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Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and ‘Ambiguous Separation’

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:
Belinda Luscombe is an editor at large at TIME, where she has covered a wide swath of topics, but specializes in interviews, profiles, and essays. In 2010, she won the Council on Contemporary Families Media Award for her stories on the ways marriage is changing. She is also author of Marriageology: the Art and Science of Staying Together.

It has been, it's safe to say, an epic few years for close observers of the Smith family. Once called "the Black Jimmy Stewart" for his bankable nice-guy charm, Will Smith and his clan have officially fled the shores of normalcy for the shoals of the unconventional. No sooner had fans absorbed Jada Pinkett Smith's entanglement with a much younger man, they had to digest her robust discussion of it with her spouse on her Facebook talk show Red Table Talk. Then there was that Oscar ceremony where Smith slapped Chris Rock for joking about his wife, on the same night that he won a career-defining award. Just as the seas were feeling a bit calmer, Pinkett Smith announced that she and Smith, who were married in 1997, have in fact been separated and living "completely separate lives" for seven years.

The revelations come within the pages of Pinkett Smith's memoir, Worthy, which is out on Oct 17. "By the time we got to 2016, we were just exhausted with trying," she told NBC journalist Hoda Kotb, of the reasons behind the split. "I think we were both kind of just still stuck in our fantasy of what we thought the other person should be." The night her husband hit Rock and told him to "keep my wife's name out your f-cking mouth!" was the first time Pinkett Smith had heard him use that word in years, she added.

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But when asked why they had waited so long before telling anyone, Pinkett Smith seemed to suggest that the separation was not final, that she and Smith were "still trying to figure out, between the two of us, how to be in partnership." And she told People magazine the two of them have “been doing some really heavy-duty work together. We just got deep love for each other and we are going to figure out what that looks like for us.” As for Smith? "I don't get divorced," he told Red Table Talk in 2018, two years after the couple's apparent separation. (He and his first wife divorced in 1995, which he has said was her decision.) He has not commented on Pinkett Smith's book.

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There's a term in marriage scholarship for the kind of arrangement the Smiths appear to have; it's called "ambiguous separation." The couple has not committed to parting ways, nor to figuring how to live together. Some therapists say this situation is more common than people might think. Studies have suggested that between 6% and 18% of still-married American couples have been through a period of separation.

There are many reasons people separate but don't divorce. "It's hard, emotionally, for people to get divorced," says matrimonial lawyer Paul Talbert. "It's harder than just saying we're going to separate and try this out." So many issues have to be resolved, including how to organize the finances, the children's lives, and what to do with such emotionally laden assets as the family home. There are also often practical reasons, such as health insurance or the lack of funds to file the paperwork.

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For celebrity couples, there are reputations to be managed. "For many couples, divorce means public acknowledgement of failure," says Dr. Scott Haltzman, therapist and author of several books on marriage. "For celebrity couples, for whom public image is the backbone of their career success, announcing the end of a marriage can impact the bottom line." Sometimes people have religious or cultural reasons for maintaining the appearance of a marriage. Sometimes people just don't know how to break the news to their family, children, or community.

But for most people who are unclear as to whether they should renovate or demolish their partnership, the reasons are at least partly emotional. "Usually when a marriage is stranded between marriage and divorce, it's about the attachment," says therapist and co-author of Diagnosis Human Amy Begel. "If it's a real marriage, there's huge attachment." The couple's lives have been so intertwined, they have so many memories with each other and have had such an effect on each other that it's hard for them to imagine life without the other person.

"My experience is that when couples are kind of stranded in between, the ambivalence is really what characterizes the marriage," adds Begel. "Often they're not even able to talk about their attachment to the other person, because it's profound. A part of you is in the other person and part of the other person is in you. It's primal." Even when the couple is at odds and there have been betrayals, they can't get past the bond they share.

Daphne de Marneffe, a therapist and author of The Rough Patch, notes Pinkett Smith's use of the word exhausting. "Couples married longer than 15 years who find themselves in a weird place oftentimes use this word," she says. "Marriage can be exhausting and emotionally draining to a point where you feel like you're losing your sense of self." In her experience, couples who are separated but married can have good unions. "I believe couples living together but separately can have a strong marriage if they desire it," she says. She advises clients to seek individual counseling before making any decisions. "Once we understand how the brain works, our choices and decisions can match the future we desire."

Cultural changes may also be affecting the way people approach marital difficulties. Therapist Steven Stosny thinks the rise that he's seeing in people who are in ambiguous separations is linked to the general rise in anxiety and entitlement. He says people give a lot of reasons for separating but not officially splitting. "Some try to avoid grieving by denying loss of love, some hope that time will sort out conflicted feelings, and some hope that the partner will get treatment and become better," he says. "Most avoid thinking about the future, which, for them, is anxiety-provoking. In extreme cases, they’re like adolescents who think their lives will begin after school, after college, after a job, after marriage, after children, after deciding to divorce; it never quite begins enough to warrant full emotional investment."

In his practice, Stosny gets people to do an exercise where they answer questions about their future. Who would be the person with whom they'd most want to share their joys, their failures, their last hours? Is it their partner, someone else, or nobody? And what are they prepared to do to find or create that kind of relationship?

The pioneering family therapist Dr. Carl Whitaker is said to have equated marriage to doing a PhD in becoming a person. "Marriage is not for amateurs," says Begel. "It's the hardest thing, in some ways, that we ever do. It challenges some of our most basic assumptions about ourselves, about who we are, and can nourish also those basic parts of ourselves, maybe in a way that we haven't met before."

The Smiths have talked extensively on Red Table Talk about how they remade their partnership after Pinkett Smith turned 40, in 2011. Smith said he had to learn that making big gestures and providing a luxe life for someone was not the same as loving them. And Pinkett Smith said that she had to learn it was not her husband's job to make her "feel a certain way"; she had to do that herself." I actually retired," said Smith, adding that he told Pinkett Smith, "I am no longer doing the job of trying to make you happy. You are free to go make yourself happy. You go do anything, anything you want, to make you happy." They came to a new agreement, in which there were no marital dealbreakers. "We don't even call ourselves married anymore," said Smith. "It's a partnership," added Pinkett Smith. "We have created a foundation for this lifetime."

Whether a separation was the non-public part of the new version of the union is still unclear, but most therapists say marriages go through many stages and rough patches. "If people don't go to the lawyer, and are able to learn from that period and use that period, it's profoundly healing in a good way," says Begel. Others are simply stuck, says Talbert, the family lawyer. "Some people, I think, really prefer the pain that they know to the pain they don't."

Correction, October 17
The original version of this story mischaracterized former Google chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy Schmidt's marriage. They are not separated.

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