Sociology Focus
Author: Stephanie Medley-Rath

Your Presence is Requested at Our Divorce Party

Are divorce parties just another excuse to throw a party? A Hallmark created celebration? Or just another example of celebrity excess? Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how a divorce party may be an opportunity for a couple to transition into their future roles as ex-husband and ex-wife.

The arrival of a wedding invitation may be exciting, but not out of the ordinary. The arrival of a divorce party invitation, well, that’s another story.

This summer—during the height of wedding season—Jack White, of the rock band the White Stripes, and his model-wife Karen Elson invited close friends and family to a party to celebrate both their 6th wedding anniversary and upcoming divorce.

Don’t believe me? Check out the invitation here.

Why on earth would a couple choose to celebrate both their wedding anniversary and divorce at the same party? While it may be difficult to wrap our head around celebrating these two events at the same party, let’s focus on the divorce part of the event.

It would be very easy brush off a divorce party as just the kind of thing that celebrities do, but there are divorce party planners and divorce party suppliers. Even Hallmark offers cards recognizing the newly divorced. We may never know which came first—the business supporting divorce parties or divorce parties themselves, so let’s get back to my main focus:

Why would anyone want to celebrate their divorce—especially together?

Divorce like marriage denotes a change in a person’s achieved status. Status refers to the honor or prestige attached to a position in society and can be achieved or ascribed. An achieved status is just what it sounds like: something one achieves, like graduating from high school. An ascribed status is something we are born with, such as race or something that occurs naturally, such as aging.

Marriage transforms statuses, men into husbands and women into wives, which is something that is seen as an achievement and to be celebrated. American women are still likely to take on the Mrs. title and change their last name denoting their new status and roles as wives. In other words, marriage is seen as transformative and something to be celebrated.

Divorce, however, turns men into ex-husbands and women into ex-wives. This change in status could be seen by the individual as achieved (if they wanted the divorce) or ascribed (if they did not want the divorce). Divorce could even be something in-between because a person may wish to remain married, but not under the current circumstances. Even if individuals in the former couple want to celebrate their divorce, to do so together is somewhat perplexing. Or is it?

In the case of Karen Elson and Jack White, it appears that they intend to remain close and continue raising their children together. Elson and White are doing divorce differently, but perhaps in the future more couples will see divorce as something to celebrate together as well. Perhaps they view a happy divorce as a way to continue a happy parenting relationship even if their marital relationship has ended.

Another issue in a divorce is what sociologists call role exit.  If statuses are the titles we hold, then roles are the behaviors expected of a person with a given status.  So as a husband Jack White may have been expected to be monogamous, a romantic partner, and confidant.1  Now that they are divorced there is work that each will have to do to inform everyone of their new status and communicate to the world that they will be behaving differently.  When we leave a status behind, the work we have to do to change society’s view of us is a key part of role exit.

What does this mean for us non-celebrity types? It’s possible that divorce parties are a result of changes in marital patterns. Couples today are getting married for the first time at an older age than in the past, they are more likely to cohabitate prior to marriage (or instead of marriage0, and con tray to popular belief, they are less likely to get divorced.

Perhaps divorcing couples (especially those with children), are attempting to have a “good” divorce to limit the negative consequences divorces can cause to children. How divorce happens, impacts children differently. A divorce that is rather peaceful is going to harm children less (if at all) than a divorce that pits parent against parent. High parental conflict—married or not—is not good for children. Having a divorce party, especially when children are involved, reaffirms the couple’s commitment to the children while ending their commitment to each other. In this way, the divorce may be reframed as positive event and helps solidify the goals of the divorcing couple for the family overall.

Of course, a cynic might consider divorce parties just a result of good marketing. Perhaps no one ever considered a divorce party until they learned of businesses catering to celebrating divorce. So it really could just be Hallmark’s fault.

Now the most important question of all: Do I get the wedding gift I gave a divorcing couple back at their divorce party?

Dig Deeper:

  1. Why might divorcing couples decide to have a party to celebrate their divorce?
  2. What are the implications of divorce parties on society? To families?
  3. How has divorce impacted your life? Do you think a divorce party would have made things better, worse, or the same? Explain.
  4. There are plenty of negative examples of divorce in popular culture. Can you find any positive portrayals of divorce in popular culture? How does it differ from negative portrayals?
  1. I emphasize the may have been in this sentence.  Who knows what Mr. White and Ms. Elson set out as their marital expectations.
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