Conscious recoupling: The pros and cons of going back for more
When couples get along well after a split, it can be really confusing. Tanya Sweeney looks at the pros and cons of thinking about consciously recoupling
We'd never even heard of 'conscious uncoupling' until a few months ago… but the couple that kick-started it all are truly showing us how it's done. Were it not for that… eh, unorthodox marriage split announcement, you'd scarcely believe that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow had even formally split. Recently, the two went to a film screening and after show in the Hamptons, accompanied by Gwyneth's mother Blythe Danner. A source was prompted to tell People magazine: "It was like they were still married."
Chris, who remained rather circumspect during the couple's decade-long marriage, said recently: "We are very close. We are not together. But we're, you know, that's the truth and that's it. There's a lot of love. No scandal, I'm afraid. I wish I could give you scandal."
They may be the first couple to consciously uncouple, but they're certainly not the first to find a friendship among the ashes of a broken marriage. It's official: the era of post-marital mudslinging is at an end. We've come a long way since the old school maxim: "Don't get mad… get everything."
More recently, Kris and Bruce Jenner showed a united front, holding hands in front of photographers as they landed in LAX airport in April. After 22 years of marriage, the couple released a joint statement: "We are living separately and we are much happier this way. But we will always have much love and respect for each other. Even though we are separated, we will always remain best friends and, as always, our family will remain our number one priority."
The list of cosy celebrity co-parents runs long: Elle McPherson and Arpad Busson; Karen Elson and Jack White, who threw a 'divorce party' in 2011; Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe. Now married to Jim Toth, Witherspoon reflected of her first marriage: "I was so so young. I was, like, ridiculously young. I learnt a lot, though. It was an excellent opportunity for me to really find out what it means to be a partner and to be in a marriage and it's not anything that I thought it was."
Kate Hudson split from her first husband, Chris Robinson, in 2006, but got along so famously in the wake of their separation that the pair were 'basically living together' until 2008 (she started dating her current fiancé Matt Bellamy in the spring of 2010).
"(Our divorce) is the best thing that ever happened to us," Hudson is quoted as saying. "We did it the right way, which is, we knew it wasn't right (to stay together) so we wanted it to be great for our son Ryder and we got a happy, happy boy. We spend a lot of time together. We love our baby. I married Chris, I had a baby with Chris. Chris will be in my life for the rest of my life."
More recently, Matt Damon was showered with praise by none other than the ex-husband of his current wife Luciana. "Matt, Luciana and I all have a wonderful relationship," enthused Arby Barroso. "Matt is a fantastic stepfather. He treats Alexia like she is his own flesh and blood. Matt has been an absolute blessing for my daughter."
A 2010 study certainly made for encouraging reading, stating as it did that 90pc of Irish divorces end amicably. The study, helmed by Dr Carol Coulter, showed nine out of 10 divorce and judicial separation cases which came before the Dublin Circuit Court in 2009 were agreed by consent.
So far, so heartening… yet the question looms large. As that eminent philosopher Neil Sedaka pointed out, breaking up is hard to do. After the tsunami of hurt, recriminations and mudslinging that often precipitates a relationship split, just how is it that some couples separate and seem to get on better than ever? Is it possible to be genuinely close with an ex-spouse?
In a word, yes. Crucially, the pressure to keep the relationship on wheels, and to live up to that all-important 'happily ever after' is finally off.
"If a couple can't resolve their differences, taking time out immediately stops the escalation in problems," observes relationship counsellor Tony Moore (www.relationshipsireland.com). "By staying together, couples can inflame their toxic situation and find that once they get out, half of that has stopped almost immediately. Removing ourselves from the relationship gives us breathing space, time to rest and a chance to stop the adrenaline pouring into the system."
Lisa O'Hara, author of When a Relationship Ends: Surviving the Emotional Roller-Coaster of Separation, observes that a lot of Irish couples, who married young, come through the quagmire of divorce relatively unscathed.
"It's not as personal when a couple is able to say, 'we were young'," she asserts. "Many people know that they were barely out of their emotional nappies when they said 'I do'. In older couples, the passion has often disappeared but they are able to remain on friendly terms. It happens a lot to couples in their 40s or 50s; they come to an arrangement where they understand that their marriage isn't really working. They get to a point, after childrearing and climbing the career ladder, that they reappraise everything in their lives. There's this sense of unfinished business there, and wanting some passion in their lives."
Generally, O'Hara pinpoints the ebbing away of great emotional expectations as a big factor in a marital ceasefire.
"In and of themselves, relationships are loaded with expectations, and when a couple steps away from the relationship, those expectations are no longer there," she reveals.
Co-parenting is obviously one of the biggest reasons for keeping things amicable after a split, but some childless couples also realise that they were meant to be friends, and not husband and wife.
"After a while, each person has dealt with their own grief about the breakdown appropriately and hopefully they have gotten a better understanding about the demise of the relationship," says O'Hara. "It can be easy to see the person for who they are, rather than who you wanted them to be."
Children or otherwise, smooth sailing is the Holy Grail for any consciously uncoupled pair… but a potential roadblock is just around the corner. Once a couple are back on amicable (or even affectionate) terms, it's natural to think that reconciliation might be a good idea. Not strictly so, according to Moore.
"They get on precisely because they're apart," he reveals. "I often see clients who have split, and after six or eight weeks, they begin to report that they are sleeping better, they feel better and they look better. And many of them believe that everything's fine and they're ready to go back into that melting pot. But if you have a terrible pain today and your pain is gone tomorrow, it's very difficult to bring it to mind," he adds.
"What happens is, you've been through this terrible time as part of a separation, and a few months later, the only thing people will remember are the good times. Amongst all the hell that has gone on, people will still attest, 'we were good together'. A lot of people have the fantasy of having a great marriage: they still want it, even if their own actual experiences say that they aren't having it."
In some cases, a reconciliation is possible, albeit with due care and attention. "When the tension has eased off after a split, people have enough affection and regard for the other person to ask themselves, 'can we try again?'" says O'Hara. "I often see clients in this situation, who come to counselling because they want to give themselves the best possible chance. But they have to ask themselves, 'what would make this a different relationship to before?' As to whether it's a good idea… only the couple themselves can know that. Ultimately, some couples see the same old problems and patterns creep in after a while."
It's important not to put any expectations on each other for a fairytale divorce. Chris and Gwyneth may have set the bar high, but that doesn't mean that we all need to aspire to it. "There's no rule that says you have to even like your ex-partner," surmises Lisa. "Once you can be respectful and civil, that's all that really matters."