This week the world was abuzz with the news that Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband Chris Martin are divorcing, announced in what many folks on my social networks seemed to feel was the most obnoxious divorce announcement of all time. The actual notice was brief, vague, and, I thought, classy. But Gwyneth’s choice to title the post “Conscious Uncoupling” – and to follow the announcement with a lengthy description of what conscious uncoupling is and why it’s better than plain-old divorce – definitely rubbed people the wrong way.
I clicked through to the post expecting to be irritated, but reading the accompanying article – which I think it’s important to point out, was written by Dr. Habib Sadeghi & Dr. Sherry Sami, not Gwyneth herself – I actually was surprised by how much of it resonated with me.
I’m not sure I can get behind the idea they seem to be presenting that the human race has evolved past lifelong monogamy – I believe we are more adaptable and capable of long-term commitment than the article suggests – but I definitely agreed with their premise that much of the anger that surrounds divorce is caused by shame and guilt, that we lash out at the other person so strongly because we believe the dissolution of a relationship must equal failure. And the deeper we retreat to protect ourselves from a perceived battle, the more bitter and angry and even meaner we get.
I certainly experienced that when Jon and I separated and divorced. If you know the end of the story, you know that we eventually reconciled, remarried – recoupled, if you will – and have been back together now for over a decade, with more children, strong, solid, and with all the promises of “happily ever after” that this uncertain life can offer.
So when we decided to get back together, Jon and I had to make a choice of sorts. We could either go to therapy and spend hours hashing out what we did to one another and why, or we could recognize that we both knew why, close the door on that period of our lives, and move forward with the unspoken promise that it would never happen again.
We chose the second way.
It’s not that I had anything against therapy, mind you. I’d benefitted from the wise words and sometimes, quiet listening and endless tissue box of several counselors over the years, and I have no doubt that being able to talk – and talk and talk and talk – about how things had gone wrong: exactly where my life, and his life, and our lives together had derailed, was extremely helpful.
And though Jon’s never exactly been the therapy sort, I know he’d done his own talking, and listening – whether to friends or his parents or his pastor – and had his own Come to Jesus moment, just like me.
But while we both had done plenty of self-discovery and hard work on our own, together we found ourselves taking a different path. Though we didn’t verbalize it at the time, it soon became clear that our road to relationship recovery was built on a kind of radical, no-holds-barred forgiveness.
Radical forgiveness meant wiping the slate clean. It meant knocking down all shaky foundations and re-building. It was a sort of collective, affected amnesia about all the awful things we’d said and done in the fallout of our breakup. And because we had been divorced, and because divorce makes people do all kinds of crazy things, there was plenty to forgive and forget.
No, of course we didn’t actually forget. That would be foolish. We need to have it there, somewhere in the recesses of our minds, as a reminder that there are places we will never again go.
And in some ways, the knowledge that it happened and the process of moving past it made adults of both of us, gave us more compassion for each other and those around us, forced us both to recognize that we are deeply flawed and yet worthy of love. It was the most painful time of my life. But I wouldn’t trade it for a smoother breakup or an easier dissolution. It made me who I am – made us who we are.
Sure, it would be lovely if everyone facing a breakup could go through it “consciously” as Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are attempting to do. And you know what? I think it’s admirable, honestly, to try to find a new way to see through the end of a relationship, without clinging to defensive anger and treating the court room as a battleground.
For many couples facing divorce, though, I just think it’s not terribly realistic. We go about our lives, we feed the kids, we go to work, we pay the bills and get the oil changed in the car, and sometimes at the end all we have time and energy for is feeling the way we actually feel, not the way somebody else tells us we should.
I look back to the day I took the kids, piled them in our little red station wagon, and drove 500 miles across four states so that we could move in with my sister. I was angry. I was hurt. I was uncertain about my future. And if somebody, at that point, had suggested to me that I be more “conscious” in my uncoupling, that person might have gotten a sharp kick in the shins.
But I’ve seen how relatively simple it can be to dissolve that anger and hurt later, when both people want to. When you’re too exposed, too tired to keep up those walls and defenses. Or when it’s just been so long, you’ve forgotten why you put them up in the first place.
You can go to the point of wondering whether an alien has replaced the person you loved, and later, love that person again. You can get to the brink of the end of a marriage, stand on the end of that pier with your toes dangling over the edge, and still manage to dodge the wave that would have knocked you off.
Jon and I didn’t manage a “conscious uncoupling.” We were too busy trying to keep our heads above the water to even think about doing it another way. But we created a very conscious re-coupling, based on forgiving and rebuilding. I like to think that, even if we’d not decided to recouple, we still would have “reconciled” by forgiving and moving on as friends.
We all find our own paths. Some people spend hours learning how to “consciously uncouple” and let a marriage end peacefully – at least from the outside looking in. Some hunker down when the going gets tough, riding out the rough parts with gritted teeth, drawing their commitment from the seriousness of marriage vows when they’re having a hard time feeling committed to their actual partners.
And some of us just light a match and toss it over our shoulder as we walk away, bridges exploding in the background.
But no matter who we are, no matter what we choose or how consciously we “uncouple,” at some point we all hurt the people we love. At some point we all make mistakes. And while not all relationships can or should be rekindled, I’ve learned that you can behave badly and still find redemption. You can find it in your heart to offer redemption to those who’ve behaved badly to you. Even if you blew up the bridge, you can find a way to move forward, whatever “forward” looks like to you.