Fiona McCade: Gwyneth & Chris don’t have to explain

Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow before their 'conscious uncoupling'. Picture: AP
Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow before their 'conscious uncoupling'. Picture: AP
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There’s no need for clever concepts – the Martin-Paltrows just don’t love each other any more, writes Fiona McCade

Have you ever heard of handfasting? It’s a kind of pagan marriage. Some friends of mine did it at the stone circle of Callanish. It was great; loads of flowers and music and beer, and they promised to stay with each other “for as long as our love shall last”. Not, you notice, for life, or forever, or until a week next Tuesday. Just for as long as they were in love. And before you ask, yes, it’s over now. They were in love at the time, but now they’re not and so they aren’t together any more.

Neither are Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. Chris and Gwyneth were married (in an “until death do us part” kind of ceremony) in 2003, but now they’ve had enough and are going their separate ways. The likes of you or I might call this “splitting up” or “getting divorced”, but that’s not Chris and Gwyneth’s style. In the public statement they issued on Gwyneth’s website, they have called it “conscious uncoupling”.

The terminology comes from the work of Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Shahrzad Sami (who – for now, anyway – are married to each other). Gwyneth has long been an admirer of theirs and has endorsed their personal development programmes, so it’s not surprising that she’s using their vocabulary to explain what’s happening in her life.

“Conscious uncoupling” is a good term to describe what two people go through when they decide, after much careful contemplation, that they want to end their marriage in a civilised way. In their statement, the Martin-Paltrows say: “We have been working hard for well over a year, some of it together, some of it separated, to see what might have been possible between us, and we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate… We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner.”

Fair enough. “Conscious uncoupling” already sounds like a preferable alternative to the kind of unconscious coupling that goes on all over Scotland every Friday and Saturday night. However, if you read the words of Drs Sadeghi and Sami which Gwyneth published on her website immediately after her separation announcement, you might be forgiven for wondering if there’s much point in getting coupled, consciously or unconsciously, in the first place.

Since human lifespans are growing ever longer, Sadeghi and Sami feel it’s increasingly unreasonable to expect us to stay married for an entire lifetime, as we did when people tended to die much younger. They want us to “reform the concept of divorce”, because: “Our biology and psychology aren’t set up to be with one person for four, five, or six decades”. Instead, we should aim for “daily renewal” of our relationships. For those of us who think it’s at least worth aiming for a silver wedding, this seems like one heck of a get out-of-jail-free card. Fallen out of love? Well, of course you did, you outlived your vows. Over 50? Your biological clock says you’re overdue for wedding number two.

They also say that: “Life is a spiritual exercise in evolving from an exoskeleton for support and survival to an endoskeleton”. Sadeghi and Sami believe that if we act like insects and protect ourselves with a rigid, unchanging, psychological exoskeleton, we’ll never be happy. They want us to cast off this encumbrance and develop an (equally psychological) endoskeleton, which will allow us to grow and be more flexible in our dealings with others. Life, according to them, isn’t about finding “static, lifelong bliss, like we see in the movies”, it’s about being ready to roll with whatever life throws at us.

I’m all for flexibility, but I’d like a bit of bliss, too.

I get the message, really I do. People are biologically unsuited to a man-made construct like marriage, so no wonder we’re always failing at it. Forget the swans, ravens, gibbons and all the other animals that mate for life. They only manage such a feat because they don’t live long enough to fall out.

The “conscious uncoupling” manifesto is tailor-made to help people like Chris and Gwyneth get over the guilt of wanting to move on. It advocates understanding and refuses to label anyone as the “bad guy”, but it also states: “The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone”. Really? I agree, it’s too much pressure for some people and there’s absolutely no shame in it. But “anyone”? No, I’ve seen way too many happy old couples to buy into that.

Marriage not working? Decided you want a divorce? Fine. Go for it and best of luck to you, but don’t dress it up like it’s some sort of evolutionary imperative, or historical necessity.

Every marriage goes through peaks and troughs. Sometimes, there are so many more troughs than peaks, love disappears and it becomes impossible to continue. This is natural, but it is no more natural than a marriage in which the couple remain in love and decide to keep going, no matter what. Both are equally valid, so if any kind of uncoupling happens, it’s still nothing more than a plain, simple choice.

Chris and Gwyneth aren’t separating because cavemen died young, or grasshoppers wear their skeletons on the outside. They are separating because they no longer get on like they used to, and they don’t want to spend any more energy trying to keep something alive which has died. They’re still friends, but their love didn’t last.

I wish them well, but please, let’s call a split a split, and be done with the clever concepts and impressive-sounding vocabulary. Besides, “conscious uncoupling” implies that there are some of us who have somehow managed to unconsciously uncouple, without hurt or pain, without repercussions, without even noticing that it’s happened. Oh, if only.