Everyone and his wife (pardon the pun) is wondering what to make of this phrase ‘conscious uncoupling’ that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are using to describe the end of their ten-year marriage. Apparently Chris gave Gwyneth a painting of a bird flying free to mark the start of this ‘next phase of their relationship’ as they continue post-divorce to look after their children, though living separately.
So is ‘unconscious uncoupling’ any more than New Age argot dreamt up by the couple’s lifestyle guru Dr Habib Sadeghi? Or worse, is it a cynical PR trick to keep people thinking this most perfect of celebrity couples still have no relationship problems despite divorcing, to preserve the value of their celebrity brands? Moreover, how would UK law attempt to cope with a ‘conscious uncoupling’?
There is in fact a lot to be said for encouraging divorcing couples who have children to think about their ongoing relationship as they go through divorce. They will need to have some form of relationship going forward, to discuss issues concerning the children – and everyone knows that a hard-fought, acrimonious divorce can damage any remaining relationship and make things far worse for everyone in the family, and the children in particular, going forward.
Not all separating couples will want to head for the tranquil island of Eleuthera to mark their separation – stunning though the blue skies and sea are there. It is somewhat trite, but these parents will one day most likely want to attend their children’s graduation ceremonies, dance at their weddings and will in all likelihood have grandchildren’s birthday parties to attend.
A judgment has to be made in every divorce as to whether the fight needs to be hard and dirty or whether a conciliatory approach is better for all concerned. And it is often, though not always, for the lawyers to advise clients as to how best to proceed in this regard at a time when emotions can run high.
While not everyone will be comfortable standing on different coloured blankets (a change for Gwyneth from a red carpet) and expressing their pent-up feelings, there are other ways of dealing with a separation than an ugly court fight.
Family mediation allows the couple to agree their own terms of their financial settlement and, more importantly, to agree the arrangement for their children. The couple join an independent mediator (often a lawyer) to explore what works for them. Mediation has the flexibility to adapt to a particular family’s needs and wants. The people who know their children best are the parents, so who better to make the arrangements for them – rather than the court?
Mediation takes place over a relatively short series of meetings, as a rough rule of thumb five or six. If it works the parties return to their own lawyers to have a final view on the terms they have agreed. The saving in both financial and emotional cost is significant.
Alternatively, collaborative law provides for the couple each to appoint lawyers, who must be replaced if talks break down – a big incentive to negotiate. All four then meet together, avoiding possibly tetchy correspondence between the lawyers.
As always, one size cannot fit all and there are certain couples for whom a court ruling is the only option.
Whichever option is followed the couple will often find that they need support not just from their lawyers but also from friends, family, GPs, church ministers, a helpful HR team at the office or professional therapy.
The majority of parents at the time of the family breakdown want to do their best for their children. Sadly it is often the case that at the time their children need them most, parents are least able to provide for them emotionally due to their own emotional trauma/grief/anxiety.
Though ‘conscious uncoupling’ has been the subject of much ridicule in the press, anything that helps a couple to be better able to parent (whether through the use of blankets or otherwise) has to be worth investigating.
Teresa Cullen is a specialist family lawyer and partner with Fladgate LLP. She is also an accredited family mediator, collaborative lawyer and qualified psychotherapist