I Now Pronounce You...Divorced
Imagine if there was no such thing as a marriage ceremony. Imagine if two people who wanted to marry simply filled out forms that they filed with the government, hired lawyers and went before a notary public to declare their intention to marry, but never actually stood up together in front of witnesses and exchanged vows. Imagine if they had to wait for their marriage papers to arrive in the mail, six months or more after they were filed, and had to tear open the envelope to determine whether they were now officially married or not. No fanfare, no ceremony, nothing more than a few sheets of paper.
What would they consider their wedding day? Would there be any one day on which they could look back and say "that was the day we got married"? Would they feel married, looking down at an official court document for a scrawled judge's signature that attested to the fact that they were now legally wed...after a thirty day appeal period elapsed, that is? Or would they feel understandably ambivalent about the whole thing, and pretty much behave as though they were still single in the absence of a defining moment, a ceremony, which could give their marriage meaning?
This is how our society handles divorce, an event far more traumatic and difficult to come to terms with than marriage.
As it stands now, there really is no such thing as a definitive end of a marriage, the way there is a definitive beginning of one. There is no defining moment after which both of you can feel truly free from each other and no longer married; we simply expect couples to find their own way of emotionally ending their marriages and of somehow moving on as single people again. We expect a divorcing couple to feel closure from a static piece of court ordered paper alone, and then express disbelief or disapproval for those who find it difficult to accept the loss of their spouse.
Out of respect for how hard it can be, and acknowledging what a transition it is for most people, I submit that as a society we should adopt a kind of divorce ceremony, to help give divorcing couples closure and let them move on. It wouldn't be a joyful ceremony, or one to which you invite third cousins you haven't seen in years, but rather it would be a private, legal ceremony meant only to dissolve a marriage in a more immediate and emotionally concrete way, so as not to prolong or confuse the matter unnecessarily as is often currently the case.
If I could design such an event, it would work roughly as follows: A couple who wished to end their marriage would be able to apply for a divorce much the same way they applied for a marriage license. They would bring their marriage certificate to City Hall, to the Divorce Section (for lack of a better term) where they would pay a small fee and fill out a form similar in nature to a marriage license. The form would outline details of their marriage, including any minor children or shared property, and would include a statement at the bottom saying something to the effect of:
"We, John Smith, (husband) and Mary Smith (wife), hereby request to dissolve our marriage solemnized on March 30, 2002 at...
After the application is accepted, the couple has a three day waiting period as marriage licenses do, as a sort of cooling off period, after which time they may both return to City Hall,to the Divorce Section,and go through a divorce ceremony, performed by a Justice of the Peace in front of two witnesses, which reads something like:
Do you, John Smith, consent to the dissolution of your marriage to Mary Smith, entered into on March 30, 2002, with the full understanding that the swearing of this statement will result in a final divorce? (I do). Do you agree that any and all matters pertaining to property, debts, financial support and the custody and care of any minor children shall be addressed in family court notwithstanding this final divorce granted here today? (I do).
After the wife says her statement, the couple can sign an official statement swearing to the above, the JP can sign and notarize their application, and pronounce: "With the swearing of these statements, the marriage of John Smith and Mary Smith is now officially dissolved." Once signed and notarized, the divorce is granted immediately, literally upon signing of the document. The wedding rings could be returned, the wife could sign an official form declaring that she will now revert to her maiden name, and both former spouses would then be free to apply for a marriage license to marry again. The entire divorce would take no longer than the wedding did.
But it would have much the same effect - of signaling a profound change in your marital status, and the beginning of a new life. It would give a divorcing couple a sense of closure to their relationship right away. With the swearing of these statements and the signing of documents in each other's presence, the couple would come away truly feeling divorced, as much as they felt married after their wedding ceremony. It may even add an air of civility to proceedings that can often be rife with unpleasant emotion, and help the couple part with some degree of goodwill. Couples may even want their new fiances at the ceremony, to give everyone involved a sense that this particular relationship is truly over and keep future jealousy at bay. At the very least, it would give them a definitive end to their marriage just as their wedding gave it a definitive start.
There are, of course, more practical considerations to be dealt with when contemplating divorce, but none of them would be adversely affected by adopting this kind of immediate, ceremonial divorce. If a divorce is applied for because of abuse, for example, the parties would be able to legally forgo the above if necessary and be granted a divorce via written submissions only, so that a victimized spouse would not have to have any contact with his or her mate at all.
Questions will arise about the issue of children and property. This type of divorce would work best for couples who have neither and have no further issues with each other, or for those who are splitting amicably and who have made mutually agreeable arrangements without the need for legal intervention. Those who do need court direction about the care of children or the division of property would be bound by the judgment of a family court judge. This is not much different from the way things are handled now; the ex-spouses would still have to go to court to determine contentious issues, a judge would still order support arrangements and the division of property, and both parties would still be legally responsible for the same things that pre-divorce couples are currently responsible for. The only thing that would change is the marital status of the couple in question. They still might have to battle each in court over certain things, but they would legally divorced from each other when they did it.
Even in extreme examples where the newly divorced ex-spouses might have remarried before the court date, (and therefore new spouses are involved), it would be reasonable for a divorce court to freeze the joint assets of the former couple or prevent the ex-spouses from putting everything in their new mate's name until the matter of property and support are cleared up. Whatever the case, protections could be put in place for those who would abuse the system, without punishing those who wouldn't, and would leave marital status out of court matters altogether. It would also mean that you didn't have to stay legally married to someone for as many years as it took to straighten out your legal concerns.
This is crucial, because I don't believe it's reasonable for any government to dictate how long you must be married. I believe that if two adults wish to dissolve their union, it is not the government's place to make them wait for a year or to order them into counseling or to decree that they can't divorce at all. I believe it goes against the fundamental human right of choice. Many U.S. states are currently contemplating legislation that would make divorce next to impossible, under something they call covenant marriages, an idea that relies heavily on religious self-righteousness and a willful disregard for individual rights. I believe any movement that strives to make divorce more difficult, more lengthy, more stressful, more expensive and more socially frowned upon than it already is, is a move in the wrong direction.
Our society must foster the belief that adult human beings not only have the right to pursue their own happiness but that they are also responsible enough to make their own choices and live with the consequences. Some argue that quicker divorce would lead to people marrying and divorcing twenty-five times, but the answer to this is that the vast majority of people would still take marriage and divorce very seriously and would not marry and divorce on a whim, and that those who might would suffer for it themselves, it needn't trouble the rest of us. The crucial point here is that we must design laws and customs for the rational majority of people, instead of "protecting" everyone against the irrational behavior of the few. We must reward thoughtful, moral, honest people with the respect they deserve and the freedom they're entitled to, even if it means that a few undeserving people might take advantage of it.
The benefits of being "pronounced divorced" are purely psychological and emotional ones - but marriage itself, when you strip away the trappings and the property and sense of entitlement, is purely psychological and emotional as well.
I don't know if I'll ever see divorce ceremonies drafted into law or practiced outside of it. I don't know if people will ever understand how necessary it is to officially end something that was officially begun if we ever want to make peace with our pasts and find happiness in future love. But I think broken hearts would heal faster if we did.