As the sun slid over the backyard of a Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone, the bonfire crackled and popped, its flames greedily licking the last remnants of togetherness, shared memories and even underwear. It was sated.
Erica Pearson had promised herself that she was not going to cry, and she didn't, at least not in front of her guests. Practically every one of the more than 30 friends gathered offered heartfelt hugs, though she thought it slightly weird that they kept saying "Congratulations." For most, it was the first divorce party that they had attended — what's the protocol, really?
"I had been procrastinating, refiling divorce paperwork after there was a small legal holdup, and decided that a way to make sure I actually dealt with things was to plan a party to celebrate it being finished," Pearson says. "That gave me a deadline."
For the 33-year-old, New York-based journalist, who had been married since October 2000 (and separated in 2008), the divorce party was a way to celebrate moving on, and also to catch up with folks she cared about.
"There were no toasts, just champagne," she says. "I passed a notebook around, and everyone wrote down things that they wanted to let go of, tore off the pages and threw them into the fire. I went first."
The laid-back Midwesterner has always loved bonfires, and her cathartic fete reflected her personality.
"It actually felt like a very festive, happy time, mostly because everybody got into the spirit of throwing things on the fire. One guy brought a big cardboard figure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that an ex-girlfriend had left at his place. Another friend brought a bunch of old T-shirts that an ex had left at her house and tossed them on the fire. That made me decide to run upstairs and grab a pair of my most recent ex's underwear, which I found when doing laundry, to throw onto the flames."
Pearson is but one of the reported 3 million Americans who were divorced in 2011; she falls squarely in the oft-quoted stats that between 40 and 65 percent of all first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Interestingly, and in the last few years, both anecdotally and in popular culture, there is a definite rise in the marking of this major milestone: the divorce party.
The first time many had heard of or seen a divorce party was in the second season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta when cast member Sheree Whitfield threw one in celebration of the end of her marriage to former NFLer Bob Whitfield. Most recently, in the August season finale of VH1's Basketball Wives, Jennifer Williams, ex-wife of former NBA forward Eric Williams, hosted a violent (and booze-soaked), if not festive, divorce party, complete with a piñata of her ex and a cake with his decapitated head rolling down its side. These two African-American women clearly sought to take some of the sting from this painful process and turn it into something empowering.
Websites like Wedding Ring Coffin walk you through each stage of the planning process with cutesy tchotchkes and tongue-in-cheek gifts and favors. (Shirts with a dagger through the heart, cake toppers with a bride and a decapitated groom, black wooden roses and divorce cakes are readily available.) According to your tastes, you can tailor your party to your liking — it can be as raucous as a bachelorette party, Vegas-style (with strippers), or as intimate as a home-cooked meal with friends and family. It can be as luxe as a cocktail party or as laid-back as a backyard bonfire.
Heretofore, divorce was a major life event shrouded in conflicting feelings of anger, relief, humiliation, joy, sadness, shame and a lot of isolation. There was no ritual to mark this milestone, and often, divorcées suffered in silence, maybe shedding a tear or two (million) after the paperwork was signed. The divorce party is a ritual that provides many with closure, catharsis and even a little fun in what is undoubtedly a tough time.
Says Christine Gallagher, author of How to Throw a Breakup Party, on her website divorcepartyplanner.com, "A divorce party provides the ritual we humans need to cope with any difficult life transition. [It's] an opportunity to vent, to cry, laugh, yell, whatever you need to do, in the company of loving friends and family."
"Friends can throw a party to show their divorcing pal that they are supported, loved and not alone, [and] the party can be a great way the newly divorced person can thank all the people who stood by them through the ordeal of separation," Gallagher writes.
For Pearson, having the party helped to "take away the shame or uncomfortableness" associated with divorce and to celebrate the end of a long, painful ordeal.
"While it's so meaningful to have people there celebrating and supporting you at a wedding," she says, "in some ways you need that support and love more when getting divorced!"
Angela Bronner Helm is the managing editor at Uptown magazine.