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Breaking up is hard to do

Forget spousal bitterness with Paltrow-Martin conscious uncoupling

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Gwyneth Paltrow (left) and Chris Martin

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Gwyneth Paltrow (left) and Chris Martin

It recently became clear that famous people don't divorce the same way as the rest of us. The first sign is that they don't even call it divorce.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, once the shiny embodiment of the classic actress/pop-star celebrity pairing, are splitting after 11 years. They formally announced the end of their marriage on GOOP, Paltrow's painfully precious lifestyle blog, but were careful not to use the D-word. They prefer the term "conscious uncoupling."

This was another of those unfortunate GOOPy moments when Gwynnie, trying to be "relatable," instead reveals herself as gloriously out-of-touch. That really is too bad, since underneath the media circus is a family undergoing a difficult experience.

Still, the faintly ridiculous terminology managed to distract attention from the Paltrow-Martins themselves, as Internet observers had a ball with conscious-uncoupling jokes.

There were tweets advocating "semi-conscious coupling," which sounds like a way more fun rival movement. And there were comic suggestions for other fancy-shmancy ways of describing relationships. According to online magazine Slate's satirical Goop-Relationship-Status generator, my husband and I aren't merely married. (That's for the little people.) We're "purposefully interlaced."

Then there was the question of what "conscious uncoupling" really meant. Fortunately, after throwing out such a beguiling and bizarre phrase, Gwyneth helpfully provided supplemental information. GOOP has always been a reliable source for macrobiotic kale recipes, Corsican spa recommendations, and "curated" throw pillows. It now offers a fountain of information about holistic divorce.

Paltrow and Martin's GOOP announcement was followed by an odd, pseudoscience-y article by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami, who have drawn on the work of psychotherapist and author Katherine Woodward Thomas to develop a vision of marital breakdown as a self-actualizing spiritual journey.

I'm sure most of us support the idea of civil, co-operative, non-contentious divorce. But the GOOP approach goes even farther. It risks making divorce into just another desirable lifestyle option, an on-trend, upscale experience packed with possibilities for emotional exploration and growth.

So, what exactly makes the GOOP-approved version of divorce so contemporary and cool? Why is it shaping up to be this season's relationship must-have? First off, you can forget those old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill reasons for breaking up, like adultery, abandonment and irreconcilable differences.

In the GOOP posting, Sami and Sadeghi suggest that their grounds for divorce are much bigger, because they're actually rooted in human evolution. "During the upper Paleolithic period of human history," Sadeghi and Sami begin, "the average human life expectancy at birth was 33."

"What does this have to do with divorce rates?" the authors ask. "For the vast majority of history, humans lived relatively short lives -- and accordingly, they weren't in relationships with the same person for 25 to 50 years."

This is the brilliance of conscious uncoupling. It's not you, it's those pesky 21st-century life expectancies. "Our biology and psychology aren't set up to be with one person for four, five, or six decades," Sami and Sadeghi write reassuringly. You've heard of the Paleo Diet? This is Paleo Marriage. (So hot right now.)

Sadeghi and Sami follow up this "science" with some vague New Age spirituality. They urge those going through separation not to construct an "exoskeleton of anger." (I'm not quite sure what that is but it could potentially feature in the next Alien movie.) Instead, those facing divorce should build up "an endoskeleton... with spiritual trace minerals like self-love, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness."

Divorce, then, can be an Oprah-esque celebration of selfy-selfness. Forget stigma and suffering. The GOOPified divorce experience seems so upbeat and empowering that soon everyone will want one.

People might start getting married just so they can get divorced, and thus expand their psyches and broaden their experiences. Divorce will be like going on a Costa Rican eco-retreat or undergoing a 10-day juice-cleanse or exploring past-life regression.

As the announcement of Paltrow and Martin's split hit the Internet on March 25, they had already headed off to Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas to begin exploring their "wholeness in separation." The new non-couple seems determined to have "the most romantic divorce ever," as one commentator has described it.

That's it for the old days, then, when people got through their divorces by hitting the bottle, listening to sad country & western songs, and throwing green garbage bags filled with their former spouses' clothes out onto the lawn. No more. Thanks to GOOP, the Tammy Wynette-style D-I-V-O-R-C-E is starting to look pretty downmarket.

Celebrities like Paltrow are constantly demonstrating that they are sleeker, slimmer, cooler, better styled and more organic than the rest of us. You might think that divorce would be one of the great levellers, but GOOP has somehow managed to claim marital breakdown as another way to hold up impossible, aspirational celebrity ideals.

Divorce is now one more thing that Gwyneth does better than us.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 D12

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