Politics

The Case for a Long Divorce


When Cordelia realized her marriage was over, she didn’t pack up and move out—she went to her then-husband and told him she wanted to start the process of breaking up. Thirteen months of therapy later (individual therapy for herself and her husband, couples therapy together, and therapy for each of their two adolescent children), they finally separated. She remembers a dinner with friends during that time where she cried out of frustration because they insisted she was dragging out the breakup and should just get on with her life. But after a 13-year marriage and two children, Cordelia (who asked that her last name be withheld, since her divorce is ongoing) felt that the breakup deserved all the time and counseling necessary for every party involved to move on in the kindest way possible.

I have to do this the way I think is the right way, which is slowly and carefully, and not rush any decision that I might regret later,” Cordelia told me about her thinking at the time. She remembers the relationship as being good, in many ways: Her ex was faithful, financially secure, and a good father. Ultimately, though, she just didn’t see a future together. Although she and her ex both went into counseling, the idea wasn’t to try to stay together—it was to figure out how to part amicably. Many long-term relationships follow a painfully cliché playbook when they end: Have a big fight; move out; fight over your stuff; never speak again; begin to hate each other; talk badly about each other to your friends; etc. But more people breaking up today are reconsidering the best way to end a relationship, including how to honor their time together.

Breakup counseling has become noticeably more common in recent years, according to Matt Lundquist, a psychotherapist in New York whose practice also specializes in couples therapy. He attributes the rise, yes, in part to Gwyneth Paltrow’s 2014 popularization of the term conscious uncoupling, but also to some of what Cordelia detailed: The idea of what a marriage could and should be has changed. “I think that the barrier to divorce … has gone down,” Lundquist told me. Although many couples used to divorce only under extreme circumstances—infidelity, violence, emotional abuse—he said, more couples today are willing to consider divorce “even in scenarios where things aren’t necessarily dire but are nonetheless not working for them.”

As the reasons for ending relationships change, so too are the ways people end them. About six years ago, Lundquist said, some couples in his practice started asking about continuing to be in treatment together through their breakup—“which initially was a bit surprising, because that’s not the norm.” But it started to make sense to him: Couples would tell Lundquist that he’d helped them make the decision to not be together, so they wanted help from the same person in figuring out how to break up thoughtfully. “What I say a lot to couples is ‘Listen, this is a relationship that a lot of thought and care has been put into creating; I think it warrants a lot of thought and care in its ending,’” he told me.

Of course, an attempt at a thoughtful separation doesn’t always mean a clear-cut or happy ending. After a six-year marriage, Margo Anton knew that her relationship had run its course. Like many newly single people, she planned a solo trip for after the breakup. While splitting their assets, the couple had sold their home in Edmonton, Canada, including her in-home art studio, where she taught mosaic-art classes. She saw a trip as a way to gather inspiration for her art practice, see other countries, and figure out her next steps. But when her ex-husband asked to accompany her on part of the trip, she started considering how a joint vacation could potentially help her grow a friendship with him. “I thought about it, and I said, ‘Well, you know, we’re getting along really well right now. And we started this with a honeymoon—why don’t we end it with a trip too?’” she told me over Zoom recently. They called it their “divorcymoon.”

The trip wasn’t joyful, but it was enlightening. By the time they reached Santorini, Greece, it became clear to Anton that even though she still felt love for her ex, the issues that had forced the end of their marriage weren’t going to allow for a friendship, or even the rest of the trip they had planned together. As she tells it, she and her ex had yet another argument, he left, and she never saw him again. Although the ending was dramatic, Anton believes that going on the trip together provided certainty that the decision she’d made to leave the marriage was the right one.

Anton’s experience speaks to why a mutual event or an intentional ending isn’t possible for every couple. Lundquist sees this happen in his practice: “When the conditions aren’t there for both people to do that thoughtfully, with a kind of baseline level of stability and compassion, then it’s not a good idea.” But, he said, although a trip that goes south, such as Anton’s, may be painful, it may make the process of separation easier in the long run.

Anton and her ex chose to echo the honeymoon; others decide to invert the wedding itself at the end of a relationship. Karen, who requested that her last name be withheld out of concern for her family’s privacy, ended her 24-year marriage the way she entered it: with a ceremony. The couple had been members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which has recognized divorce ceremonies since the 1960s. With their minister overseeing, the former couple released their wedding vows, gave each other back their wedding rings, and even “undid” their unity candle. “We relit the unity candle and then lit separate candles from that, and then blew out the unity candle and gave that to the minister to dispose of,” Karen told me by phone. Then the minister gave a reading and pronounced the partnership spiritually ended. “It allowed us to formalize that in a way that a legal divorce proceeding doesn’t,” she said.

Karen said that legal divorce had felt cold and impersonal. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, she and her ex-husband didn’t have a meeting at a courthouse or even a Zoom call—just a phone call with a judge. The divorce ceremony felt more emotional and meaningful to Karen, and it allowed her to include the couple’s son as a witness to the ritual: “We had this coming together, and now there’s a very intentional and specific undoing in the same sense of sacredness.”

Many religions have marriage rituals, but a lot of them don’t have much insight into how to break up or end a marriage. In Judaism, a religious divorce ceremony involving a document called a get is required to end a marriage. The document was originally a way for a husband to “release” his wife if he so desired, although a more modern interpretation requires consent from both parties and can offer some spiritual closure to couples calling it quits. Still, when the news of Karen and her ex-husband’s divorce ceremony was shared in their church’s newsletter, the other congregants didn’t seem to know how to respond. Only one person reached out to Karen about the news. “People just don’t know what to do,” Karen said. “I think, in a typical divorce, there’s an event, or people feel particularly pulled in one direction or another, like ‘Who’s the transgressor? Who is the aggrieved?’ … The silence was deafening.” Ultimately, however, Karen feels that ending the relationship ceremoniously helped her let go without any lingering questions or doubts.

Lundquist told me that such outcomes are an exciting part of his expanding practice. Couples counseling can include lots of heartbreak, but seeing those who intentionally end a relationship in a healthy, mutual way can be “touching,” he said. The traditional ways of ending romantic relationships often bring out the worst in people, but a different kind of road map for a breakup could help both parties move on in the most humane way possible, and ease a little of the inevitable pain.



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