Gwyneth Paltrow has been getting some flack for a phrase she used in her announcement about her split from her husband: conscious uncoupling. People thought it sounded snooty and pretentious. I can’t wholly disagree. But I like the thought behind it.
It has now been five years since my divorce. Mine was not a conscious uncoupling. It was a scrappy fight for survival, two people who’d once loved each other running for cover and throwing grenades at each other without looking at exactly how they were aiming. It was bruising and terrifying and did not bring out the best in either of us.
But five years does a lot. In many ways my conscious uncoupling came later, after we’d stopped communicating through lawyers. After the anger cooled. When we were done fighting, we looked up and realized: the other person is still there. So we might as well put down our weapons.
In some ways, we recoupled. It began slowly, with a word instead of wordless silence on the sidelines of a soccer game. It progressed to a phone call instead of a text message. Eventually, much to my surprise, it graduated to a four-person family dinner for my daughter’s birthday, the first of many. We began to talk regularly about the kids and our other shared interests.
Not long ago, my ex-husband had a health scare that required he be in the hospital for a week. Without next of kin in this country, he lacked someone to do the simple things, like give his date of birth during hospital admission when he couldn’t do it himself. I wasn’t his next of kin anymore, but I was the only one who knew the information. I went with him and stood by his side.
I spent the week juggling work, kids and time at the hospital. Had he still been my husband, I probably would have taken the week off to be by his side. That felt like too much in this circumstance, but leaving him alone felt like too little. My children’s father needed someone, and I wanted to be it. What we forget when we uncouple is that the other person remains in our lives. He didn’t disappear. It is different, but it is real.
My friends teased me that I was getting back together with him. That he would look up from his hospital bed and see me as the person who has been there all along and that the fires would be rekindled. I checked my heart and realized they were wrong. I was no longer looking at an adversary, but he wasn’t anyone I loved romantically either. I don’t know that our society has a name for what we are. We’re more than friends, we’re less than mates, we’re different than former lovers. We are (finally) a consciously uncoupled couple.
I now understand why people stay in loveless marriages. Had my ex-husband and I somehow managed to make it through our crisis still married, and had we somehow made it to this place in his life when he got sick, things would have played out almost exactly as they did. I wouldn’t have felt the grief of a woman passionately in love with a man and I wouldn’t have been desperately afraid that my one true love was sick, but I would have wished the best for him. I would have done very much what I did for him, handled the logistics, made sure he drank juice, talked to the doctors on his behalf, brought the kids to see him. I would have seen a fellow human in trouble and felt compassion. Maybe it all does become friendship in the end.
So if there is no real uncoupling, does it pay to uncouple at all? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. I’m an idealist, and I believe that principles and ideas should rule my life. Divorce was the only thing I could do and still believe the things I do about passion and commitment and trust. We were living an untruth: we were no longer in love, no longer physically attracted to one another, and all he did was work so he didn’t have to deal with us. For me, love and couple-hood must be more than that. But what I’ve learned through my conscious uncoupling is that love takes many guises and morphs and lives on, even after we’ve given up on it. And we must keep coming up with new names for it.