Conscious Uncoupling" and the Terminology of Divorce

Last week Gwyneth Paltrow again made headlines, but this time not for her Goop site, blockbuster movies, or trend-setting diets. No, this time it was because she announced something that perplexed a lot of people at first blush: She and Chris Martin (front man for the band Coldplay), after 10 years of marriage, were “consciously uncoupling.” In plain terms, they are getting a divorce. However, if you earn upwards of a couple million every year, there seem to be some serious efforts for PR purposes to make divorce sound prettier than normal.

While Paltrow’s term drips with saccharine sweetness, it does raise an interesting point: “Does the terminology we use set the tone for the amicability of a divorce? Does calling a divorce a “divorce” automatically chart a more hostile course because of public perception? Terms and phrases often used in family law cases bring to mind images of anger, greed, sadness, and desperation. Perhaps “conscious uncoupling” was Paltrow’s way of stating to the world that hers would not be the typical divorce; hers would be a kinder, gentler divorce if you will. Average, non-celebrity litigants can actually learn from this, despite the aura of annoyance that surrounds Paltrow and all she does. It may meet both parties’ and the children’s’ needs in any divorce to speak in less emotionally-charged terms. Terms like “living apart” or “going our separate ways” give a much nicer impression to children than do “leaving” or “taking all the money.” The reality is that divorce is painful and hostile, particularly for the children. There should be no misconception that speaking sweetly of divorce will make it sweet. However, terms and how they are used make great impressions on others, particularly on young ears.

“Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them that a description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things themselves.” Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 416 (June 27, 1712).

In your divorce, as in life, choose your words wisely because once spoken they can never be taken back. Regardless of her choice in words, I commend Paltrow and Martin for making a public announcement that they are parting ways in the least conflict-laden way possible. Their approach will make the transition as easy as can be hoped for their children.