04/24/2014 07:54 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Anatomy of an 'Uncoupling'

Colin Young-Wolff/Invision/AP

With her recent "Conscious Uncoupling" announcement, Gwyneth Paltrow effectively banged the collective gong and introduced the world to a new term for a more evolved, user-friendlier divorce (as opposed to the pedestrian divorce favored by the rest of us). This concept, despite sounding a trifle pretentious, makes sense -- who wouldn't advocate for less collateral damage -- especially when there are children involved? But not all of us can call forth these generous qualities in our soon to be ex-spouses at will; if we could, we might not be getting divorced in the first place.

My divorce 10 years ago was wretched and about as far from a "Conscious Uncoupling" as one can get -- given that I live in California and am presumably in shoulder-rubbing proximity to a lot of these new-age concepts as they are born. I do yoga! I hoped for a civil uncoupling! But even with the best intentions, the dastardly deed of divorce can get away from you and become an uncontrollable beast, fueled by two camps of lawyers -- not to mention the stress of friends and family deciding to weigh in or pick sides. The emotional shrapnel inflicted by a contentious cleaving is the worst kind of awful. It can feel as if an indelible stain is being left on your soul.

But I'm not worried about Gwyneth; she has a good support team and ample resources. She can navigate the rough or "consciously" rippled waters of divorce on a luxury liner, while I (and millions of other women) have had to be content struggling in leaky dinghies.

Despite wealth, status and an Oscar, divorce -- regardless of whatever sunny spin you put on it -- remains a great equalizer. Call it what you will, but "uncoupling" still sucks. You can minimize or cushion the impact but it is a miserable process and is designed to be that way as a deterrent. Even if your divorce is amicable, you still have to deal with the ache of missing your kids when they're with their dad and it won't be your turn again for days. (The dirty little secret about divorce is that parents learn to embrace and even relish this alone time -- but she's a long way from figuring that part out.) You still have to suck it up when your ex dates younger women and word gets back to you. Even if you have "the ass of a 24-year-old stripper," that's got to sting. Wait until he marries one of them.

But, again, I'm not worried about Gwynnie being lonely or her chances of finding another man. Undoubtedly there will be many suitors calling -- her dating pool includes billionaires, as well as successful actor and musician types. In light of some remarks she made to Chelsea Handler about her propensity to dispense blow-jobs to quell marital arguments (how on earth did that neat little trick fail?), men will be lining up around the block hoping to have the good fortune to argue with her.

Without a handbook helpfully laying out the steps, it's hard for a recently "uncoupled" person to know what to expect. I've found through asking other women, and from my own experience, that there is a fairly predictable anatomy of an uncoupling.

First, she will likely do a bit of romantic recycling to ease the pain of the split. It takes a lot of work to get something new off the ground, and at this early juncture, who can be bothered? Someone who fits the bill for this role will be familiar, good company (in and out of bed) and not too demanding. However, this reunion is usually short-lived.

There will be plenty of get-togethers with close girlfriends. This may or may not involve ex-bashing -- depending on your level of "Conscious"-ness. There's also an inevitable amount of woe-is-me malaise that descends when you realize your life has been turned upside down as adjustments to lifestyle and financial limitations begin to sink in (Gwyneth can bypass that step altogether).

Be prepared for a rude awakening when you notice that people react differently to you. Sometimes they're nicer and sometimes they're not. It's almost as if they're afraid this "uncoupling" bug could be contagious and you need to be treated gingerly. You're also vastly more threatening as a single female entity at functions with all your married friends. This not so subtle distancing tactic will accelerate very quickly if you actually look pleased about your newly single status. It takes a while to figure out which camp you belong in, and you can expect that some friends will drop off the radar.

Once the dating-in-earnest part commences -- and the longer you put this part off, the better -- it can feel like a rollercoaster as you look for someone who "gets" your new life. (This one may be tricky for Gwyneth -- it's a rarified, elite group that can relate to her life). If you have kids, you need someone who can appreciate those responsibilities. Unlike your formerly pre-mother single days, clothes can't be tossed off without thinking through consequences now. There may be plenty of opportunity for romantic folly, but if you want a potential long-term partner, the application process is much more complicated. Having a string of "guest appearance only" chaps can leave you feeling empty.

As a woman who went through a difficult uncoupling, my humble advice to Gwyneth, or to any other newly separated woman, would be to skip the fellas for a while. Go on a Man Diet -- which doesn't mean eat lots of them -- it means abstain, at least for a while. Get your bearings. It's tempting to rush into new romantic clinches, but you might not realize how much you've changed during your married years. What you found attractive or entertaining in your youth may not hold the same allure -- nor should it at this stage in life. Picking men the same way you did in your 20s doesn't work. Bad boys have limited appeal, other than a fleeting distraction. You start off thinking you can operate an emotionally separate existence (i.e. a single woman) while your kids are with their dad and then revert back to mom-mode as needed, but it never works that way. Emotions don't lend themselves well to being compartmentalized. And if you're not careful, your grief from the end of your marriage can bleed in with a new relationship, and then you have a fine mess.

One of the best benefits that can come out of a date-free existence is creating the time for a bit of self-discovery. I had my own unplanned version of a Man Diet when I didn't go on a date for many months. I was at a bit of a loss when my daughter was with her dad, and that feeling of emptiness propelled me to revisit what I loved to do and explore what brought me joy. I signed up for classes in subjects that appealed to me. Writing had always been something that I relied on as a tool for processing events. I took more writing classes and started work on a novel. The subject? What else? A humorous take on life after divorce -- because anyone living through it could use a laugh.

Which brings me back to Gwyneth. Maybe she'll find time for some pole-dancing, writing or painting classes. (The woman already knows how to cook, workout like a fiend and, well, an awful lot of other impressive things.) But aside from all the good fortune she can claim, she is like everyone else in the ways that matter: just a woman trying to deal elegantly with her decision to uncouple. I wish her luck.