Now that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have introduced us to the term "conscious uncoupling," it looks like we're stuck with it. Initially, people made fun: Why couldn't these two celebs say "divorce," like any other hangdog pair facing the end of their marriage? Was there really something different about "conscious uncoupling," and is everyone else just sleepwalking into a lawyer's office? The 2,000-thousand word treatise on CU (c'mon, you know an acronym is coming) by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami that followed Gwyneth's brief announcement on her website, Goop, hardly helped to elucidate matters. And yet, when I thought hard about breakups in the celeb world and amongst my normal-folk friends, the need for a new and different term for divorce began to make sense.
Enough of my couple friends have split up that I can make a small, anecdotal study of them, and here's my broad-brush observation: They're better at being divorced than they were at being married. I'm generally impressed by their flexibility, generosity and ingenuity. They've defused the land mines leftover from the waning years of their marriages and stepped up to the challenges of co-parenting. An old friend I'll call Sean recently said to me, "I did a terrible job of picking a wife, but a great job of picking an ex-wife." Another friend invited her ex and his wife (who she genuinely likes) to her second wedding. I actually had to talk husband #1 out of giving a toast. "But we still share so much love, and I want everyone to know that," he told me, movingly.
These friends are, in fact, conscious about being uncoupled. They communicate constantly and honestly, seek and see the other's point of view and toss the parenting ball back and forth with amazing coordination. Their kids are the beneficiaries of all that teamwork.
I am a child of divorce, and it wasn't a pretty one. My parents separated when I was 12 and could barely stand to be in the same room together at my wedding 15 years later. But I always had peers to commiserate with. So many of our parents lawyered up and nuked their family lives with custody battles, money grubbing and ruthless competition for their kids' loyalty. Oh my god, it hurt.
My generation walked out of that war zone determined to do things differently. We've innovated with mediators and seamless joint custody arrangements. Our divorces are more successful, less stressful, even something to be proud of. They deserve to be cast in a positive light, and, if it feels good to the Paltrow-Martins or anyone else, renamed. But I wonder if we forgot to evolve our approach to marriage. Where was all that consciousness before the breakup? Why was Sean's wife posting pictures of her flawless, homemade family meals on Facebook while secretly friending an old flame? Why no loving toasts while these couples were still couples?
I've been married for 20 years to a guy I've known since we were 6 years old. Our anniversary fell at a busy time last February, in the midst of a job change for my husband and high school acceptances for my older daughter. We barely celebrated -- dinner out, differentiated from regular date night in that we ordered two separate desserts instead of splitting one. We planned an anniversary trip for later in the summer. And then my mother got a cancer diagnosis. I mentally cancelled our week in Nova Scotia as soon as I heard her news. "No," she told me in a hospital waiting room. "You cannot do that. You have to take that trip. It's 20 years, Bean [my nickname]. You don't take chances with 20 years. You can't shortchange your marriage."
So we are going, no matter what, with my mother's blessing and my in-laws childcare. And I'm trying to practice... what? Conscious coupling? That sounds like tantric sex. Conscientious marriage sounds like work. I might need new terminology from Drs. Sadhegi and Habib. After reading all the way through their advice posted on Goop, including the footnotes, these lines stayed with me: "Conscious uncoupling brings wholeness to the spirits of both people who choose to recognize each other as their teacher. If they do, the gift they receive from their time together will neutralize their negative internal object that was the real cause of their pain in the relationship." That all sounds so good -- I think I'll try it while I'm still married, in the hopes of staying that way.