America's beloved celebrity couple, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, known colloquially as "Bennifer" marked their 10 year anniversary this week with a divorce.
But Affleck and Garner shocked tabloids with a public statement brimming with amicable divorce language, defying the drama-hungry hype:
"After much thought and careful consideration, we have made the difficult decision to divorce. We go forward with love and friendship for one another and a commitment to co-parenting our children."
They refused to portray their divorce as a failure and decided that it will not tear their family apart. Sources from US Weekly report that instead of lawyering up, the couple plans to dissolve their marriage swiftly and efficiently with a mediator. Not because they aren't in pain; divorce is both private, gut-wrenching pain and a strain on the entire ring of social relationships. And in the face of that pain, revenge can be a seductive promise. But they're choosing amicable for the sake of their family. No matter what happens, their kids will always come first. They want a seamless transition and a structure for managing their property and lifestyle around that goal. They're keeping their family out of the courts to end the 10-year marriage with dignity, a move which E! News online calls "divorce done right."
E! News, we completely agree.
This isn't the first time amicable divorce went viral; new-age "Conscious Uncoupling" philosophy dropped during the 2012 split of celebrity couple Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, when they publicly declared that while not all marriages last forever, "we are, and always will be, a family. We are parents first and foremost." Conscious Uncoupling, first introduced by relationship therapist Katherine Woodard, opens up a road to healthier family relationships within the divorce context, reframing our culture's high divorce rate as a calling to learn a new way of being in relationships.
These recent celebrity divorces have set the public stage for a reversal from acrimonious to amicable, but this dignity it's just for celebrities. Their story mirrors a generational trend: we're shaking off the story we've been told by our parents and grandparents, the story of polar opposites: marriage is either lifelong commitment or bitter failure. Increasingly, American couples are choosing to forego the war-of-the-roses divorce for a child-centered approach. And by choosing to put our kids first, we're reframing our entire conception of family commitment. It's not a failure to de-commit to a relationship that is no longer working, and in fact we can renew our commitment to our shared goal of raising a healthy family. We don't have to devolve into a bitter power struggle. We can break out of the box of 16th century wedding vows and the stigma that follows them. We can re-write our story, and set our own expectations both for marriage and divorce.
Thanks for the headlines. Now let's take it further.
It's encouraging that popular media is helping fan the amicable movement. But here's where the tabloids are getting it wrong: they're putting the wrong spin on the story; asking Affleck and Garner's personal friends (and blog commenters) to answer the burning question: what went wrong? Why did America's perfect couple fail to live up to our expectations? The tabloids are probing into the couple's history, whittling the complex puzzle of a human relationship into a few cliche warning signs: they attended marriage counseling, spent time apart and admitted to marriage being hard work. But wait, doesn't that sound like a real marriage? Conflict is an inevitable scenario in every relationship and what defines us is how we react, how we use conflict as a tool to deepen our understanding of the human beings in front of us. Marriages aren't all candy and roses, and the story doesn't end with Happily Ever After. Uncoupling isn't the failure, maybe it's our ancient "till death do us part" expectations that failed to live up to the reality of relationships. And maybe it's time to, publicly, let those expectations go.
So I say, maybe nothing "went wrong" with Bennifer. Maybe this is just another story of a couple whose marriage has expired after a long and successful run, and now it's time to lovingly de-commit. As a divorce professional and a child of a bitter divorce, I'm committed to building an infrastructure for amicable divorce. I believe that with a slight shift in our thinking, amicable is the path of least resistance. And with the right framework it can be both accessible and realistic. I'm heartened to see amicable divorce becoming a media buzzword. Together we're making a cultural change, a change that starts with committing to do things better for our families, for our future relationships and our evolving definitions of love and marriage.