Conscious uncoupling and the sanitisation of divorce

Thank god they didn’t unconsciously uncouple. EPA/Britta Pedersen/Jose Coelho

Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow has announced that after 10 years of marriage she is to “consciously uncouple” from her husband, Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin. The short announcement was made on her website goop and it contained admirable statements underlining continuing commitment to one another and the co-parenting of their two “incredibly wonderful children”.

What is so interesting about this announcement is not the fact that a well-known and high-profile couple has decided to part ways; celebrities, like “normal” people, frequently marry and divorce, often with equal measures of jubilation at both stages. Rather, it is the lexicon used and their clear desire to sanitise the process of breakup. Although I can’t help but add that it does seem somewhat counter-intuitive for a couple who stated in their announcement that they had always conducted their marriage privately to make use of a term many people would find utterly perplexing, and was therefore likely to go viral.

So from the perspective of a family lawyer, what does conscious uncoupling tell us about the termination of a relationship? Is it the language of putting on a brave face, or can it have a meaningful role to play for all uncouples deciding to split?

It has to be asked how realistic it is for other couples to “consciously uncouple”. With an estimated combined wealth of US$120 million, and a new property bought days before the announcement under Martin’s name in Malibu beach, the financial difficulties incurred by divorce, it is safe to say, do not appear to have had any effect on them.

But the story may be far different for a couple whose wealth and lifestyle does not come close to that possessed by Paltrow and Martin. Our (now somewhat antiquated) divorce law is there to dissolve empty shells of marriage with the minimum possible bitterness, distress and humiliation. To assist in this aim, divorce has now become a largely an administrative process in England and Wales and costs approximately £500 (not including legal fees).

But the out-of-court process of uncoupling in the everyday case (obviously without the input of a lifestyle guru) is frequently contentious and often motivated by financial concerns, particularly as to the division of assets, which are unlikely to be shared by celebrities. In everyday cases, concerns centre on simply making ends meet and catering for the needs of dependent children whereas arguably for the rich the concern is protection of wealth. In addition, the uncertainty as to how a court will distribute assets may explain why there is an increase in the use of prenuptial agreements and a reluctance by people with higher incomes to divorce in the first place.

And is the idea of conscious uncoupling problematic for stigmatising breakdowns – does it create a unhelpful dichotomy between the sanitised breakup and the tempestuous? In England and Wales, there have long been attempts made by the Government to sanitise divorce and impress upon parties their responsibilities. Indeed, an attempt was made through the Family Law Act 1996 to brazenly inject morality into the divorce process through forcing divorcing couples to attend information meetings and even encouraging them to take up mediation and relationship counselling.

Whilst that particular reform was unsuccessful, lessons were learnt, namely that it was firmly accepted that no two divorces are the same and it would be deeply unhelpful and patronising to try to create a blueprint for “uncoupling”. What is certain is that whilst “conscious uncoupling” may be beneficial to some, it should not be incorporated into our law as a code of conduct for all dissolutions.

For the vast majority of couples, divorces are undeniably bitter events and the process of uncoupling a heartbreaking affair. The decision of Paltrow and Martin to reject the traditional language of divorce may appear to some as undeniably New Age but, once the obscure terminology is stripped away, can be viewed positively.

Call it what you will, but the fundamental basis of their announcement was that they will endeavour as far as possible to maintain a working post-“uncoupling” relationship to benefit each other and their children. When operating in a sphere outside law, these are admirable objectives.