You start your official relationship by showing off, in the loveliest possibly way, and end it in shame and secrecy, alone. Is this really any good for anyone? From ‘The Pool’ by Sophie Heawood
And it’s a very good question. Weddings are a celebration of love, and the start of marriage. They’re designed to be joyous occasions which is why there’s drinking and dancing and presents. Yet separation and divorce are often secret, or at least less spoken of. There’s less dancing though still quite a bit of drinking. My brothers did suggest we celebrate the occasion with cake and ask if they were obliged to get me presents (I said yes, but they rudely didn’t).
So Sophie Heawood’s article got me thinking – is divorce a time for a party? The idea of the ceremony is that it “mark the end of this stage of life” rather than hide it away and keep it a secret.
Shame and secrecy are two words that are often associated with divorce. I agree with Sophie – it’s not healthy to feel ashamed. But shame is hard to counteract. It is defined as ‘a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.’ Divorce is painful. We don’t have to feel ashamed, but letting that emotion diminish before having to encounter others is helpful, and gives time to create appropriate put-downs to those inappropriate inquirers.
This does mean it is quite secret, but maybe that’s for good reason. I didn’t tell anyone about my separation for a long time; even some of my very best friends weren’t aware until a couple of months in. This was due to a sense of failure that my marriage was no more, but it was also hard to articulate the pain and emotional fallout to many people. And I didn’t want to explain any ins-and-outs to selected strangers who wanted to know.
I had an accurate perception that my marriage had ended in a way it was not supposed to. Ideally my marriage would have ended in death, not that I’ve had any murderous thoughts, but rather that is the way all life ultimately concludes, and the vow one commits to in a wedding ceremony. In her article, Sophie suggests we think about ‘completed’ marriages, rather than failed. Your marriage may have produced children, but it will almost certainly have enjoyed moments (maybe weeks, months or years) of happiness. Troubles will have been shared and halved, spouses supported through unimaginably difficult times. This does sound like something to celebrate.
But my struggle with a party is twofold. Firstly, even if I broke my favourite mug, I wouldn’t be celebrating the end, I’d feel grumpy rather than ready to party, and this is the end of something far more precious. But second of all is that to commemorate this end is to celebrate that someone has chosen to leave this marriage. For whatever reason at least one of the pair has chosen to break their marriage vows. Perhaps this is, as Sophie suggests, a choice for freedom – and for some it is – for some this is a good and life-giving decision – they may well have been in danger. But often, either one or both is broken from the split. Divorce reminds me of peeling apart two pages of a book stuck together: they may come apart, but chances are neither are quite the same as before. For better, for worse, doubtless the experience will have changed you.
Divorce is the death of a marriage – it’s the end. It’s the completion of marriage too, but similarly death is the completion of life. We’ve seen recently that Terry Wogan and David Bowie didn’t disclose their own health battles, and instead let people find out after the events of their deaths. They wanted to have that time in peace, and perhaps the secrecy of divorce also links to the peace of not needing to counteract questions or explain events. However ill someone has been, their death is still hard for those left behind, and however traumatic a marriage has been, there are still traumas from either the divorce or the marriage to contend with. The secrecy and solitude of this time could be essential to recovery. Maybe instead we need wakes: the gathering of those closest to us who will simply cry alongside and acknowledge the good times now gone.
And perhaps we need to apply the same thinking to divorce as we do to birth and death. Facebook is full of photos of new little ones and their enraptured/exhausted parents, yet I don’t remember the last photograph of a funeral. There are pictures of the person and memories of happy times, but we don’t celebrate their death, we celebrate the memories of their life. This post recently explored this and resonated with me; Facebook regularly throws marriage memories into my consciousness. Often they’re happy; I’m able to acknowledge that it was happy, but I don’t then click ‘share’. My marriage is completed, and has been for some time.
At the beginning I would never have had a party, it was too painful, and working through the ideas of failing and ending were too hard to be played out in public. Eventually I went public, but I wasn’t going to party about something I treasured being broken. Maybe now I’ll have a party, but it will be to acknowledge a new change in my life, a step forward, and the unspoken message will definitely be how strong I have been able to be. I’ve been able to find the strength to move on, and that’s definitely a reason to party.