Conscious Uncoupling? Gimme a Break, Gwyneth Paltrow!

Posted by: Shel 15 Comments

Unconscious Coupling? Gimme a Break, Gwyneth Paltrow!

Conscious uncoupling? What? Are we talking about train cars here?

Apparently not. Apparently ‘conscious uncoupling’ is a gentle, lovely term for an often chaotic, unlovely life situation. Divorce. But if we use unemotional words, maybe we can convince ourselves that this is an unemotional event, nobody will get hurt, and all will live happily ever after as the (obviously) unaffected children have a new reality.

I don’t know Gwyneth Paltrow. I don’t know what her life is like or what, if any, pain she may be in during a difficult time. All I know is I don’t like the public spin that divorce is simply two people making new life choices – no drama, no trauma, no pain. This isn’t about Gwyneth Paltrow and her choice to get a divorce. It’s about a high-profile celebrity using carefully crafted language to minimize the seriousness of divorce – making divorce seem hep or enlightened.

Using terms like ‘conscious uncoupling’ desensitizes us to the reality of what the event entails, and what damage it causes. These were not random words tossed out. By the time one does a press release, the language is carefully crafted to project the image that the ‘speaker’ intends. And using psychotherapist Katherine Woodard Thomas’ term ‘conscious uncoupling’ is intended to say: “No big deal.”

When I started practicing Family Law in Oklahoma over twenty years ago, a Plaintiff would file a Petition for Divorce and their spouse, the Defendant, would file a Response. Some years back, somebody decided that was too adversarial. The laws were actually changed so that now a Petitioner files a Dissolution of Marriage and the other spouse simply responds – thus is called the Respondent. There! Problem solved. No more nasty divorces. Now people are simply ‘dissolving’ their current life status. The label changes may alter some people’s perception of the process. Some may now feel it’s not the big deal they once thought ‘divorce’ was. But anybody who’s been through the ‘dissolution’ will tell you the process itself and all the pain and challenges that go with it didn’t get the memo.

Words are powerful tools. How we string them together can have significant impact on those who hear or read them. And when they are used to minimize and understate a very important concept, the impressionable among us who hear or read may be persuaded that a once-important concept is not the big deal they thought it was. Maybe they should lighten up. Or get enlightened. Or just not take things so seriously.

Maybe we could use this whole Hollywood hype to society’s advantage. Maybe we could get a high-profile celebrity to speak about the effects of UNconscious uncoupling. How mates who once swore to love and honor each other, in good times and bad, until death-do-us-part get so caught up in their own lives they stop focusing on the one they love and being half of the couple they created. Maybe if we could get someone important enough to talk about ‘UNconscious uncoupling,’ the topic would be splashed all over the media and talked about for weeks in newscasts and on talk shows. All the wonderful publicity and focus on ‘UNconscious uncoupling’ could very well result in a dramatic decrease in conscious uncoupling.

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  • I worked as a file clerk at a family law center for a few months last summer, and let me tell you in that few months, I encountered so many people getting divorces in such varied circumstances that the one thing I did come away with was that I never wanted to get a divorce, even if hubby and I were to have a ‘falling out’ of sorts sometime in the future. As long as there’s no emotional/physical harm happening? Sheesh, we’ll just stay married.

    Divorces are messy, no matter what the circumstances. I was always relieved when a case didn’t have minor children involved, because that at least made things slightly less traumatic.

    • Shel Harrington

      I’m with you, Rebekah – having kids in the midst of things made it all more difficult and hurtful. Maybe everybody should have to intern or clerk in a busy Family Law office for a few months – could be just the little eye-opener some need to stay vigilant about cherishing and nurturing what they have!

  • Lindsey Vanhooser

    Oh my gosh Shel, I could not agree with your post more. It is so incredibly disappointing, although not surprising that divorce is now being further minimized as if it is no big deal with no major consequences. I had never thought about the progression behind the Defendant changing to Respondent and “Divorce” turning into Dissolution. I just never even gave it a second thought, but you are so right; this casual progression is a problem! There have been some recent bills proposed that are trying to bring in some pretty crazy limitations in our divorce world, in an attempt to legislate morality but I have to admit, your blog has given me more food for thought on the issue. While we shouldn’t legislate bills that make it more expensive and difficult to get divorced, we also shouldn’t encourage the perception that divorce is just a “conscious uncoupling”. We should not continue to try to make divorce sound less devastating than it is because that doesn’t help people stay married and fight for their marriage. It also is a form of denial which does not do anyone in the family any good. On the other hand, I agree with you that there is a fine line, because some people have good reason to be divorced, and should be divorced, but wow, what an interesting topic! Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • Shel Harrington

      I wouldn’t have been aware of it myself if a couple of FB friend hadn’t posted on mywall asking what I thought of it. The first time it didn’t make any sense to me. The second time I needed to find out what they were talking about! And then, of course, learning what they were talking about made even LESS sense to me! I agree with you Lindsey that, generally speaking, we shouldn’t make it more difficult to get a divorce based on some legislators definition of morality. As far as I know the pending legislation that would limit the ability to get divorced for other than particular causes is totally voluntary. If there is something out there besides the ‘covenant marriage’ proposed legislation, I would love to hear about it.

  • I don’t keep up much, but this was on FB enough that I got the gist of her comment. Some fellow said he thought he had been guilty of “unconscious coupling.” Okay, not appropriate, but I had to laugh. Real fast, then I moved on.

    Thanks for keeping marriage important, Shel.

    • Shel Harrington

      I chuckled, too – in spite of the fact that it’s probably a true statement. In Oklahoma a Victim Protection Order can generally only be obtained against another by someone in a family or dating relationship. It includes spouses/past spouses/those dating or used to date. They actually ADDED a new category a few years back described as “person you had a child with” – because being married or having dated didn’t cover it! ‘Unconscious coupling’ would have covered it and sounded more official!

  • Chris R

    Agreed Shel! Words are powerful and when the power of our words is weakened to the point that they do not comport with our experiences it can make us (especially children) feel crazy. This is called crazy making. Parents are children’s rock; their most stable constant. Losing one or both for large periods of time creates a traumatic event in our children’s lives. This memory is stored permanently in our conscious and everything, no matter how benign, that happen around that time frame is permanently stored as well. The result is an almost constant sense of impending doom that hampers our children through adult life.

    Sure sometimes divorce is necessary and better, but we should at least acknowledge the damage we do and hopefully analyze whether the damage we do by divorcing is less than the damage caused by staying. Which, no matter how much we try to justify it, it’s usually worse to separate than to stay.

  • Gwyneth P. (Lindsey)

    True, but…. sometimes divorce is a more positive option than staying married. The term “conscious uncoupling” connotes a reflective, guilt-reduced, shame-reduced process which acknowledges the reality that sometimes divorcing is the better, more positive option than staying married.

    • Shel Harrington

      I agree that sometimes divorce is a better result than staying married – for a variety of reasons. And I am all for development of ways to get both the children and the adults through the process with the least amount of acrimony and adversarial positions as possible. What I object to is the casualness with which it is sometimes approached and using phrases which (can be interpreted to) trivialize what is involved in the process. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and bring out a different perspective, Lindsey.

  • A few years ago when I was still teaching, an administrator made an announcement that we were still having “issues” with our computer system. I remember thinking, “How nice. We’ve now eliminated all our computer problems by simply changing the word to ‘issues.'” Funny, but those *{2303b849a176fc4c55cbcb5b49f44c0b6a86ba83e746fb3d962701d1b8d54085}@!# computers didn’t work a bit better.

    • Shel Harrington

      And yet the uninitiated may have breathed easier with the ‘knowledge’ that any problem was minimal and temporary. Maybe ignorance is bliss – until reality hits and the computers are still out two weeks later! I guess it all comes back to the effects of having unrealistic expectations.

  • Very well-written response to a sad situation.

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Luanne – I agree that it is a sad situation. One of the few positives that comes from it is the opportunity to have a discussion about minimizing the effects of divorce.

  • Well said, Shel! This is exactly the reason why I’m not a fan of Hollywood and the media who blasts the stories.

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Jill. What I’m not a fan of is anybody making divorce sound noble. Necessary sometimes, yes – but not noble.

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