We spend months, even years, planning weddings and commitment ceremonies? But when a marriage ends and a couple parts ways, divorce often feels swept under the rug. Suddenly, the years spent together are forgotten as both parties part ways and make new starts. Divorce is a major life transition and yet it fails to receive the attention that other life transitions receive. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some couples have found a way to honor their past relationship by creating a separation ritual.
“Just as we have marriage ceremonies to mark the beginning of a union, we also need rituals to mark the end,” says Esther Perel a licensed marriage and family therapist and best-selling author. “This allows the couple to honor the riches of their relationship, to mourn the pain of its loss and to mark its legacy. Even if it is done with a cooled heart, it can nonetheless provide solace.”
In her article for ideasted.com, Perel encourages couples to write good-bye letters that capture what they’ll miss, what they cherish, what they take responsibility for, and what they wish for each other. Although this practice may seem odd for couples who are parting ways and may still be raw with resentment and regret, Perel has discovered it is a powerful way to heal wounds and move forward.
Simply put: Rituals facilitate transitions. They also honor what was and what will be.
Feeling reluctant to write a love letter to your ex? That’s a typical response. “Sometimes, departing spouses are reluctant to shift their focus to the good things in their relationship because they are afraid it will take the wind out of their sails,” Perel says. “It’s as if they feel the need to trash what they had in order to justify leaving. What they don’t realize is that by doing so, they simultaneously degrade their own past and all the people they shared it with — leaving a trail of angry children, parents, friends, and exes. We need a concept of a terminated marriage that doesn’t damn it — one that helps to create emotional coherence and narrative continuity. Ending a marriage goes beyond the signing of divorce papers. And divorce is not the end of a family; it’s a reorganization.”
The “reorganization” begins with setting aside the ideas of what might have been and accepting what is. This is the magic of Perel’s letter writing exercise, and the catharsis can be transformative.
Before you launch your own letter-writing campaign, consider working with a therapist who can facilitate the sharing process in a similar manner to Perel. “I try to help people create narratives that are empowering rather than victimizing,” she says. “It doesn’t always involve forgiveness, it makes room for anger, but hopefully it is an anger that mobilizes rather than keeps them trapped in bitterness.”
If you’re not ready to have a cathartic moment with your ex, you can still write a letter of gratitude for him or her and the happy times you shared together or the accomplishments that were made possible because of your union. If you have children together you might choose to focus on how grateful you are for them. Consider all the gifts you received from your marriage. There is value even in the tough lessons learned.
Taking time to appreciate your marriage helps create a more balanced perspective and can even provide you with insight into the type of relationship you’d like to have in the future.
When you finish writing your good-bye letter, be sure and include the date. This ritual will capture the moment in time when you made the decision to move beyond the disappointment and into your future. “We need to go on with life,” says Perel, “to hope again, love again and trust again.”