by: Jennifer Grant
The Interwebs don’t need more snark about Gwyneth Paltrow, so I almost hesitate to weigh in on her “Conscious Uncoupling” announcement.
I’m mindful that Paltrow and her husband Chris Martin are, in fact, real people who are in distress and working hard to be loving parents. I am also certain that whether you’re a millionaire actress married to a rock star or my neighbor down the block in the Chicago suburbs, I can’t begin to know what’s going on inside your marriage.
So what follows isn’t about trashing “gp,” as she refers to herself on her website, but about exploring what I think her now-infamous “conscious uncoupling” message gets wrong about marriage. (By referring to her as “gp,” I’m acknowledging that her statements are hewn with the help of publicists and probably represent the bone she felt obligated to toss at a barking, celebrity-crazed culture. I expect that what the real woman – Gwyneth Paltrow – is experiencing right now is likely very different.)
Here are five things gp’s goop post gets wrong:
1. Her terminology sets the wrong tone.
Paltrow didn’t invent the term “conscious uncoupling,” which refers to a five-week course developed by therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas. The term is not meant to be a synonym for “divorce,” but a process by which divorcing couples can attempt to be as peaceful and gentle with one another as possible in an impossibly tricky time.
By choosing “Conscious Uncoupling” as her headline, however, Paltrow seemed to be using the term as a stand-in for divorce. Given her notoriety as an advice guru who appears blind to her own privilege (helpfully suggesting that readers purchase $300 sweatshirts or make Fried Oysters with Curried Crème Fraîchefor dinner), it comes off as condescending.
A divorced friend put it this way: “‘Conscious uncoupling’ sounds so clinical and clean cut. Like somehow she is above all the bloodiness of splitting up.” That is, while you wear $35 Keds and get “divorced,” gp slips on $500 sneakers and is “uncoupled.”
I imagine that gp’s announcement would not have resulted in jeering posts all over the Internet had she just said, “Yeah. This stinks. We tried. We failed. We’re all heartbroken,” instead of suggesting that this – like that recipe or those puzzlingly expensive sneakers – was another extravagant secret that she was privy to and consented to share with her readers.
2. Divorce is messy.
Divorce is a death that must be grieved, not only by the people who once entered into marriage together, but by all who love them: their children, their friends, and their extended families and communities. Friends of mine have used words such as “shattered,” “upended,” or “devastated” to describe what they feel in the wake of a separation.
Just last week, a friend revealed to me that her marriage is ending. She said she had been trying to save it for years, and that her kids are brokenhearted. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said, her voice shaking. “I’ve never done this before.”
Well, neither has gp, but the sanguine way she describes her experience may make women like my friend feel like the attendant pain and awkwardness of divorce is preventable, or even in bad taste.
3. Marriage is messy.
Not only is divorce difficult, but so – at times – is a healthy marriage. It’s hard work, but we don’t like admitting that. We’d rather upload a picture of ourselves grinning and toasting one another with champagne flutes.
Remember the attention Ben Affleck’s Oscar speech got last year? The father of three, addressing wife Jennifer Garner,said, “I want to thank you for working on our marriage for ten Christmases. It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”
People were up in arms.
How could a Hollywood icon acknowledge that he and his movie star wife have to work at their marriage? How dare he?
But, for some of us, it was a welcome sign that the Affleck-Garners were making a real go of it. We were glad for them – and for their children.
On our wedding days, we all blithely promise to love our spouses “for better and worse, in sickness and in health” and so on. It’s easy to speak these words when your biggest concern is that you received three crockpots as wedding gifts. But, then, as the years wear on, real life and its challenges hit. Like other long-married friends who have weathered what we politely call “dry spells” or “rough patches,” I have come both to accept and to expect that how I feel about my husband will go in cycles.
Sometimes I’ll feel lonely and misunderstood – sometimes because my husband is withdrawn and navigating a difficult time himself or because I’m moving into a new part of life and can’t quite articulate what is happening within me. Sometimes we’re under stress physically, professionally, or financially. But, the hard times do pass, making way for happier ones of renewed, almost gleeful infatuation. Cycles.
But, much of the time, as people who have been married for more than 25 years, my husband and I live in contented place of being committed parents, lovers, and friends.
To be in relationship with someone who has known and loved me – who has shared my history, friends, and is as deeply invested in the lives of our children as I am – is an enormous gift whose value is impossible to quantify.
It is hard work sometimes, but there is no one I’d rather do this work with.
4. The insect analogy really doesn’t work.
Below her “conscious uncoupling” post, gp quotes Drs. Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami who tell us that, in the Paleolithic period, people only lived to be 33 years old. Now that we can expect to live two or three times longer than our Stone Age counterparts, perhaps we don’t need to see marriage as a lifelong proposition.
“Perhaps we need to redefine the construct (of marriage),” they suggest, as though the modern definition of marriage was actually crafted in the Stone Age.
Then, describing insect exoskeletons, they recommend we avoid being brittle (like the shell of an insect), but instead understand that the purpose of our intimate relationships is to help us progress into “better lives” for ourselves.
I believe marriage is a sacrament, an outward sign of divine grace. Living out that sacrament and engaging in real forgiveness is what keeps my husband and I from becoming rigid, hollow people – not trading our spouse in when we feel bored or disappointed or not “happy” anymore.
It’s hard to shake off our culture’s persuasive message that what matters most is our own personal happiness – not the wellbeing of others or the real (and unflashy) satisfaction of keeping our commitments.
In my wedding, this prayer from the Book of Common Prayerwas read:
Make their life together a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.
What a wonderful goal to which I can aspire – to have a marriage that somehow points to Christ’s love.
5. Marriage transforms us.
Loving anyone puts us at risk of being hurt. Badly. Our spouses, children, and even close friends will hurt us from time to time, and more severe losses – deaths, divorce, betrayals – can even make us feel broken. But these losses make us more humble, more empathetic, and more fully human.
This is true whether you’re single, married, or divorced.
Jesus said, of dying to self, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24, ESV)
When we are broken, we have the opportunity to unclench our fists and let go of our selfishness – bit by bit – so that God’s love and light can shine through us.
As I said above, no one can see into another couple’s marriage – there is no point and no grace in judging someone else’s marital commitment or choice to break it. But, there are rich gifts to doing the work if we can and, as for me, I plan to keep consciously coupling.
Jennifer Grant is the author of Love You More, MOMumental, Disquiet Time (forthcoming), and Wholehearted Living (forthcoming). Find her online at jennifergrant.com.