Proposal for a civil divorce ceremony

A civil divorce ceremony after the court judgement could reduce child custody disputes.

The married couple enter separately. They stand facing the audience on either side, and a pace in front of, the Registrar.

Registrar

We are gathered today to end the marriage contracted between [John James Doe], of [anytown], and [Jane Judith, née Roe] of [othertown], on [the dd of mmm, yyyy], in [anothertown], in accordance with the law of [jurisdiction] permitting the dissolution of failed marriages on certain grounds, and in decent amity.

Is that the will of each of you?

Husband, facing the audience

It is.

Wife, facing the audience

It is.

Registrar

On a petition made by [John Doe]{Jane Roe][both of you], the [name of court], having heard and considered the representations of both parties, has issued a judgement dated [the dd of mmm, yyyy], authorising me to dissolve your marriage. The judgement includes provisions regarding the division of your joint property, [the payment of maintenance by [name of spouse] to [name of other spouse], [and custody of your minor children [name, name,…]]. Do you consent to the terms of this judgement, and undertake to fulfil them in good faith to the best of your ability?

Wife, facing her husband:

I do.

Husband, facing his wife

I do.

[Where there are natural or adopted children of the marriage, the Registrar shall say:

The dissolution of a marriage does not end the lifelong obligations of parenthood, incumbent on you separately and together. Do you undertake, setting aside your differences as best you can, to continue to love and care for your children [name, name,…][present here today], putting their interests above your own until they they reach maturity, and supporting them thereafter in their adult life?

Husband, facing his children if present

I do.

Wife, facing her children if present

I do.]

Registrar

Under the powers of the office of Registrar of Marriages entrusted to me, in accordance with the judgement of the court, and following the solemn declarations you have both made here today, I therefore pronounce you no longer man and wife.

The ex-husband, ex-wife and witnesses sign the register and leave separately.

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The form is drafted for English circumstances, would need tweaking for other jurisdictions, and no doubt could be improved in other ways. The question for now is whether the idea is worth pursuing.

Divorce is a badly functioning institution. In the UK, the quango responsible for defending the interests of children in custody disputes handled 79,000 of them in 2008.  That’s not a high percentage of all children caught up in divorce – 136,000 new ones in the UK in 2008 – but more than enough to represent a real problem. Something is going wrong. These disputes are common and often bitter, and behind them is a trail of unhappiness that commonsense CW holds contributes to crime, drug taking, and other social ills. If marriages can be helped to fail more gracefully, it would be worth doing.

Divorce, I suggest, needs a proper rite of passage. This won’t be fun; any more than funerals are – and these are as universally seen as necessary for dealing with grief. Placing divorce entirely in the courts is an anachronism, a holdover from marriage’s long history as a public religious sacrament, with divorce an an embarrassing legal cop-out. It’s become a right when marriage fails, as it predictably will in many cases, a vital implicit safeguard built in to the marriage contract.

The psychological danger of structuring divorce as purely a legal judgement is that the parties don’t really buy in to it, any more than a condemned criminal or the losing side in a civil action have to accept in their hearts or in public the fairness of the judgement against them. Most divorces are reasonably amicable, but a significant proportion are not. The adversarial structure of common law procedure also encourages divorce lawyers to pursue the pound of flesh and exacerbate strife.

Putting divorce back into the registry office, as a public ceremony requiring formal oral declarations of intent by the parties, in the presence of their children, families and friends, could reduce these conflicts and help a lot of children caught up in them.

My proposed ceremony does assume mutual consent and a minimum of respect. It would not work where the grounds are cruelty or desertion, or where one party simply does not consent. We would still need a divorce procedure purely by court judgement. The minority of such divorces would need more court supervision. I see no reason why they shouldn’t be more expensive; the law could offer significant incentives to the registry route, given its social benefits.

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My personal bias on this is from ignorance not bitterness. I’ve been lucky never to have had a real emotional involvement in any messy divorce in my family and social circle, though of course I’ve seen them among my wider acquaintance. So I’m a priori not very sympathetic to quarrelling spouses, and don’t mind subjecting them to some embarrassment if it benefits children and society. My readers will naturally have their own takes.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “Proposal for a civil divorce ceremony”

  1. This probably wouldn't work, alas, for exactly the divorces that need it. Imagine, say, a disgruntled spouse taking the opportunity to say rather more than "I do". Or manufacturing a last-minute excuse not to show up. Repeatedly. Or manufacturing a notification from the other ex-spouse that the ceremony has been cancelled. Or appearing armed (probably not as much of a problem in the UK).

    Obviously there good be sanctions for that kind of behavior, but that would just move the game-playing to another level.

    It could be useful for more amicable separations, but for those there are already unofficial ceremonies (see, e.g., the divorce cake mini-industry).

  2. On the other hand, the idea is to have a rite of passage. I think that's important: it says to both parties it is finished, but there are continuing obligations that resulted from what is now finished.

    Part of the problem is a difference in attitudes of men and women towards divorce. The most difficult piece of paper I have ever had to sign was the divorce complaint against my ex-. Signing the actual settlement agreement was easy, and I do mean easy. I remarked on that to my attorney, who told me it was very common. Men tend to view signing the complaint as their statement, "It's over. Let's settle the things that must be settled and move on." Women tend to view signing the complaint was the opening salvo of the battle/war. So they fight over the fuzzy pink toilet seat cover they both hated.

  3. I have no idea how practical it would actually prove to be, would particularly bitter parties want to start writing their own divorce vows to get one last dig in, but as a symbolic gesture I love the idea. We should give serious consideration to how ritualizing the failure of a marriage might serve as a deterrent and/or reframe the issue of divorce in our society. As a side note Im a strong supporter of same-sex marriage and generally conclude that most of the religious right's opposition to it is hollow and groundless, however if, as a measure of their respect for the institution, conservatives were to lobby for this kind of thing I would at least find their position intellectually consistent, still wouldn't agree with the but at least they'd be coherent.

  4. Paul: my proposal isn't for an add-on, but moving the crucial legal act to the new rite. If you don't show up or sabotage the proceedings, you don't get married, and you wouldn't get divorced. No speeches would be allowed.

    I agree that at best my scheme would only shift things at the margin – but we are dealing with very big numbers here, so incremental change is worthwhile.

  5. James, you're absolutely correct: divorce is definitely a rite of passage, and perhaps the one we're not "doing up" very well. When someone dies, much is forgiven…the past can't be undone. But divorces are the endings that sometimes never end, thanks to the legal system, and our own emotional stuff. Even the mini-industries you mentioned i.e. divorce cakes, Paul, are built on acrimony. And of course, the media loves nothing more than a good squabble.

    I don't know if you have any actual divorce ceremonies in the UK, but the concept is starting to take hold here in North America. Where it's healthy, the couple will stand in front of family and friends and basically undo the knot. Along with that, they can pledge publicly to their kids to continue to love and cherish them, and ask their friends to continue to support them and not take sides. Note that I said: "where it's healthy."

    In most cases, it's not and the damage is done long before people consider how to get closure. Often, a divorce ceremony is done by a single person as a way to let go of the past and move on. In a recent CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio interview, a woman choosing a divorce ceremony told the reporter that the ceremony gave her the ability to flush away much of the past hurt and pain and to consider marriage again.

    A ceremony that strictly deals with the legal aspect is a great start. To really be effective, it will not shy away from the emotional component that is the most painful and damaging…not just to the couple, but to everyone around them.

  6. James:

    You might be right in some cases, but my impression is that most other countries simply don't have the wackjobs that one sometimes sees getting divorced in the US. For those who use the divorce proceedings as a way to manipulate/control their ex-spouse to be and children, the requirement of shared attendance at a ceremony would be a godsend. Flaking out on attendance would postpone the imposition of final terms for custody, child support, division of property etc, it would prevent the other spouse from remarrying, and so forth.

    Maybe I'm just vicariously paranoid; I know some divorces that have gone fine and wouldn't have needed such a ceremony, and others where it would just have been an opportunity to add several new layers of drama.

  7. Barbara: thanks for the very interesting information that informal divorce ceremonies are spreading. You are absolutely right on the emotional component. My predilection is to handle this by symbolism and formality rather than attempts to address pain directly. I don't see how a public official like the Registrar (or US equivalent) could do this. Ministers of religion could try; but few religions allow for a religious divorce rite, though I suppose it might be feasible in Islam.

    As further evidence of the naturalness of rites of passage, the citizenship ceremony for immigrants, introduced in the UK in 2004 as a New Labour sop to the nativist right, has recently developed into a celebration.

    John Casey: my phrase isn't very good, but it does try to capture the fact that the moral obligations of parents continue beyond the expiry of legal ones. And even the latter boundary is fuzzy: do divorce settlements today totally ignore the expectation of college costs for adult children? I'm not suggesting the law should enforce these obligations, unlike those to minors, but it seems right to recognize their existence in any formal civil rite.

    I find it difficult to take the sabotage objection (several commenters) seriously. By my construction, the ceremony excludes non-consent, cruelty and desertion divorces, which will continue to be handled only in the courts (at a penalty). So the hypothesis must be that one spouse pretends to consent to the decree in order to sabotage the ceremony and humiliate the other spouse. The registrar halts the proceedings, and the issue goes back to the court, where the judge can jail the yahoo for contempt or add another €/$/£100,000 to the payment (or remove it if it's the payee acting up). It isn't hard to devise strong incentives to prevent abuse.

  8. Good post! I think what you're trying to accomplish with your suggestion is essentially normalizing divorce: transforming it from an unexpected and distressing outcome to something that is as likely to happen as not (which it is, according to statistics) and which carries no shame.

    A good place to start might be to stop raising children from day-one to expect to find ONE partner they will love and cherish for their entire lives. Sure, it happens. But in my experience, it is not the norm. Prepare people to expect, if you will, serial monogamy. Change marriage vows, i.e., drop, "Til death do us part," to reflect more realistic expectations. This might help people adjust so they're not so bitter and vindictive when their relationships change. (Note: I did not say, "fail.")

    Second, it is incumbent to guarantee women and men's social standing and, importantly, pay. As it is now, the living standards of most women and the children who reside with them decline greatly when they separate from a male partner. This creates hardship, understandable fear and anxiety on the part of many women, and can lead to anger, bitterness and a desire to avenge the perceived unfairness of the situation by prolonging legal battles. Crack down on fathers who evade child-support. Moreover, as a society we need to stop shaming single mothers.

    Just my two-cents worth.

  9. Brynn: I'm not trying to make divorce any easier than it is already, and I hope my idea would appeal to people with different takes on its general desirability and normality. Divorce is tautologically the failure of a marriage, since the only form currently available is a promise of lifelong monogamy. Perhaps this is misguided, I don't know. Campaign to change the institution by all means, just don't coopt me.

    Your hypothesis that painful divorce – as opposed to all divorce – is made more likely by income inequality looks plausible and testable. With greater equality, you would expect more divorces, as the women have more options and less need to stay in bad relationships, but fewer nasty ones – at least over money: I would guess that child custody rows are driven by non-economic needs. Any reader feel like checking this out?

    "Just my two-cents worth." Please, please, never apologise for your opinions. If you think they they are worth a public airing – and FWIW I think they clearly are – stand up for them. As the Edinburgh professor apocryphically told his first-year medical students, "never apologise, never explain."

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