Some Thoughts on “Conscious Uncoupling”

I just came across a run of pictures I took about two years ago – back when I was exploring Washington, D.C., for the first time.

My trips downtown back then mostly involved my daughter (then 3) and me immersing ourselves in all the free museums on the Mall. It was so much fun! We sought every opportunity to get there and poke around.

Some memories:

At the Hirshhorn.
At the Hirshhorn.
At the National Gallery of Art.
At the National Gallery of Art.
And another NGA shot. I love the East Building. The art of course, but also the architecture...the light.
Another NGA shot. (I love the East Building. The art of course, but also the architecture…the light.)

I didn’t (and don’t) technically live in the area, but I was in town every couple of weeks. And when I was, I’d go exploring – downtown on the weekdays, and then farther afield on the weekends when my ex (the kids’ dad) wasn’t working and could chauffeur us around. It was a good time – in spite of everything.

That “everything” being that we were in the first months of our post-marriage existence. That was a – how to put it? – challenging time. It was hard.

My ex and I are quite good friends now – but that’s a state that’s taken some work to achieve. Some concerted, specific, focused work. A lot of it.

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I’m sure we would have gotten to this point (this friendship place) eventually, regardless of anything, because it was really, really important to us to get here. We prioritized it and consciously worked on it….HARD.

Our feeling, even in the very lowest days of our breaking-up time, was that, as the parents of two very young children, we had a responsibility to them to move through the bad stuff if we possibly could. We were aware (painfully aware) that we’d have to deal with each other for years. Our kids were four and two when we split up. If we could possibly salvage some sort of friendship we wanted to do that. We didn’t want the kids growing up those stereotypical “children of divorce” whose parents can’t stand the sight of each other; how awful! So trying to put aside some of our worst bitterness – put it into a temporary box at least when we were together, so that we could manage to be polite (and preferably pleasant) to each other in front of the kids – was extremely important to us. Being so, I do think we would have managed it eventually.

But in hindsight? I think the fact that we moved to the D.C. area just a few months before we split up was extremely helpful. Post-split, when we were still so full of bitterness and angst and sadness and regret, we didn’t have to sit there and stare at each other, the resentments swirling in the air between us. We didn’t EVER have to do that – because we were in easy proximity to a major city that neither of us knew well. And so we could escape the four walls that surrounded us, we could escape our painful reality, we could escape ourselves. We could, at a moment’s notice, put it all aside and go be tourists. There was always something to see…something to do…something to explore. I’m so grateful to have had that. It was such a help!

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This next picture was taken in Summer 2012 – which was a little over a year after we split up.

This was also the time when I first became conscious of the fact that it didn’t require such a constant effort anymore to be polite and non-combative with my ex. He could still irritate me – and if I let myself I could still feel the pain of everything (And that’s still true. The past doesn’t evaporate.) But we’d finally left the bad time behind – the bad marriage, the breakup period, all of it. The present was something new and different – and so much more positive. We had a friendship now – a fledgling one, but real. It was founded in the love we both felt for these two amazing little kids – which meant it was founded on something very solid.

It’s so stupidly cliche to say that he feels like my brother now – but he really, really does. I love my 2 brothers and always will, even when they hurt my feelings or otherwise disappoint me, because I share things with them that I don’t share with anybody else: my childhood – and specifically, the parts of childhood that are about being a child of our parents. Nobody else will ever share that with me. It’s a bond…and always will be.

It’s the same with my ex. I share my parents and all those child-of-my-parents memories with my brothers – and I share pregnancy and birth and especially parenting, and particularly that being-a-parent-of-Henry-and-Mae, with my ex. That too is a bond that will always be there.

I don’t want to be with him as a romantic partner, as a wife. We don’t match that way – and we were very unhappy in the years we tried to force that point. But even in our worst moments as a couple, we never had any trouble supporting each other as parents; our priorities are absolutely in line on that stuff. And recognizing that, making that the focus of our relations (and cutting out what didn’t work – which was the romantic partnership) opened the door for something positive. Something that can actually be…happy.

I wouldn’t have thought divorce could be that way.

And so it was a strange and interesting new world I was finding myself entering in Summer 2012. It was a world where I didn’t fail. (Just because something doesn’t work or isn’t right for you doesn’t mean you failed. It means it didn’t work…or simply wasn’t a good fit.) I actually didn’t screw up my whole life and squander all my chances for things by stupidly aligning myself with the wrong partner.

It was a world, I was realizing, that I could shape and mold to be…well, anything I wanted it to be. Divorce could be whatever I/we made it.

LIFE could be anything I made it…anything at all.

The future – an interesting, positive, exciting future – was right there. Mine for the taking. I just had to keep moving toward it.

This picture makes me think of that.

That’s my daughter in the window, looking into a pretty green world. But for feeling, it’s me – looking out for the first time into a world of beautiful possibilities.

 

I took this one at George Washington's restored distillery & grist mill, down the road from Mount Vernon.
I took this one at George Washington’s restored distillery & grist mill, down the road from Mount Vernon.

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I’ve been thinking about marriage and divorce and people’s perceptions of each a lot lately – and I realized it’s largely because of Gwyneth Paltrow and her whole “conscious uncoupling” thing. (You can read the paragraph that launched the term [which has since gotten thrown around incessantly by the media] here if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

I can’t say I’ve ever given significant thought of any kind to Gwyneth Paltrow/her life/her celebrity. I’ve seen various of her movies. And, as she’s only a few years older than me (two? three?), she’s one of those celebrity-type-people that I’ve always sort of been aware of here and there. She hits those sorts of life milestones [turning 40, say] just a tiny bit ahead of me…close enough to catch my attention. You sort of follow people like that without realizing you’re doing it, I think.

I will say for the record that Sliding Doors was my hands-down favorite movie in my post-college years – but that was for the concept of life paths and choices that movie explores, not for any Gwyneth-fandom. I did just check her recent cookbook out of the library – because it was there and I was curious. (And the couple of recipes I tried were quite good.) But that’s about the beginning and end of my Gwyneth Paltrow impressions.

At least, it was until this “conscious uncoupling” stuff began to be bandied about. And now? Gwyneth Paltrow has suddenly become a lot more interesting a personality to me.

It’s because “conscious uncoupling” is actually a fantastic way to term what my ex and I have done. I love it! I love that she’s coined the term. I love that she’s (ostensibly) operating her marital breakup on those precepts. And I love most of all that she’s bothering to characterize it publicly.

When my ex and I accepted the fact that our marriage had no future, what we essentially did was “uncouple.” We dismantled the intimate partnership as thoughtfully and carefully as we were able – and we moved forward (and continue to move forward) with consciousness. Our kids became the pivot around which we structure our relations with each other.

I’m not saying this is an easy place to reach. For a while – for the whole first year really – we could ONLY really connect through the kids. There was too much bitterness…too much hurt. But now (three+ years after the fact)? We’ve managed to build something pretty decent. Something positive…something just nice.

And honestly – I’m more proud of that than of anything else I’ve done in my life. Because it was hard. At times it was really hard.

But it was so worthwhile! We wanted our kids to have both of us – easy access, as often as we could manage it. And we’ve achieved that. We also wanted them to grasp that, though sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to, or sometimes people aren’t what you want or need them to be, you can always choose kindness. I think they grasp that. We’re living that, the group of us. It informs everything we do.

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Why should it be that, because you don’t want to be married to somebody anymore, or because you’ve realized marriage with this person isn’t the right path for either of you and that you made a mistake…why should it be then that you have to HATE the person? You thought well enough of them to marry them in the first place. Surely there’s SOMETHING you can still find to like about them…SOMETHING positive they can still bring to your life.

I’m not saying it’s possible in every divorce to find this positivity. Sometimes people can be truly cruel to each other. But it was possible in mine (and no, the fact that you can still find positive things in your relations does NOT mean you didn’t work hard enough to fix the marriage. Friendship and intimate lifelong partnership are not the same thing.)

It also sounds, from what she has said publicly (and her friends, like Cameron Diaz here have seconded) that this was the case with Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin as well.

They could have just separated and left it at that. But they’re instead opening up this dialogue about marriage and divorce and friendship and relationships – a dialogue that (I’ve learned from experience) NEEDS to be opened.

My ex and I have seen so much criticism, so much judgement, so many raised eyebrows over the way we’ve handled our split. It was a really eye-opening thing for me to realize that support and understanding would have been much more forthcoming if we HATED each other.

It shouldn’t be like that.

As I said, I don’t really think of myself as some kind of Gwyneth Paltrow “fan.” But I respect her for this “conscious uncoupling” that she’s advocating – I respect her a lot. And I’m grateful for any voices that come out and speak to these ideas.

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So…”conscious uncoupling.”

I like it.

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By the way, I also like this tweet on the subject by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert:

It’s funny, yes…but it’s also so ridiculously true!

For me anyway. The me of my twenties was VERY MUCH NOT READY to be making life-binding decisions. I was so dumb about so many things back then!

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And now that I’m resorting to embedding tweets that make me laugh, I should probably wrap this up!

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I’ll end on a different subject: a picture-related one, spurred by the pics I placed at the beginning of this:

So I don’t know if it’s the heavy winter just passed or what, but I’ve got the exploring itch right now…and it’s strong. What I’d really like to do is travel – somewhere very different, even exotic.

I just have this urge to to immerse myself in something completely different. I want to surround myself with sights and sounds I’ve never experienced. And I want to take pictures.

But until I can make that happen? I think I need to do a better job of grabbing at the exploring opportunities I can get wherever I’m at.

Like: I spend a lot of time in Northern Virginia – but yet I rarely get downtown anymore. I knew that already…but I really knew it when I looked at these pictures just now. I mean, I don’t think I’ve so much as set foot in the Hirshhorn in a year. That’s ridiculous!! It’s FREE for one thing…and it’s not far away.

I need to do some D.C. exploring.

(That’s my new priority!)

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9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on “Conscious Uncoupling”

  1. I commend you and ex for managing a difficult situation and making it into something that works for your kids. Like you, I haven’t followed Gwyneth Paltrow consciously but because she’s a few years older I’ve always been aware of her. I was seriously blown away at the backlash she received when she used the term “conscious uncoupling.” I LOVED Elizabeth Gilbert’s tweet! I would also argue that there is plenty of unconscious UNcoupling going on as well and few bat their eyes. People can be so cut and dry when it comes to relationships, particularly marriage and divorce. Gil and I formally separated two (maybe three — oops, I’ve lost count) times and I was dumbfounded that EVERYONE immediately assumed that we would be divorcing. It’s like they were ready to take sides. The truth is we were working on finding something that worked and living together was very much not working. Divorce was very much a possibility but it wasn’t a done deal at the time. t would find myself trying to explain this, and I was met with such a lack of open-mindedness and understanding and compassion that I chose to deal with most of it on my own. It’s sad because anytime a relationship dissolves or when a couple is struggling, both parties most likely are going through an element of pain and could use support NOT judgement. I agree that a dialogue needs to be opened and I for one am happy to see a celebrity couple (or uncouple) take the lead.

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    1. I really think the lack of open-mindedness, etc, in this area is due to people feeling threatened. What else could it be?? It’s like, if I can make something irregular work for me and my kids and my life, that means that they (whoever “they” may be) ought to be able to do the same thing in theirs…and I think a lot of people are scared of this, of the feeling that maybe they actually CAN act, and maybe they ARE free to create a unique and fulfilling life.

      Maybe I’m wrong about that…but that’s the way it feels to me. And it seems kind of logical as well. If marriage was something that brought you more joy than not, why would you JUDGE other people for making decisions that are different from yours? Wouldn’t your approach more naturally be gentle and compassionate if your situation was one that brought you a great deal of happiness? What I mean is – if you find yourself faced with someone who isn’t fortunate enough to have found your level of contentment – why would your instinct (if you WERE really content) be to be judgmental and critical of them? It doesn’t seem to fit.

      Of course, if you’re set on defending a choice you’ve made that you’ve realized DOESN’T make you happy, but that you don’t have the wherewithal to change, I suppose it’s easier to hide behind some sort of self-righteousness and sense of superiority.

      I don’t know. At base, I guess I just really think there’s something wrong with the way marriage and divorce are approached. It’s so easy to get married…and it’s so celebrated (and not necessarily for good, logical reasons.) And it’s so hard to get divorced, and it’s so denigrated (and again, not necessarily for good reasons.) It’s not right.

      The focus should be about finding contentment and living the best life you can, I think – whether that means a traditional partnership is ultimately right for you or not. It should be about living with kindness and generosity and compassion, whatever that means for you personally. It should NOT be about superficial definitions and box-checking and toeing lines that aren’t of service to you and your ability to live a meaningful, full life. In my opinion.

      (Sorry, by the way, for the lag in responding here! I’ve been a bit bogged down lately – but I know I’m getting behind when I don’t even realize there’s a comment in my queue! I do really appreciate your taking the time to weigh in; this is a really important topic to me.)

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  2. I commend your wisdom and maturity. How fortunate for you and your kids. I was divorced 20+ years ago. We managed to co-parent and act decently together, but I can’t imagine getting to where you are. Maybe I stayed way too long. I only know you through this one post but I’m impressed and touched by your thoughtfulness and writing.

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  3. I think you’re absolutely right, and I also hated how much flak Gwyneth Paltrow got for their decision to divorce amicably. I think it is a great, responsible, and mature way to go about divorce…. You have to understand though, GP has ridiculous, disgusting haters. When she came out about how hard her miscarriage was on her emotionally, the social media comments were horrendous. Women everywhere were saying how she’s so stuck up, and how she’s acting like she’s the only one whose ever had a miscarriage, and that she was blowing it out of proportion. They would never say that to someone they actually knew who came out that they had one. I actually had a miscarriage a couple of months ago, and people were extremely kind and caring towards me – leaving really sweet condolences on my facebook, blog, etc. So people in general (women especially), treat Gwyneth Paltrow differently. She’s not allowed to divorce. She’s not allowed to grieve a miscarriage.

    Her haters disgust me… and I honestly think this was more about them than about having a good divorce.

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