Is 'conscious uncoupling' a better way to divorce?


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Sandwiched between posts on mid-century modern recycled plastic side tables and the best sugar wax treatment in San Francisco, Gwyneth Paltrow dropped the news of her marital separation last week on her lifestyle website, Goop.

Ms. Paltrow, known as much for promoting juice cleanses as her Best Actress Oscar, characterized the end of her marriage to the British rock star Chris Martin as a "conscious uncoupling" -- a term that drew more than a few eye rolls.

But what some see as pretension, others see as practicality. And marriage experts believe she might be onto something.

"I'll admit that given it was Gwyneth Paltrow, my first instinct was snarky," said Deesha Philyaw of Forest Hills, co-author of "Co-Parenting 101" with her ex-husband, Michael Thomas. "But conscious uncoupling is a real thing. It's an approach to separation and divorce that's really child-friendly."

Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Martin have two children, Apple, 9, and Moses, 7, and are reportedly taking a post-separation family vacation on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas.

In her blog post titled "Conscious Uncoupling," Ms. Paltrow included a lengthy essay by one of her mentors, Habib Sadeghi, and his wife, Sherry Sami, defining conscious uncoupling.

The term was coined by Los Angeles therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, who offers a five-week online course to "release the trauma of a breakup, reclaim your power and reinvent your life."

Dr. Sadeghi and Ms. Sami write on Ms. Paltrow's blog that when the concept of marriage and divorce is re-examined, "there's actually something far more powerful -- and positive -- at play."

Long-term marriage might be an outdated concept, they write, better suited to a time when human life expectancy was closer to 30 than 80. "The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone," they write.

The end of a marriage should be viewed less as a personal failing than as an opportunity for growth. "From this perspective, there are no bad guys, just two people, each playing teacher and student respectively," they say. "When we understand that both are actually partners in each other's spiritual progress, animosity dissolves much quicker and a new paradigm for conscious uncoupling emerges, replacing the traditional, contentious divorce."

Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage: A History" and a faculty member at Evergreen State University in Washington state, wasn't familiar with the term "conscious uncoupling" prior to Ms. Paltrow's announcement.

But she does believe there needs to be more emphasis and education on the process of divorce.

"I don't know that particular phrase, but those of us who study family history and family outcomes have been saying that how you divorce is just as important as whether you divorce," she said. "We have to create an environment where you have just as high an expectation about divorce than we do about marriage: that we expect you to behave well."

As divorces have become an established part of American life, there has been a growing emphasis on friendlier separations, she said, noting the high-profile "collaborative divorce" of actor Robin Williams, who spoke publicly about his and his ex-wife Marsha Williams' decision to use a process outside of the courtroom.

And while Ms. Coontz does not necessarily believe there is a biological impulse making it harder for humans to "mate for life," she does think that longer lifespans and changing expectations make marriage harder.

Half a century ago, some women still defined a good husband as a man who provided for the family and didn't hit her, said Ms. Coontz. It's much harder to meet expectations today that a marriage will provide satisfaction, intimacy and happiness, she said.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that lifelong marriage isn't for everyone, but it's fair to recognize that it's more of a challenge than it used to be and that divorce doesn't have to be a disaster."

Laura Silverstein, a therapist in Bryn Mawr who has been certified by the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, a leading marriage research organization, has also seen increased interest in collaborative divorces.

But she does believe that marriage for life is something couples can aspire to.

Part of the Gottman Institute's research has focused on long-married couples -- "the people who are still flirting in their nursing homes," she said.

One finding of that research is that those couples tend to have their positive interactions far outweigh the negative ones -- a 20-to-1 ratio when simply conversing and a 5-to-1 ratio even when discussing an area of disagreement.

"It's not just kids who need to hear 'thank you for emptying the dishwasher,' " she said.

Ms. Silverstein even offers continued counseling in her practice for couples after they decide to divorce in order to ease the process.

While the idea of conscious uncoupling sounds good, some marriage counselors worry about the message it sends to couples struggling with their relationships.

Divorce is unpleasant, said Michele Weiner-Davis, marriage therapist and author of "Divorce Busting," no matter what kind of positive spin Ms. Paltrow is trying to put on it.

"I'm not big on normalizing divorce," she said. "This whole idea about two people going through this process and it can really end well holds out false promise. I think that if people think there is a healthy way to uncouple, it might sort of grease the tubes for someone who might not be seriously thinking about divorce."

An article in New York magazine joked that Ms. Paltrow's description of conscious uncoupling "will make you want to get married, only so that you can divorce, only so that you can become a truly realized person."

Ms. Philyaw's initial impulse was to mock Ms. Paltrow as well, tweeting "Mere mortals get divorced. Gwyneth Paltrow consciously uncouples."

But as she reflected on it, she came to appreciate her actions. "There's this cultural idea that divorce has to be contentious and full of animosity," said Ms. Philyaw. "To the extent that she's used her celebrity to raise awareness, spare your kids some heartache and promote a view of divorce that's more peaceful, that's always a good thing."

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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