When Oscar-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin announced that they were '"consciously uncoupling" after 10 years of marriage, millions of us rolled our eyes.
But while the phrase — rooted in the consciousness-raising movement of the '70s — seems a pretentious Hollywood synonym for divorce, there is value in working toward a peaceful, friendly dissolution of marriage, free of rancor and Sturm und Drang.
(MORE: Why Can’t Love Keep Us Together?)
But is it possible?
"It is very possible," says Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College. "As individuals have become more conscious that it's not divorce, but the conflict associated with divorce, that hurts, they are becoming more collaborative. People in their 50s and 60s are in a good place to do this. They're more aware that conflict is bad for everyone."
The Divorce Reflects the Marriage
That said, a divorce achieved with kindness and a sense of awareness is not easily attained.
Couples tend to uncouple in the same style that characterized their marriage. If they had problems around conflict and difficulty talking to each other during decades of married life, chances are that negotiating and problem-solving their divorce might also be contentious.
"To have so-called conscious uncoupling, you have to have had a conscious marriage," asserts New York psychologist Michele Berdy. "People tend to construct all kinds of stories about their marriages. Typically, when people get divorced there's an enactment of those stories and there may be a level of vitriol. But we also see marriages where there's a real effort to be respectful of a partner, divvying up resources in a way that seems reasonable to both parties. Conscious uncoupling presumes a level of self-awareness in both people."
How Boomer Divorce is Different
Divorces among boomers are varied and markedly different than they are for younger couples.
At this life stage, children are grown but may still be dependent and involved. After long first marriages, many couples have amassed assets that have to be divvied up, which can trigger acrimony. In cases of second or third divorce — also statistically higher among boomers — people may feel less invested than they do when a 30-year marriage is ending.
The dynamics of boomer divorce are different, too. While an abundance of research has documented the soaring divorce rate, the numbers don’t show what Coontz has observed: These breakups tend to be more about low satisfaction than severe conflict.
Research shows that women tend to be the initiators of divorce at midlife. They have careers and financial independence, and don't have to be tethered to unions that make them unhappy. It also happens that, with longer life spans, couples simply run out of steam, with both partners eager for a "next chapter" without the other.
All of these factors influence the tenor of a divorce. And it does come down to individual attitude and EQ.
"For people divorcing who have the mental capacity to regulate their stress and emotional reactions, the process can be easier," says Daniel Sonkin, a marriage and family therapist specializing in conflict resolution in Sausalito, Calif.
How to Ease the Sting
If you aspire to achieve a so-called conscious uncoupling (like Gwyneth and Chris), marriage and family therapists offer these guidelines for a kinder, gentler parting of the ways:
1. Get a good support system. A conscious divorce depends on both people being able to calmly and respectfully get down to business and focus on the issues. Otherwise, they'll end up in court.
One of the primary needs during this time of transition is to be able to talk about the experience and vent in a safe place. So whether you have a therapist, religious leader, a good friend or all three, it's important to put a support system in place.
2. Have a goal to remain friends. If you spent years being married, there are many things that bind you together. The heartfelt desire and emotional need to remain friends when the divorce is final can foster a caring, kind divorce.
3. Deal with your adult children. If you think it's only young children who rail against their parents' divorce, you’re flat wrong. Even people in their 30s and 40s will want to blame someone and feel compelled to take sides in their parents' divorce. "In couples who haven't shown any fighting, children are in shock," says Patricia Shelton, a marriage and family therapist in San Rafael, Calif.
They need to hear the words: "This is not your fault." If you can present the classic united and cooperative front, it will make the process easier.
4. Retain a sense of family and show concern for each other. If you have children and grandchildren, make sure to spend holidays and family events together with your ex-spouse.
5. Don't cheat and expect to have a kinder, gentler divorce. In most cases, infidelity scratches the chance of an amicable split. Conscious uncoupling is based on respect for one another as you separate. If one partner has cheated, that sets the stage for untrustworthiness.
"It's one thing to say, 'I love you and care about you, but this marriage is not what I want,' and another to go out and have an affair," says Sonkin. "It's more than the sex. It's the lying and deceit."
The hopeful news for married boomers who are considering divorce is that nowadays, men and women often feel the desire to pursue new interests and even new partners. If both a husband and wife want this, their divorce may be a respectful life process that leaves both happier and emotionally intact.
"If a marriage runs its course and both people want to separate, the prognosis for a more comfortable divorce is reasonable," says Berdy."Of course, if only one person wants it, then it can be contentious."
Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness.
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