This week Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she and Chris Martin were divorcing after ten years of marriage. In a thoughtful letter to her Goop community, Paltrow described this process as “conscious uncoupling” and in doing so unleashed an all too eager backlash from writers and critics happy to pile on, citing this as yet another instance of Paltrow “making women feel bad about themselves” by deciding to do things differently.
I don’t know Gwyneth Paltrow, but I do know the kind of sentiment that gets ﬁred at a person for being unconventional or otherwise indifferent to rules that others feel are a matter of course. Add happiness, a pursuit of an ideal or genuine love for your path or your choices and comments like narcissist, know-it-all or too-good-for-the-rest-of-us start to add up quickly.
But what if there’s something to this approach after all? What if in our fury to save face and “be enough” we have let go of a commitment to evolve? to challenge social norms? to push the edges of what we’ve been told is correct for us? In our effort to shed the overbearing expectations placed on us by photoshopped ads, have-it-all feminists and billionaire CEOs, we’ve also let go of our opportunity to reinvent the very institutions like marriage (and divorce) that have in so many ways limited and shaped us.
Conscious uncoupling is a method of intentionally, respectfully bringing a relationship to a close without slamming, dishonoring or making yourself or the other person bad or wrong. Choosing to end a marriage in a way that avoids the unkindness so common in divorce isn’t a power play or a show off move. It’s self-preservation of the best kind. Considering how destructive people can be to each other when they’re splitting and how confusing it can be to arrive at this decision in the ﬁrst place, why trash a possible peaceful exit strategy that current statistics say many of us will one day have to navigate?
Call it New Age nonsense if you will, but we need a new paradigm for moving in and out of modern relationships. ‘Until death do us part’ never planned on the deﬁnitions of forever we’re currently courting in an age of record making lifespans. Marriage, the version our grandparents and churches came up with, never factored in the demand of hyper connection embedded in a digital age.
Some people choose to stay together after the purpose of the relationship has long been fulfilled. Some people choose to uphold marriage outside of the viability of the union. Others, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, decide to clearly mark an ending so they can intentionally transition into a more hopeful future. This doesn’t make Paltrow and Martin better than anyone else in the same way that others in defunct relationships can’t claim moral superiority if they remain. If anything it speaks to the extraordinary resilience, patience and creativity required of all of us when faced with decisions so difﬁcult or full of pain.
The fact that Gwyneth Paltrow is willing to explain her approach and define her terms suggests we have many more options than we might imagine when faced with the difficulty of ending an important relationship. We do not (as our litigious society sometimes demands) have to fight for our rights at the expense of our sanity or our partner’s. We do not (as the tabloids would suggest) have to devolve into bitches or ogres, when in many situations, the split was orchestrated by unspoken, shared (and often wise) decisions to forge our own individual ways. We don’t have to hate each other or pretend love is not underlying the pain, when unions begin to crack and break. And we don’t have to stay.
I can’t wait for the day when curiosity replaces criticism when someone as determined as Gwyneth Paltrow announces she’s forging a new way. Maybe then we’ll have the conversations that need to happen about what it takes to build intentional partnerships, the kind that can go the distance when a marriage gives way. The kind that can support and sustain a family and a friendship, even after the trappings of nest building and lovemaking are gone.