Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Play Gone Cold

I felt sad to hear about the impending divorce of Chris Martin (of the group Cold Play) and Gwyneth Paltrow of Hollywood fame. This is a typical reaction for me when I hear of celebrity couples splitting up, especially if I have found anything I personally like about them in their history. There seem to be so few high profile, media-star couples who go the distance. When such a couple who has made it 10 years decides to end their marriage, it is news. It is, of course, also news when a celebrity couple divorces after a few months but those divorces seem like something different—reflecting relationships that were not well founded in the first place. But I do root for the long-time marriages of celebrity couples.
            Why would I care? Part of it is that I have some empathy for the fact that there is a real couple involved in something very public who is going through some immense pain. But I also care because a very public divorce must reinforce the overall image that many people have of marriages being unstable. People are already quite skittish about marriage as an institution even though when people make good choices for mates and strong commitments in marriage, there are vast benefits in life for both the adults and their children.
            As I heard the news this week about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, I was reminded of a study I had wanted to write about last year. To my point just above, there is some evidence that divorce is contagious. Researchers (headed up by Rose McDermott of Brown University) recently analyzed the social networks of participants in the long-term, near legend, Framingham Heart Study. As summarized in a really clear write-up by Rich Morin of the Pew Research Center, “Overall, they found that the divorce of a friend or close relative significantly increased the probability of divorce.”
            Thus, the famous Framingham Study sheds light on problems of the heart in more than the originally intended manner. Divorce is catching and, while Paltrow and Martin are not likely in the social networks of most people, people will be affected because they are so well known. They do not ask for this to be so, especially when they are going through their own private and public pain, but there simply must be some ripple effect when celebrity couples divorce. Well known married couples must necessarily have well known divorces—and this likely has effects similar to what Rose McDermott and colleagues found in their study.  
            There is one other thing that caught my attention about all this is the terminology used to announce the divorce. Gwyneth Paltrow wrote of the divorce on her website by using a phrase that has gotten considerable media attention this week: “Conscious Uncoupling.” I believe this refers to a specific program for helping divorcing couples. I know nothing of this particular phrase or the program that may be associated with it, and I certainly have no opinion of the associated services. However, the phrase reminded me of a growing movement around the U.S. wherein people of various backgrounds (liberal and conservative) are working to help couples with children, cohabiting or married, who are splitting up to end their romantic relationships in ways that cause the least amount of negative consequences for their children. In fact, the various efforts go beyond this simple goal to parenting after break-up.
            The term I hear frequently by those working in this area is co-parenting: they are emphasizing ongoing, effective “co-parenting” among partners who have broken apart.  So, I took some added notice that Gwyneth Paltrow emphasized the phrase “uncouple and coparent” in her message on her website. She is showing her awareness of exactly this transition and the importance to their children.
            Whatever this growing effort around the U.S. becomes, there is an emphasis on helping couples who are no longer going to be romantically joined together to work on the fact that they will be joined as parents indefinitely. It seems to me that these efforts are not so much embracing divorce as they are accepting the reality that children need their parents to work together as co-parents, whether or not they remain together as partners. Such efforts may grow to importance well beyond the obvious need for married couples who are divorcing. There is an increasing number of couples with children who will break up absent of having developed any prior, strong commitment to raise a child together. Many of these couples are going to need help co-parenting together, and that work will be hard for a lot of them. I think this is why I hear and see so much evidence of a growing movement. There is a lot of work to be done. Conscious or not, we’ve got a lot of uncoupling to cope with as a society.

[For those more interested, Daily Beast has an article where they try to get into a little more where the term conscious uncoupling comes from.]