My happily married attempt at perfecting the art of conscious uncoupling
This was my opportunity to do something better than Gwyneth Paltrow. She cooks better, dresses better, exercises better, parents better, sings better, vacations better and networks way, way better. When Gwynnie announced on her website, Goop.com, that she was getting a divorce, she even said she was breaking up better. She and rock star Chris Martin were embarking on “conscious uncoupling,” a process so effective that, she wrote, “in many ways we are closer than we have ever been.” This gives you an idea of how much together time there is in a marriage between a musician and a movie star.
To outdo Paltrow’s perfect divorce, I simply needed to prepare for conscious uncoupling while still happily married. I read the 2,000-word essay Paltrow posted below her announcement, written by Dr. Habib Sadeghi, her holistic doctor, and Dr. Sherry Sami, his pediatric-dentist wife. They explain that human traditions date back to when life expectancy was 33 years, and now that we live until we’re 80, one marriage is no longer enough for many of us. This made a lot of sense, except that Paleolithic people who survived childhood lived to their 50s, divorce rates trail off enormously after 10 years of marriage, and Sadeghi is a holistic doctor and Sami is a pediatric dentist.
Luckily, it turns out that Paltrow’s doctors didn’t invent conscious uncoupling. It was created by Los Angeles therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, author of Calling In “The One”: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life, based on her meeting her husband. When they divorced, she started her upcoming book about conscious uncoupling. Unfortunately, when Paltrow made her announcement, Thomas was away, deep in the woods of Kentucky on a deer-hunting trip. Just kidding. She was on a yoga retreat in Costa Rica.
When Thomas returned, I told her I wanted to practice conscious uncoupling with my lovely wife Cassandra in case things ever went bad. She thought this was a great idea and that it would give us tools to improve our marriage. One tenet of conscious uncoupling is to avoid blaming and take responsibility, so I asked Thomas how, if, for instance, my marriage ended because I cheated, I could get Cassandra to take responsibility for it. Thomas thought that was a tough one, but it didn’t stop her. “She’d want to look at all the ways she skipped over information she sensed. Or look at all the ways you were trying to communicate that she wasn’t trying to hear,” she said. I was liking conscious uncoupling very much.
Then I asked how, if Cassandra left me, she should deal with her jealousy when I dated a younger, hotter woman. Thomas suggested a breathing technique. “Then list all your strengths: ‘I’m a college graduate.’ ‘I’m a very good person,'” she said. Then “on the out breath, send a blessing to all human beings everywhere in the world who are suffering from the same jealousy that makes them want to do horrible things.” Horrible, vengeful things that as a single man I might be able to participate in.
Thomas also thought Cassandra and I should talk about using collaborative divorce, which allows a couple and their lawyers work everything out without a judge or mediator. My sister Lisa is a divorce lawyer who just started to do this, and she likes it very much, including the “divorce coaches,” who are therapists assigned to help couples do what is essentially conscious uncoupling. She likes it because, unlike with many of her clients, no one throws anything at each other.
Lisa suggested that Cassandra and I get a “midmarriage agreement” in which we figure out custody and alimony while we’re still together. So I sat with Cassandra on a Saturday night and gently ran all these ideas by her, then really listened to her thoughts. “First of all, Joel,” she said–and then something that didn’t sound at all conscious but did sound very much like uncoupling.
Eventually, Cassandra agreed to splitting custody 50-50 before starting to worry about that too. “My biggest concern would be what kind of skank you would wind up with,” she said, which, honestly, is my biggest concern too. “You’re going to go with some gold-digging woman who would try to seduce Laszlo with toys and candy, and I’m the bad guy who says, ‘You have to go to bed,’ and he would be like, ‘Why are you so mean, Mom?'” I told Cassandra that she is a college graduate and a very good person.
Our pre–conscious uncoupling turned out to be very dark. Both of us got very quiet and distant. Eventually, not knowing what else to do, I gave Cassandra a hug. “Why do you smell so good?” she asked. “Because you’re afraid I’m going to divorce you,” I explained. I gave her a massage, and we did not have sex. It turns out that part of what keeps a marriage going is the pretense that it always will, that the choice over continuing has been taken away from you by the law, social shame and daily habit. It’s unconscious coupling, and I want to keep it that way.
This appears in the April 14, 2014 issue of TIME.