THE BLOG

Divorce American Style Is Changing

07/18/2014 02:49 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2014
  • Martin Zabell Longtime writer for major newspapers and businesses

Divorce American style isn't what it used to be.

Divorce American style was for generations of Americans a character flaw. Sure, a husband or wife could be happy about a divorce, particularly if it expedited another marriage, but any expression of happiness had to be subdued and private because it was likely that many friends and relatives of both ex-spouses considered divorce shameful.

"When my sister got divorced about 25 years ago, she and my mother went into mourning," Orlando cake designer Larry Bach told the Associated Press in an article entitled "Today's divorces can mean cake and eating it, too."

Divorce was considered immoral by so many people that political candidates avoided it like the plague for fear that it would hurt them at the ballot box. Ronald Reagan, in fact, was the first divorcee to become president. His 1949 divorce was still an issue during his 1980 presidential campaign. He was a hypocrite, said many of his detractors.

"He emphasized family values in his campaigns and during his presidency, although he was the first president to have been divorced," is how Wikipedia's "Ronald Reagan" page put it.

Divorce American style in 2014 isn't anything like Divorce American style 1989 or 1980.

Divorce American style in 2014 can be, and often is, celebrated. That's not a typo. And I'm not talking about private celebrations either. I'm talking about public celebrations with friends and family members participating and watching.

Trying to find statistics on the growth of divorce parties is a thankless task with no answers, but my personal online interviews with event planners such as Charlotte Eulette of the Montclair, N.J.-based Celebrant Foundation and Institute and Richard O'Malley of the New York City area-based The O'Malley Project as well as online research makes it clear that more Americans are throwing divorce parties.

Eulette said divorce parties "started trending for the first time" about five years ago and she now organizes 10 to 15 per year. O'Malley began planning divorce parties in 2012 and has planned about a dozen for men and a dozen for women. Glynda Rhodes of Las Vegas-based The Divorce Party Planner website told FoxNews.com that she began planning divorce parties in 2012 and has planned dozens that range in price from $1,000 to more than $5,000. Christine Gallagher of the Los Angeles-based company The Divorce Party Planner told LifeWire she organizes two or three divorce parties per month.

"Since (the) 9/11 (terrorist attacks) our society has become much more aware of how precious and fragile life is and they wish to mark the milestones in their lives, even the difficult ones, in a authentic and healing way," wrote Eulette during her personal online interview with me when I asked why she thought there has been an increase in divorce parties.

Some divorce lawyers like this one offer divorce parties as a part of their service retainer. This is becoming especially widespread in urban areas like New York City or Los Angeles. Bruce Provda said that he prefers to bill by the hour, and it usually takes more than 30 hours to plan an event, which makes this add-on a profitable venture.

The growth of divorce parties is also reflected in related businesses such as cake stores. Bach said he designed his first divorce cake eight years ago. Duff Goldman, who owns cake stores in Baltimore and Los Angeles, told the Associated Press that he created his first divorce cake about a decade ago and now also makes about one each month. Tampa dessert chef Lisa Stevens told the AP she made her first divorce cake six years ago and now makes about one per month

"We call them freedom cakes," Stevens said. "I try to redirect the anger (of a divorce) to a more positive place when it comes to the cake."

Parties Celebrate Freedom

The evidence is clear that the mood at divorce parties is generally, if not always, much closer to the mood at a wedding than the "mourning" mood after a 20th century divorce.

Sometimes, divorce parties are joyous. Sometimes, they are uplifting. Sometimes, they are just plain weird. During my research, I read about divorce parties that featured pole dancing, skydiving, fireworks displays, visits to health spas, burning wedding gowns, and reverse weddings.

O'Malley said the events are too optimistic to be called divorce parties. He prefers the term "freedom fests" to symbolize an ex-spouse's decision to live a more independent life.

"I won't produce a negative divorce party," he wrote. "We only produce freedom fests to celebrate the future. Since we only produce freedom fests we don't have the negative issues. Guests don't want to be at a nasty, negative event. There is no fun in that."

The divorcees themselves seem to prefer happy events.

"On average, the men are looking for a release, a way to get rid of frustration and anger," wrote O'Malley. "Women seem to look for an indulgence."

Sometimes, the divorcees celebrate their divorce by themselves; sometimes, they celebrate with a large gathering of friends and family. Kenny Heuer told ABC News that he decided to skydive after consulting Rhodes and her business partner Mari-Rene because the activity was an unfulfilled objective on his and his ex-wife's joint agenda.

"My wife getting up and leaving, and moving into her own place was really a shock to me," he said. "And so instead of being depressed, and wallowing in my pity, so to speak, I figured, you know what, this is a new beginning."

In an article published by CNN.com entitled "Divorce ceremonies for healing... maybe a toaster," Cathryn Michon told LifeWire that her friends brought her "divorce gifts" for the divorce party she had at the Los Angeles restaurant Mr. Chow. She said her divorce party was as celebratory as an Irish wake.

"Just because there's been a death doesn't mean you can't have food and drink, acknowledge the past and hope good things for the future," she said. "It's about closure."

A divorce party that O'Malley organized had about 100 guests. When he heard how optimistic she was and how much she wanted to share the next step in her life, he pitched the idea of a reverse wedding to her. She loved the idea.

"The idea was that everything from that first wedding was "taken back," he told me in a personal interview. "We set up a little ceremony area where she could "take back" her vows. We had her father "take her back" up the aisle. Then we even had the girl who caught her original bouquet, throw it back to her. Then as a favor to the guests, everyone got a pretty silver picture frame when leaving. If you were at her wedding, we included the photo of what you gave her, so you could "take it back" as well."

Parties Can Be Therapeutic

The concept of a divorce party and the details of some of the events can make the honoree and the guests sound hedonistic and in denial of a truly sad event, but relationship therapists sometimes recommend and encourage them because they can be therapeutic.

"If I see somebody getting stuck in the mourning around divorce I may ask them to set up something like with their friends just to do something different than to sit and be unhappy about it," clinical psychologist Dr. Tiger Devore told FoxNews.com.

Eulette said that she has witnessed divorce parties have a positive effect on the divorcee.

"The honoree is stepping over a threshold and reclaiming who they are," she said. "They are usually sad but also happy that as one door closes in their lives others open. It's healing type of ceremony and life reaffirming."

Besides, the emotional support of friends is more important for divorcees than newlyweds. Gifts also help divorcees more, Michon said in the story published by CNN.com.

"A toaster means a lot more when your heart's broken than on your wedding day," she said.

I don't have a copy of the Yellow Pages so I don't know whether there is a "divorce party planner" listing or whether you have to phone event planners and ask them if they organize divorce parties. I do know, though, that it's relatively easy to find divorce party planners online.

The divorce party websites convey a feeling of happiness for their prospective clients. When I was a kid, I watched "Love, American Style," which was broadcast from 1969 through 1974, on a few occasions. My recollection is that it was a silly and happy television show.

"Divorce, American Style" would have been a very depressing television show back then, but it might be an optimistic and joyous show if it was broadcast in 2014.