Why we hate seeing people have good divorces

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Back in March, Gwyneth Paltrow’s announcement of her plans to “consciously uncouple” from her husband Chris Martin generated cynical jibes and unrestrained snark by the global media, followed by months of eager anticipation for proof that their good divorce had gone bad. (It hasn’t come yet.)

I suspect the negative backlash was partly linguistic. “Conscious uncoupling” is a gangly, simpering construction almost begging to be slapped by the editorial version of the playground bully. But the continuing mockery of Gwyneth’s lack of wrath belies a damaging belief about divorce: that she is just another over-privileged, out-of-touch celeb promoting the relationship version of a vegan lifestyle, sustained with gourmet meals prepared by five-star chefs, whereas a real person’s divorce is always a brawl.

In fact, legal scholars, mental health professionals and any honest lawyer who has spent time in family court, complain about the inappropriateness of the adversarial legal approach when it comes to helping a family restructure, aka, get divorced.

Hiring two lawyers to ferret out every possible advantage for “opposing” parties drives or at least extends many of the high-conflict, high-cost divorces we see. Conflict between parents is also one of the most damaging experiences for children—whether the parents are divorced or married.

Increasingly, couples across the economic and social spectrum are ending their romantic unions with a “conscious” effort to cooperate while doing so, and not destroy their children in the process. They’re maintaining  or even improving their parenting partnership, holding on to their values, and their self-respect.

New resources make this ever more possible. Nearly every state in the US now offers parenting education for divorcing or separating couples, an innovation that took off in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to prevent conflict before it began. Courthouses around the nation have staffed self-help centers to help explain the forms to pro se litigants—the growing number of people who can’t afford or don’t want to hire a lawyer. In the still new-ish practice of collaborative counsel, a couple hires two lawyers who agree to give up the case if they cannot settle out of court. They also may bring in financial planners, psychologists, and child specialists. This team approach can be expensive, but not nearly as costly as fighting for years at hundreds of dollars per hour.

The nation’s first public, interdisciplinary, one-stop divorce and separation shop isDenver’s Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families, now in its second year. One of the most innovate approaches to helping families restructure, it’s a three-year pilot program created by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System at the University of Denver.

The Resource Center is an attempt to help couples with kids un-partner more peaceably. This populist approach to “conscious uncoupling” has several steps:

  • Law students and PsyD/MSW graduate students work in teams to interview each incoming divorcing couple, asking about their marriage, their finances, emotional life, legal knowledge, and children. The students also interview older children, giving them a chance to voice their concerns and desires.
  • The student team drafts a service plan, which might include co-parent coaching, psychotherapy, financial counseling, legal education, and mediation to help the divorcing couple. Children might be directed toward a peer workshop, or one-on-one counseling.
  • Couples make appointments with the various student professionals, working to address the individual components woven together in the fabric of married life. They might learn new communication skills or how to write a budget. They talk through the anger or resentment that often obstructs agreement about dividing assets, debts and responsibilities.  Children learn skills for coping with change and sadness.
  • Judge Bob Hyatt, a retired chief judge from Denver, presides at the center once a month to grant the final divorce decree to those who have progressed to this stage, and congratulate them for taking a positive, child-focused approach to parting.

Cost for all this? From $20 – $95 an hour, depending on the couple’s finances. Less than a student barber, in some cases.

Many people arrive at the Denver center with no intention of talking about their feelings with a therapist-in-training. “Lots of parents think they just want the mediation. But through the meeting, they often realize they want more,” executive director Melinda Taylor told Quartz.

Parents who go through the center come out unmarried or unattached, but not destroyed. Often the new communication skills can help improve their relationship on the back end of marriage, and they can return for guidance as new problems arise.

This comprehensive model is an effort by IAALS to free up overburdened courts and encourage families to recognize that a judge rotating through family court, often under-trained and over-worked, is not the right professional to help process the wily, often overwhelming emotions that accompany one of life’s most stressful transitions.

The center has worked with 80 families since opening last September, more than half of whom are lower middle class, according to Taylor. Taylor is currently seeking ways to extend her own funding past 2016, and replicate the program at universities and community centers nationwide.

Even if holistic, integrative centers spread to more states, I suspect the snark will still simmer. Striving for a kind and balanced parting threatens the status quo. It can force others to confront their own pettiness and limiting assumptions, their own belief in the smallness of the human spirit.

I’ve interviewed dozens of people in positive, post-marriage relationships who complain that friends or family can’t accept their lack of bile. Sometimes peers insist that to be without acrimony means a former spouse hasn’t moved on. “I had to step away from some friendships,” a young mother of two in Nebraska told me, after her friends continued to bash her ex for the infidelity that had ended the marriage. “They can’t get past it. I clearly was aware of what he did, but I didn’t want to be reminded of it, and I certainly didn’t want the girls around anyone who was saying bad things about their dad. He made some mistakes, but he’s a good dad.”

Some anti-divorce ideologues bristle at the idea of a “good divorce” for different reasons. They seem to worry that supporting a respectful, supportive parting threatens holy matrimony. “If we can divorce without destroying our lives,” the thinking here seems to be, “everyone will do it!” This attitude presents a bleaker view of marriage than most people have even of divorce.

In fact, no divorce proceeding is so enjoyable as to entice the happily married to try it. While there’s some evidence of a “divorce contagion,” a way that divorce can spread through social groups, no one in a solid marriage ends it to be part of some new in-crowd of the uncoupled.

A few weeks back, I read an article about Gwyneth and Chris Martin sitting peacefully together at a family event, acting “like a married couple.” I, personally, loved being married and want to do it again, but let’s be honest here; married couples often act like children up way past bedtime, arguing over whose turn it is to push the squishy buttons on the remote control. To me, supporting one’s children while treating the other parent with consistent consideration, unmarred by ongoing dissatisfaction or festering, personal slights, looks less like an average marriage than a good divorce.