Gwyneth Paltrow is in the celebrity news cycle again regarding her divorce from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. This time she is setting the record straight that she was not the author of the term “conscious uncoupling,” which has gained notoriety as being some kind of squeamish New Age double-speak. So shamed was Ms. Paltrow that she now credits authorship to the editor of her blog where her divorce public first became public.
But now she is no longer backing away from the term as she first did after a hail of negativity following her initial announcement.
I haven’t formally cataloged the hew and cry over Conscious Uncoupling, but let me see if I can tap into why it became a furious object of derision.
- Describing a divorce as a conscious uncoupling comes off as a little precious. Many people with complicated, angry, spiteful divorces might think, “I am barely surviving and these people sound as if they splitting up because they got a little bored with each other. Save your sympathy!”
- In the court of public opinion celebrities often get a pass for all sorts of behavior or else are judged twice as harsh. Here again, envy could be at play. If someone can sound so civil about separating, shouldn’t they work harder at staying together?
- Who does one root for in a conscious uncoupling? Why are such pains taken to neutralize what must be a very painful topic). Judge Judy would lose all her ratings if she had to preside over cases like this.
- For people from the East Coast, there is a certain New Agey quality to “Unconscious Coupling” that qualifies for a smug smackdown. See The New Yorker March 26, 2014, for example of this line of attack.
And therein lies the rub. Whatever their shortcomings as human beings, their narcissism, their privilege, their function as an object of public gossip, Paltrow and Martin had a marriage that came to an end. We can be glad it is them and not us. People can even make fun of such a cutesy term like “unconscious uncoupling” all they like but their 2 children won’t be laughing.
Whether people have sympathy or not for the divorcing couple, might there be something to be learned regarding how they chose to label their parting?
As much as people think they know the personalities and lives of their idols, it is not the case. Most of the time the only relationship we really know is the one we are in. Even relationships of family members or good friends are often not understood at the deepest levels.
As the late psychologist and author Lilian Rubin put it, our lives are too often comprised of, “Worlds of pain.” The everyday slights and misunderstandings that occur and eventually can begin to pile up in even the most seemingly together relationships. To borrow the title of a REM song sometimes, everybody hurts.
One factor that makes the difference in happy relationships is the commitment to stop piling up hurt once it is recognized that such acts and words are occurring. Lucky couples either have the skills to make peace innately or acquire them.
The way I feel about conscious uncoupling is that if it’s available, why not go there? Not every relationship lasts. 50% or so of marriages end in divorce. Those that start before the age of 30 fail at a much higher rate. If a marriage gets to the point where it is going to end, why not go out with as much dignity and respect as possible? Even though it hurts. Or especially if it hurts because that indicates there was something that existed once worth acknowledging.
I realize such a goal may not be achievable. People have affairs, commit domestic abuse, suffer extreme cruelty at the hands of one another. Sometimes the best we can do is to protect ourselves because agreeing to step away gracefully is not possible.
My point is the spirit which animates a conscious uncoupling is a worthy goal. Even when one’s partner would ruin everything, don’t let them. If you find yourself in such a predicament, get support. Find sympathetic friends or get counseling from therapists or clergy.
Don’t let the derision of other’s keep you from finding the equanimity in agreeing to say goodbye as peaceably as one can. Elvis Costello sings a song written by Nick Lowe with a title that applies here. The song is, “What’s so Funny about Peace, Love, and Understanding?.” And I would add, “What’s so funny about Conscious Uncoupling?”
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PS As luck and serendipity would have it just, after posting this article, I came across the latest social trend in break up management referred to as “Ghosting,” the old disappearing act, covered by Paul Simon in “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”