WE REALLY shouldn’t laugh. Then again, how can we help ourselves? If ever there was a couple whose very existence seemed designed to render us helpless with mirth it is Chris “the virgin choirboy” Martin and Gwyneth “I would rather smoke crack than eat cheese from a tin” Paltrow.
From the moment this mismatched pair hitched their wagons to each other’s rising stars, they have seemingly gone out of their way to cause as much hilarity as possible. If it wasn’t Martin’s earnestness about music so bland it makes the theme tune for The Archers sound like Shostakovich, it was Paltrow’s wacky website Goop – cruelly nicknamed Gobbledygoop – which dispenses invaluable nuggets of dietary advice such as “drink nothing but pea and avocado soup for a fortnight”. And her habit of following up bold statements about her ordinariness with tales of declaring January “international month”, and entertaining her children, Apple and Moses, with a visiting Italian chef, Japanese anime screenings and lessons in sushi-making. Now the Coldplay front-man and the Iron Man actress have contrived to make their parting as entertaining as every other aspect of their ten-year relationship by referring to it as “conscious uncoupling”, a phrase so hippy-dippy it was guaranteed to keep Twitter clutching its aching sides for days. As if that wasn’t enough, the couple who boast about keeping their relationship “private” justified their decision with a 2,000-word essay from GPs cum spiritual gurus Dr Habib Sadeghi and his wife Dr Sherry Sami. A masterclass in psychobabble, it talks of “wholeness in separation”, “divine endoskeletons” and two people “playing teacher and student respectively”. How could our cynical Scottish personalities resist?
Yet, as we were saying, we really shouldn’t laugh. Because once you strip away the sepia-tinted photograph of the couple in happier times, the farewell holiday in the Bahamas and the gift Chris gave Gwynie of a dove in flight – and, yes, that’s quite a lot of stripping away – are their opinions really so bizarre? Aren’t they merely pointing out that the best divorces are the ones conducted with a degree of civility? Particularly when there are children involved?
The number of divorces is steadily declining in Scotland – 9,700 last year, down 14 per cent since 2010. This drop is due, in part, to the economic crisis which has made it more difficult for couples to split up. “There’s been a dual effect happening. People have been experiencing more difficulties during the recession, but they have also been putting their relationship issues on hold because of an inability to even contemplate separating,” says Stuart Valentine, chief executive of Relationships Scotland.
Logically then, the number of divorces is likely to rise again as the economy picks up and more couples will slug it out over assets and childcare. Although the precise impact of a messy break-up on children is hard to measure, there is empirical evidence that suggests it takes a heavy toll. One survey carried out by law firm Mishcon de Reya found more than two thirds of divorcees admitted using their children as bargaining tools in their separation and almost half admitted drawing out the process as long as possible to secure their desired outcome. A more recent survey carried out by Mumsnet also showed there was a disconnect between parents’ and children’s views of how badly the children were affected. Four out of five parents thought their children were coping well, while only a third of their children shared the same sentiment.
The term “conscious uncoupling” owes its sudden global fame to Martin and Paltrow, but it was actually coined by US family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas who offers a five-step online course at a cost of $297. Her aim is to create “a map for a couple to consciously complete a relationship – to have an honourable ending”. Woodward Thomas may come at it from a different angle, but her goal – to help divorcing couples to face the future in a positive, forward-thinking way – isn’t far removed from what 100 “collaborative” family lawyers, financial advisers and counsellors across Scotland have been trying to achieve over the last decade. Swapping their adversarial role for a more consensual one, those qualified in this specialist field encourage couples to spurn the courts and opt for an approach in which all parties commit to sitting round the same table and thrashing out an agreement.
The process differs from other forms of divorce, including negotiation, because everyone involved – clients and lawyers alike – sign a document agreeing they will not go to litigation. There is no exchange of lawyers’ letters which can heighten bad feeling; everything is discussed face to face and the agenda is driven by the couple themselves. The fact that walking away would mean starting from scratch with new lawyers means there is a real incentive to keep working at it.
As only one set of experts – such as financial advisers – is instructed as opposed to two, costs are kept down and problems resolved more quickly. But most importantly, settlements agreed in this way are more likely to be adhered to than those imposed arbitrarily by a court and those involved tend to feel more positive about the experience of divorce.
“Collaborative law takes quite a holistic approach to separation. It’s about trying to support the family in its transition from the traditional family into a family where the parents are separated, but still require to have some communication and be able to work together as parents,” says Shona Templeton, who is secretary of Consensus Collaboration Scotland, the umbrella body for those involved.
“It’s very different from litigating because the court has certain fixed options, whereas when you are doing this in a collaborative process you are creating a bespoke solution for the particular circumstances of that family. What you are trying to do is to achieve a result that is good for everybody and no-one is going to feel hard done by and that they’ve not been listened to.” Expressed in these more down-to-earth terms, Chris and Gwyneth’s aspiration for a break-up that allows them to move into a new phase of their lives on good terms doesn’t seem so kooky.
In fact, though the glitzy lives of Martin and Paltrow set them apart, many of the issues which appear to have caused friction in their marriage are common factors in divorces. According to gossip magazines, the pair disagreed over the way they should bring up their children (Gwyneth wanted them to eat wild rice and learn Spanish, Chris favoured ice cream and DVDs) and religion (Chris is Christian-ish while Gwyneth has been known to dabble in Kabbalah). Their very different cultural heritage – he’s from a middle-class English family, she from Hollywood royalty – meant there was also a clash of identities. However much Gwyneth raved about the superiority of the English dinner party, she pined for California (and indeed having moved from London last year, the couple recently bought a $14m mansion in Malibu).
And then there was the issue of infidelity. Who knows if either of them was actually guilty of it, but rumours were already doing the rounds before Vanity Fair threatened to publish an “epic take-down” of Paltrow earlier this year.
According to Valentine, such issues are a source of tension for many of the 20,000 people who every year approach Relationships Scotland, which offers counselling and mediation services. “Wherever there’s disagreement on key issues of family life, for example where children should live, what school they should go to, what sort of activities they should do, and wherever there is a disagreement over religious faith or ideology, that can be a significant source of stress for a couple,” he says.
Where it comes to conflicting cultures, Valentine says, it’s a question of power and who holds it. “Strongly linked to that is the issue of compromise: is it always coming from one partner? Are there different perceptions of who’s giving up the most for the relationship?” he says. And, of course, the internet has taken the issue of infidelity to a whole new level.
Valentine’s one criticism of the way Martin and Paltrow have approached their break-up is that they have used “sanitised” terminology which suggests moving forward to a new phase is an easy option. “Some of the language is off-putting – there are clever phrases that make it sound as if you can make all the bad things about separating vanish. That isn’t the case. Couples will still have significant hurt or pain, but trying to manage divorce as carefully as possible to protect the people involved is credit-worthy.”
There are occasions where a collaborative approach to divorce is inappropriate: domestic violence cases, for example, where the safety of one of the parties is at stake. And there will be others where there is just too much hurt or where one party lacks the commitment to make it work. The trick for collaborative family lawyers is to try to weed out those cases and convince the rest that facing each other at a table is better than facing each other across a courtroom.
The approach, which, like conscious uncoupling, originated in the US, has now been adopted internationally, although, in Scotland it still only accounts for around 5 per cent of all divorce cases.
Jennifer Gallagher, of Blackadders law firm in Dundee, has been practising collaborative law since 2006 and has never had a case which failed to reach a resolution. “For the lawyer, the main change is having to get your head round not taking a positional stance, but remembering both parties are trying to achieve a shared goal,” she says.
During a rigorous training period the solicitors hone the soft skills required to take the heat out of combustible situations. “We learn how to find the common ground and to rephrase negative statements and present them in a positive light,” she says.
“If there are any hot issues the lawyers will know about them in advance and work out a strategy to avoid it degenerating into a slanging match.” If it does, then all parties will take time out.
“It’s not necessarily easier for the client, it’s quite a difficult thing for people to do, to come together and talk with the person that they’re separating from,” says Templeton of Glasgow-based MTM law firm. “But if they can invest in the process in good faith and with full disclosure and if they feel they can be supported through that process, the long-term benefits are quite considerable.”
There are several reasons why, despite enthusiasm, the take-up is still low. The first is that there aren’t always enough collaborative lawyers to go round, with more in urban centres than outlying areas. Also, if one partner has already briefed a lawyer who doesn’t practise collaborative law then the couple cannot embark on the process. But mostly it comes down to a lack of awareness: many people do not know the service is available. To this end, Consensus is undertaking a marketing drive, surveying its members to better assess current uptake and promoting the benefits of this “alternative approach”.
As Martin and Paltrow embark on their divorce, the mockery continues unabated. The latest round of sniggering has been induced by an article Paltrow wrote suggesting mothers with 9-5 jobs have it easier than film stars who have to spend 14 hours a day on-set. But for all their airy-fairy other-worldliness, the couple may prove to be powerful ambassadors for a better kind of break-up. “I did raise an eyebrow at the term ‘conscious uncoupling’, but, you know, it’s not a million miles away from what we do,” Templeton says. “The collaborative process is not for everyone, it’s not even something every solicitor would want to do, but it’s a resource for people who aspire to do a divorce in a different way.” «