The concept of Handfasting is common among those of a pagan flavor. Many people consider this to be just a fancy renaissance word for Marriage. It is not.
The concept of Marriage, at least in the modern western world, is that two people will come together and willingly make a binding contract before God and/or Government that they will stay together until one or both of them dies.
While this is romantic in the simplest sense of the word, it has the unfortunate trait of not being very well aligned with the reality of actual human nature.
People change over time, and the idea that two people who love each other now might really not be able to stand each other in 15 years doesn’t really factor in to the western concept of marriage. To solve that problem, we invented Annullment in the religous sector and Divorce in the legal sector.
Annullment is the statement that “this never actually happened” which unfortunately tends to radically contradict with perceived reality. However, since it never really happened, once it’s done it’s pretty much over with, if it ever really happened at all.
Divorce takes the more intellectually sound position that “this did happen, but now we’re stopping it.” However, since a Divorce represents the legal breaking of a legal contract, it tends to involve expensive lawyers who actually make more money the worse it becomes for the parties involved, and you can probably figure out what happens after the lawyers make that realization. Even the most amicable divorces are sometimes turned into torturous events by fighting over the tiniest details in legal contracts as opposed to just saying “I’ll take the power tools, record collection and a couple changes of clothes and we’ll call it even, okay?”
The idea of a Handfasting is that it factors in the human tendency to change over time.
Handfasting, in business terms, would be a short term contract with an automatic renewal option. The term is usually “a year and a day” (because it sounds cool and is common in Wiccan and eclectic pagan paths). The idea is that each year (and a day) you and your Handfast-ee sit down and ask “Is staying together still in the best interest of both of us?” (and any others involved, such as kids) “Do you want to keep doing this, or shall we part on good terms, knowing that we will each be the better for it?”
The idea is that by consciously deciding if you really want to keep doing this, you are forced to look objectively at the situation, knowing you have a relatively peaceful way out if you decide that you (or others) are no longer best served by maintaining this relationship. It is further designed to emphasise that you are in this relationship intentionally, because you want to, not because you have to since you said “I do” some number of years ago.
It is designed to keep the intentionality in the relationship, and to allow the flexibility required due to the human tendency to change over time.
A handfasting ceremony may or may not be legally binding (a legal marriage), depending on the laws in your area and how you structure the ceremony and choose your officiants.
Handparting is to a handfasting what divorce is to a marriage. It is a recognition by both parties, usually done in a civil and ideally non-judgemental manner, that their lives have started to go down different paths and that they feel it is the best to continue along each path without the other.
This is not seen as a failure or a source of blame. It is simply a conscious acknowledgement that their lives that came together for a time in the Handfasting are now resuming their separate paths of personal growth and development.
In some cases, one person changes and the other person is no longer compatible with their new identify. In other cases, both people may have changed as they grew as individuals and may no longer need the kind of support that was provided by the others.
While it is rarely an easy decision to make, it can be made honestly and as a positive event for both people involved.
There is no legal significance to a handparting ceremony in and of itself. To legally dissolve a legally created marriage (which a handfasting may or may not be in your situation) you must abide by whatever laws apply in your area.