Divorce

A rite of passage may help people to make a new start. Polly Toynbee argues for a new approach to

What do you do when it's all over? The stiff envelope drops on to the mat - and that's all that marks the decree absolute, the absolute end of what should have been a life-long bond. Your next of kin is no longer kin at all.

Is that all there is to it? Nothing more? This week Christina Stark got divorced in church, to mark the occasion. Her United Reform church minister in Sheffield created a new 45-minute service concentrating on all the good things that came from the marriage. (Her former husband was not there.) They sang All Things Bright and Beautiful, which many of the same 50 guests had sung at her marriage 20 years before. Her 17-year-old son Duncan stood beside her, and some of the congregation cried, just like at a wedding.

The point, Ms Stark said, was to celebrate a new beginning. It is something that a growing number of people are asking their churches for, a new rite of passage to mark something that can be far more traumatic than a death. In most divorces there is a leaver and a left. However bad the marriage, to be left is piercingly, horribly, humiliatingly painful. People often take years to recover, even if in the end they come to acknowledge that a new life, or a even a life alone, is better than life inside a bad marriage.

Although the new divorce law will finally remove the last vestiges of the concept of blame from the statute books, shame, blame, guilt and white rage will still surround divorce. It may be common - one in three marriages ends before death - but that doesn't make it easier. Perversely, the worse the marriage, the more insufferable being deserted can be: "How dare he/she, after all I've put up with?"

Bitterness spills over into negotiations about access to the children and money. Lord Mackay's new mediation process may help in some cases, but some people need to fight. Deep down, they want their day in court, telling the judge what a bastard/bitch their spouse was. Often people are outraged to find that nowadays they are deprived of it by a mere quickie rubber stamp - irretrievable break-down - and the judge couldn't care less who did what to whom on Christmas Eve of 1987. Maybe the mediator can replace the judge, giving a chance to air and lay to rest all that grievance, grudge and rage.

It is easy to see why people might feel the need for something ceremonial to mark the moment, anything, even a rather odd church service, if church is their thing. But if not church, what instead?

I know of people who have been bold enough to hold divorce parties, as a comfort for the deserted. It can be a time to gather your friends around you and count their numbers for security. (It may be a wicked way of telling them they belong to you and not to him/her). Since it takes a certain flamboyance when too many of the abandoned feel humiliated and drained of self-confidence, it should be organised by best friends.

We live in odd times. The model is marriage and yet fewer people get or stay married. Eternity rings, white dresses and morning coats still dominate the imagery. The reality is darker and more uncomfortable. Absurdly romantic aspirations give way to horribly bitter divorces, because people still expect too much of their own ability to tolerate someone else for ever. Marriage was never easy, but it used to be compulsory. Now, mercifully, it isn't. While a ceremony for divorce may be useful to some, a different text for the marriage service itself might be better still. No more "till death us do part", but a less daunting "for as long as ye both can bear one another".

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