Are Divorce Parties a Healthy Way to Heal? This Therapist Doesn’t Think So

Marital breakdown is traumatic, and this fad doesn’t help.
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Marital breakdown is traumatic, and this fad doesn’t help.

Divorce parties have risen in popularity recently, and BBC News reported that in Las Vegas, the divorce party planning business is the fastest-growing business sector. To top it all, divorcées are reportedly spending upward of $20,000 on these “unbridled showers.” BBC profiled one Las Vegas divorce party planner, Glynda Rhodes, who sells party packages with titles like “Barely Survived,” “Self-Sufficient,” and “I Got It All.” There’s even a category on Etsy dedicated to divorce party planning complete with custom piñatas to look like your ex, “Back on the Market” shirts, and “Just Divorced” sashes. Suffice it to say, making a mockery of your failed marriage is officially a thing.

A friend recently brought my attention to a book called Divorce Party Handbook, which boasted it would show the reader “how to plan an unforgettable divorce party.” She couldn’t believe such a book existed, and I have to confess, as a licensed professional counselor who specializes in cognitive behavioral health, I was equally as surprised and concerned. Few people are happy about getting a divorce. I primarily work with couples who are fighting to stay together or who are grieving after the divorce. If they thought that they could make it work, they would. For many of them, the dissolution of their marriage isn't something they're even considering celebrating.

Many women who encounter divorce feel blindsided and never planned things to go this way. It takes two to make a marriage flourish, and it's not unheard of for domestic violence to destroy a marriage or for one partner to be willing to make a marriage work while their spouse is off living another life and serving divorce papers. For many women the path to divorce and annulment can seem like the only way ahead despite their best intentions. All moral views about divorce aside, it's clear it isn't something anyone looks forward to.

From where I stand, celebrating the end of a relationship with a party seems to be at odds with the feelings of anger, hurt, and grief that are commonly associated with divorce and that can impact women more than men. One psychologist argued that having a divorce party is a healing ritual that helps a person to acknowledge the loss that happened. Others theorize that it is a sign of a new stage of independence for the divorcee. Many individuals told The New York Times that throwing a party was a way of marking a new beginning of a new chapter of their lives. But, is it really that effective as a healing ritual or is there a better alternative out there?

The trouble with divorce parties is that they focus on an emotional response to the end of a marriage and suggest that throwing a party is the path to healing—the key to moving on regardless of whether the individual is emotionally ready for that step. For example, one BBC News profile tells the story of a woman who flew with her friends to Las Vegas and took her wedding dress to a shooting range where she shot it full of bullets, a scene not unlike the divorce party Abby had in Bravo's hit series Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce (only she shot at her dress with paintballs). While this kind of behavior might provide a temporary sense of revenge, riddling your wedding dress with the signs of your hurt is likely not going to provide lasting psychological healing. Sure, it might feel good in the moment to destroy something that symbolizes your relationship, but it doesn’t help you process the negative emotions you have been feeling.

The truth is, ignoring negative feelings doesn’t make them go away. Instead those feelings remain under the surface and leave you with the vague feeling that you are unhappy without really knowing why. Often ignoring negative emotions and thoughts can lead to an increase in negative thoughts. 

This “ironic processes” phenomenon was first studied by a researcher who asked his participants not to think of a white bear which only served to increase the occurrence of participants thinking of a white bear. Trying to avoid thinking about negative events works in the same way. One study found that individuals who tried to suppress negative thoughts had a stronger stress response later on. While many of these divorce party ideas are certainly creative, they seem to ignore the strong possibility that the person needs to grieve, not party. An effective and long-lasting approach to healing should include much more than cocktails and kitschy themes.

Instead of hailing the divorce party trend as a healthy way to cope with the emotional effects of divorce, taking a more holistic approach to addressing emotional needs and feelings of sadness, betrayal, and grief is a more effective solution to minimizing the effects of divorce. 

If your friend is going through a divorce, one of the best things you can do is just to provide emotional support by listening empathically and providing encouragement. Ask her how you can help her and follow her lead. Give your friend as much time as she needs to heal and let her know that she isn’t expected to finish grieving by some arbitrary deadline. Encourage her to seek therapy if she seems like she could benefit from outside support and encourage her take care of herself (stereotypical tubs of ice cream and hours of Netflix binging will only leave her feeling sluggish and tired). Taking the time to engage in self-care is also an important part of healing; making sure your friend is eating a balanced diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep. When our body is healthy, we feel better about ourselves which helps us resist the negative effects of stress. In this time of stress, your friend will need your support more than ever. Encouraging your friend or family member to take care of her mind and body, as well as surrounding her with support, will be a far better help than throwing a divorce party.

Divorce is a very personal and painful experience, and everyone grieves differently. For some, a divorce party may be healing, but it shouldn’t serve as a replacement for a healthy grieving process. A healthy grieving process should include the emotional support of family and friends, investing in self-care, and therapy (if needed). An “unbridled” registry, burning ceremony, or a “Back on the Market” party can’t replace the power of supportive relationships and self-care.

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners