to allowing those good memories to return, perhaps looking at photos and videos from the early days of your relationship and marriage will spark some positive recollections. Recalling the good times does not necessarily mean that your divorce is a mistake. Rather it allows you to hold a more richly nuanced story and to let go of feelings of having been a victim. People grow and change and, sometimes, couples change in different directions. A letting-go ritual may help you forgive and ease your transition to your new life. It will let you begin to release the anger, pain, and grief. Imagine that you have a terrible meal at a restaurant and then disregard all the good meals you’ve had at many restaurants, focusing only on this one bad experience. How do you think that would impact your view on dining out?
Almost all life passages are honored through rituals, or religious ceremonies, and often with the participation of “stakeholders” in the community.
For example, graduation from high school brings together family and friends in a ritual of recognition of achievements and progress to a new stage of life. Holidays often include traditional rituals that provide a structure in the celebrations. Fireworks bring in the New Year. Candles honor the anniversary of a death. Weekly religious services bring communities together and mark the passage of time. Rituals or ceremonies acknowledge and honor almost all life events: births, weddings, bar and bat mitzvot, confirmation, and deaths. These rituals support the person in their transition to a new chapter and give comfort when there has been a loss. Funerals, wakes, and memorials are closure rituals that offer a way to heal and prepare ourselves to go on with our own lives.
Rituals and ceremonies have been a part of human culture and in all societies since the earliest times. While we no longer sacrifice animals on an altar, many of our traditions date back thousands of years. We preserve these traditions to recognize and honor milestones and transitions in our existence. The continuity from generation to generation grounds us, connects us to our ancestors and our past, and adds meaning to our lives. Yet when couples separate or divorce, this momentous shift to a new stage of life as single adults, or single parents, is only acknowledged through the signing of the final divorce papers.
Must We Say We Did Not Love?
Monza Naff, Ph.D. wrote a valuable book, Must We Say We Did Not Love? in 2008. She frames divorce as a rite of passage, but one that is seen in our culture as a “failure” and therefore rarely honored. She writes that a divorce is often the death of a relationship, the death of a dream, a hope, and a vision of the future. Her book proposes various rituals for divorcing families, including those without children, those with just one person participating in the ritual, hostile divorces, stepparent rituals, and divorces that include children.
She writes, “When I speak of a divorce ritual, I mean creating a sacred space and time to name, honor and attend to, and release the truths surrounding change, pain, and/or loss brought about by divorce as well as what remains true and/or valuable from the past. One also needs to state one’s intentions for the future. I believe that a personally designed and meaningful ceremony asks us to bring our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits to account, fully present into a place of honor. It requires us to articulate that we need help to heal, and to affirm that we are not alone.”
A Ritual Involving Trees
When Jess and Adam (not their real names) split up, they worked out the legal aspects of their divorce with their attorneys and a divorce coach. They did not want to go to court, but their divorce was not easy. Their emotions were intense and they argued a lot during their settlement negotiations. However, once they had come to an agreement that was mutually acceptable, they surprised the professionals in the room when they stood up and hugged each other.
I was the Divorce Coach and suggested that they could mark the transition with their children, and asked whether they would like to do a ritual. After some discussion, they agreed to create a ritual with the coach’s help.
Jess and Adam loved nature, camping, and gardening. Gardening had been a family activity that they enjoyed throughout their marriage. They decided to plant a young fruit tree at each of their homes. They stood together after planting these new saplings and each said a few words about their love for their children, recounted some of their good times, and the sadness they felt now. They each also pledged to work together to create a sense of one family under two roofs. They committed to nurturing the new trees as well as their new post-divorce relationship with each other. They invited their middle school-aged children to witness and to add their own thoughts if they were so moved. They said the sweetness of the fruit from their trees would remind them of the sweetness in their relationship. This ritual was brief, and they did it at each home, and it gave them a sense of release, a focus on healing and moving forward in harmony.
A new story opens the way to healing rituals
Others have written about divorce rituals, although Naff’s book is particularly compelling. A Google search for divorce rituals yields numerous results such as this. You will find rituals that include a Japanese ritual of flushing notes about the marriage down the toilet, a religious “Mass of Lament,” tossing wedding bands into a river, the Unitarian Universalist’ divorce ceremony of hope, and divorce parties with divorce cakes and rather morbid cake decorations of a bloodied spouse. Other websites, such as this one, offer suggestions for designing your unique divorce ritual. A meaningful ritual will relate to your family’s unique interests so that it truly “speaks” to you. If your family loves music, incorporate music into your ritual. If your family enjoyed good food and cooking together, bring that into your ritual.
If you can develop a divorce story that includes the good as well as the difficult experiences, then consider the possibility of creating your own divorce ritual, with or without your ex. Naff’s book offers many examples or you might seek the help of a mental health professional for guidance.
If more people accept divorce rituals as a way of marking a transition, perhaps our culture would let go of viewing divorce as a failure. That would be a sea change in our culture that would truly support family values.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2019
 Edna St. Vincent Millay, as quoted in Must We Say We Did Not Love? The Need for Divorce Rituals in our Time. Monza Naff, Ph.D. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, Inc. 2008.
 Must We Say We Did Not Love? The Need for Divorce Rituals in our Time. Monza Naff, Ph.D. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, Inc. 2008.