Ending a marriage, with grace and respect

Yes, you can have a successful divorce, says relationship therapist Esther Perel. The first step? Writing goodbye letters to each other.

Our culture views divorce as a failure, and even more so when it is precipitated by an infidelity. Longevity is seen as the ultimate indicator of marital achievement, but plenty of people who stayed “till death do us part” have been miserable. When a relationship has run its course, I try — when I can — to help it end with dignity and integrity. I see no contradiction in asking a couple about the success of their breakup.

Take Clive and Jade. I first met them as newlyweds twenty-two years ago, when I led a workshop for mixed-race couples. They were carefree, full of promise. Two decades, three kids, and one affair later, their marriage was on its last legs, and they came to me for help. Clive had recently come clean about his secret relationship with Kyra. He felt terribly guilty but had resolved to move on and make a life with his new love. Jade was desperate, fighting to hold on to him. I remember her hanging on to every word, gesture, and smile from Clive, but all of it was in vain.

Just as we have marriage ceremonies to mark the beginning of a union, we also need rituals to mark the end.

I felt it was my responsibility to decrypt the message that was right in front of us: “Jade, he’s not coming back. Your sadness makes him feel guilty, and that guilt instantly morphs into anger at you for making him feel bad that he’s making you feel bad. He may not be gone, but he’s not here, either.”

And I told Clive, “You keep waiting till you can leave without guilt, and that’s never going to happen. It’s time to set her free.” He vacillated between being paralyzed and wanting to run as fast as he could, for fear that if he didn’t bolt, he’d get stuck again. I thought they needed to take the time to say a proper goodbye, so I suggested a separation ceremony.

Just as we have marriage ceremonies to mark the beginning of a union, we also need rituals to mark the end. A marriage is the nexus of an entire life — history, memories, habits, experiences, children, friends, family, celebrations, losses, homes, trips, holidays, treasures, jokes, pictures. Why throw all of this out and treat the relationship, in the poetic words of Marguerite Yourcenar, like “an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and unhonored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish”?

Rituals facilitate transitions. They also honor what was. Clive and Jade once exchanged vows; now they are tearing them up. But just because he fell in love with another woman doesn’t mean their entire past together was a fraud. Such a summation is cruel and shortsighted. The legacy of two decades of a shared life is larger than the legacy of the affair.

Ending a marriage goes beyond the signing of divorce papers. And divorce is not the end of a family; it’s a reorganization.

When a couple arrives at the finishing line, drained after two years of back and forth — his confusion, her false hopes, his guilt about leaving, her holding on — it’s easy to undervalue what they’re leaving behind. The purpose of the ceremony was to not let Clive’s affair eclipse all the positive aspects of their otherwise good marriage.

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. 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.

This kind of ritual has caught the public imagination in recent years, dubbed “conscious uncoupling” by author Katherine Woodward Thomas. I invite couples to write goodbye letters to each other: letters that capture what they’ll miss, what they cherish, what they take responsibility for, and what they wish for each other. This allows them 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.

When she finished reading her letter, we were all in tears.

When Clive and Jade came in for the following session, they had their letters on their iPhones. One click and the reading began. Entitled “What I’ll Miss,” Jade’s letter was a ten-page list, divided into categories, wistfully evoking the multilayered tapestry of their history. Their personal sayings — Hola, chickly . . . Dame un beso . . . the baaaaaby. The early days — love notes, mixtapes, salsa and more salsa, dog parks, parking meters, the opera. The food they loved. Their friends. The places that held meaning for them, from Martha’s Vineyard to Paris to the Cornelia Street Café to apartment 5C. Their “sexy spots.” Their “firsts” . . .

No one else will ever share the particular meanings these everyday things hold for them. She listed the connections she’d miss: “feeling protected, safe, beautiful, loved.” Her final category was simply “You”: “Your scent. Your smile. Your enthusiasm. Your ideas. Your hugs. Your big strong hands. Your balding head. Your dreams. You, next to me.”

When she finished reading, we were all in tears and there was no need to trample the tenderness with any extraneous verbiage. But it is important for the scribe to hear her own words read back to her, so I asked Clive to do so. Then he read his own pages.

Hers was a love letter; his, a diplomatic farewell, thanking her profusely for the life they had shared, expressing regret for having fallen short and assuring her that he would always treasure their bond. He was kind and caring, but his tone was purely formal. His opening and closing sentences say as much: “Thank you for being an amazing person and a truly wonderful force in my life over the past twenty-two years” . . . “I want you to know that despite its outcome, I see the good in our marriage, and will always cherish it and hold it deeply within my heart.”

This cathartic closure proved to be the right ritual for this couple. But sadly, many pairs spew out a long list of curses rather than a list of sweet memories.

A year later, when I follow up with Jade, she emphasizes how the ritual of uncoupling helped her to see the writing on the wall. “At first I thought it was a little New Age-y, but I was also proud to be doing it and even shared it with some friends. We were doing something right, despite all the wrong that had come before. I often wondered, How is he going to leave? Is he just one day going to wake up, say, ‘Okay, bye,’ and walk out the door? The separation ceremony put an end to my ruminations. I desperately needed a way to help me accept that he loved another woman and it was really over.”

Some affairs are temporary side stories; others are the beginnings of a new life. Clive’s was the latter, and no amount of waiting on Jade’s part would have changed that. The tone of his letter made that all too clear to her. “It wasn’t a ‘what I’ll miss’ letter,” she says. “It was a ‘we are over’ letter. He said some nice things, but this was definitely a man no longer in love. It struck me right then and there that while I was still suffering, still very much in love, he was gone. It hurt, more than you know, but it opened my eyes.”

Next, I caught up with Clive, who remembered the ceremony as “emotional and effective.” Guilt was turned into gratitude, denial replaced by memory. Gradually, he was able to simultaneously hold his attachment to Jade and his children and the calling of a new life with Kyra. “Until that moment, it hadn’t felt real. The symbolism gave it a seal of finality.”

This cathartic closure proved to be the right ritual for this couple. But sadly, many pairs spew out a long list of curses rather than a list of sweet memories. Wherever I can, I try to help people create narratives that are empowering rather than victimizing. 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. We need to go on with life — to hope again, love again and trust again.

Excerpted from the new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel. Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2017 Esther Perel.