The fact that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are splitting up is probably not surprising to most people since there have been rumblings for a while about their difficulties and unhappiness. What is grabbing everyone's attention, though, is the way in which they say they are doing it. Just the other day Gwyneth posted a personal letter to her readers on her blog goop explaining that she and Chris want to go about their separation in a civilized way that she referred to as Conscious Uncoupling. Basically, it is the opposite of an ugly pulling apart full of blame and anger, and focuses on working together to disconnect without lashing out at each other, attempting to see their failed relationship as a learning opportunity.
Reading about this reminded me of a concept I talked about a while back which I call The Good Divorce. In many ways it was sparked years ago by patients of mine, Irene and Sam, who were at the beginning of their divorce, one of the most difficult phases. It was a gray zone, an uncharted territory with no clear rules. But their exerted effort actually added up to their getting along civilly with each other and helped dilute some of the bad blood between them. It became a blueprint for behaving respectfully on behalf of their children despite their mutual anger at each other so that they could expedite their divorce and get on with their lives. It set the stage for remaining accessible and available to each other, despite their differences. Together they made sure that their children didn't suffer and smoothly maintained the kids' schedules with school, after school activities, and friends.
For some couples this can actually be a reality and not just a fantasy to aspire to work together at the beginning of the divorce process to achieve your goal of being separate and eventually support your future goals of finding happiness with other people. Whether you are motivated by your children, limited finances, or something else, the good and unselfish divorce is something to aspire to.
If you can put the measuring of who gives and gets more aside, and help each other through the hard time, you will get there faster. One way to do this is to be very clear about the expectations you have of each other with regard to joint responsibility, whatever those include such as children, money, and the sorting out of holidays and shared friends. Do your best to spell out all the details and put clear limits in place. People so often think of spontaneity as a good thing, but in the case of divorce it can be a disaster. While people look to be flexible with each other it is not always practical or realistic. For The Good Divorce to maintain itself, contact and communication has to be specific, limited, and purposeful. The notion that you are there to help each other out in a pinch has to shift to learning to rely on other people for assistance. Put new support systems in place separate from your ex so they are no longer the go-to person to aid you with the details and logistics of your life. Also, if you can divvy up the responsibilities you still share, it will unite you in your common goal of separating. Then you can create a living environment that will give you the room to pursue an independent life from each other. By drawing clear lines in the sand you really can divide and conquer the realm of divorce. If you are willing to lay down weapons and let go of the blame and criticism, you can make an unworkable marriage a workable divorce.
No question this is easier said than done. It means focusing on what you both stand to gain rather than what each of you is going to lose in the process. If you understand that experiencing loss is going to take your breath away at different times, it might make it easier to deal with some of the symbolic divisions like property. Whether it is money or your house, the things you are splitting come to represent your sadness, emptiness and grief and, in fighting for the material goods, you are attempting to deal with these very powerful emotions. Deciding to manage anger constructively can make a huge difference in getting through the divorce, and it is an option for everyone to strive for.
It would be wonderful if some criteria for a civilized divorce could be created whereby thoughtful considerate behavior for one another is the norm, even while you may feel bad about yourself and still mad at your ex, in order to preserve not only what you once shared but also to prevent doing more damage to everyone involved. Then, in the same way that so many now-divorced people took marriage vows, these divorce vows could be taken:
-- I promise to always show you respect no matter how angry or wronged I feel.
-- I promise to keep our personal life to myself even after we separate because at one time it meant the world to me.
Whether you call it Conscious Uncoupling or The Good Divorce, the goal is the same: to take responsibility for yourself and what you did and didn't do that led to the demise of your relationship; to turn your experience into what you can learn from and change in the future; and to stop taking a blaming stance and understand that you both did and didn't do things that led you to this point. If there are no children involved this will allow you to eventually feel free enough to move untethered into your next relationship. If there are children, as there are for Gwyneth and Chris, this will help you work collaboratively as parents and resist the urge to use your children as pawns. Either way, by aiming for The Good Divorce you will model a cooperative spirit which is an invaluable lesson to pass on.
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