What Gwyneth Paltrow's "divorce" implies about the future of marriage

Mar 27, 2014 at 11:10 a.m. ET

What’s in a word? Everything, according to Gwyneth Paltrow. No, I’m not talking about the word Goop (thank goodness). I’m talking about the word "divorce" and the fact that she’s not using it.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin
Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment

The internet is abuzz with news of Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow’s big split but equally in the spotlight is her insistence on calling their divorce a "conscious uncoupling."

This isn’t a Gwynny original. In fact, this phrase stems from marriage and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas’ five-week program, aimed to help breakups feel less like grief and more like a personal breakthrough.

So far, so good.

Thomas makes some strong points on her site regarding the trauma surrounding a bad breakup. She notes, "...you’ve had to break up your family, your home and everything you’d hoped for in the future that you and your former partner planned together."

I am all for a program that removes the stigma of personal failure from the divorce equation. My parents went through this painful process nearly a dozen years ago and even just as a child of divorce, I have to fight against the impression that I — or we, as a family — are broken.

But, what raised a red flag for me, was a point that Dr. Habib Sadeghi, a health care professional who integrates Western and Eastern healing practices, made in his explanation of Conscious Uncoupling in a post on Paltrow's website. He mentions how mating for life was easier when life was shorter. Since cavemen lived till their early 30s, they could stay together till death do them part, no problemo. He goes on to assert that in light of our longer life expectancy, "most people will have two or three significant long-term relationships in their lifetime."

In other words: Perhaps we aren’t wired for lifelong marriage and thusly, we should reexamine divorce, and subsequently marriage. Or, as he puts it, "The high divorce rate might actually be a calling to learn a new way of being in relationships."

The interesting turn comes when he suggests that there are couples that will achieve lifelong marriages and that, "We all hope that we’re one of them." So is he suggesting that lifelong mating is the goal, but simply not possible for everyone? If so, what are those people doing differently that allows for them to have one significant, long-term relationship in their lifetime?

According to writer for Scientific American, Jeannine Callea Stamatakis, in her piece entitled "Are We Biologically Inclined to Couple For Life?" it is non-biological factors that distinguish which couples will go the distance: "...those who communicate openly, respect each other, share common interests and maintain a close friendship even when the intense attraction wanes."

Kinda sounds like a conscious coupling, doesn’t it?

Certainly the prescription for a successful marriage is not "Try harder!" but then again, maybe it is.

Dr. Sadeghi, seems to take a different stance: "The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone," asserts Sadeghi, "It would be interesting to see how much easier couples might commit to each other by thinking of their relationship in terms of daily renewal instead of a lifetime investment."

Now, mind you, I am not currently married, nor have I ever been married, so certainly my insight comes with a level of naiveté, but I would argue why even get married if not with the intention of lifetime commitment? Sure, you are not guaranteed anything — horrible things happen, people change, vows are broken. But without even the intention to make it for the long haul, won’t relationships end even earlier? To me, adding an escape clause to the highest level of commitment would only weaken it.

As a method for breaking up and going through a divorce, I am all for the spiritual journey, no-blame, no-shame, aspect of Conscious Uncoupling. I’m just not sure that this spiritual and emotional work shouldn't also be done with your spouse in an attempt to strengthen the coupling, not weaken it.

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