A few months back, I was researching a piece about gay marriage and monogamy that required scouring the New York Times Weddings & Celebrations section for recently married same-sex couples. Inevitably, I ceased all investigative efforts five minutes in to Google my boyfriend, knowing full well what the top search result would reveal: Three paragraphs (compiled from 162 words and 856 characters, but who’s counting?) announcing his marriage to another woman.
I’ve always believed there are distinct advantages to dating a divorced guy since the previously wed have proven track records of commitment (or, at least, the will to commit), and it’s probable they’ve extracted valuable lessons from their past relationship mistakes. Still, the archived evidence of my boyfriend’s temporary alliance with his ex-wife has always annoyed me. I wish I could claim some superhuman level of resistance to insecurity that would protect me from experiencing acute nausea whenever I happen upon it, but I can’t. Every time I read it, yet more time has passed since my boyfriend’s first attempt at lifelong partnership totally disintegrated, but that little press item remains in place, staining his web presence, and potentially misleading anyone who bothers to Google him.
Given the number of marriages that end in divorce these days, I’ve always doubted that I’m alone in my vexation over public, outdated nuptial records. Isn’t it silly for a union that was terminated by law years ago—and unofficially even further back—to live on in digital format, haunting its former members and those who love them next?
Figuring there must be a process for retracting the article, or at least amending it, I did what any 21st century gal in my position would do: I tweeted at the Times.
@nytimesvows what's the policy 4 the announcements of marriages that end in divorce? Guessing u receive retract-from-the-internet requests.
— Melanie Berliet (@melanieberliet) May 8, 2013
Five days later:
@melanieberliet Oh yes, we do get requests, and we do not retract announcements. Even if the marriage doesn't last, the wedding happened.
— NY Times Weddings (@nytimesvows) May 13, 2013
As a journalist, I could appreciate this policy. Technically, no reporting error was ever made, so there weren’t grounds for retraction. Grateful for the information, I replied:
@nytimesvows I suppose they're called wedding (not marriage) announcements. Thanks.
— Melanie Berliet (@melanieberliet) May 14, 2013
But part of me couldn’t get past how odd—archaic, even—it seemed that couples couldn’t withdraw or at least footnote their story following an official divorce. Another part of me wondered why I cared so damn much about the whole thing. In a day in which people are Googled by prospective romantic partners and future employers alike, these lingering reports could conceivably lead to presumptions of infidelity or dishonesty. But the worst outcome of such a misunderstanding would likely be minor embarrassment or frustration—nothing that couldn’t be explained away quickly.
So why did a trivial document reflecting my boyfriend’s past bug me so much?
What I never expected was that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin would help clarify the real societal issue—of aversion to divorce in general—underlying my fixation with deleting or diminishing my boyfriend’s previous marriage.
When I first heard about conscious uncoupling, I rolled my eyes at the celebrity-ish choice to euphemize a breakup, then quickly drafted a Facebook post suggesting I’d like to change my relationship status to Consciously Coupled. But then I read the excerpt on GOOP explaining this unique philosophy for anyone impacted by a defunct marriage, devised by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami, and a lot of it (save for the elaborate insect metaphor) resonated.
The doctors emphasize that the lifetime of togetherness—not to mention, monogamy—we’re conditioned to expect isn’t reasonable, if only because we live too damn long. They also argue that by clinging to the ‘til-death-do-us-part mentality, we effectively set ourselves up for failure by measuring success at intimacy according to the terms of an absurd vow. “To change the concept of divorce, we need to release the belief structures we have around marriage that create rigidity in our thought process,” the duo writes.
While the challenges surrounding our traditional conceptualization of a long term monogamous relationship are nothing new to me, the notion of conscious uncoupling forced me to recognize that reframing the modern relationship construct involves rethinking the terms on which we get together, stay together—and leave each other.
The hoopla surrounding Paltrow and Martin’s near internet-breaking post about conscious uncoupling highlighted how difficult it is for many—including people like me, who already accept that the premise of conventional marriage is unrealistic—to view divorce as anything other than a negative event. Even as someone who has benefited from divorce by gaining a loving partner, I tend to react automatically to news of a couple’s split with sympathy, regret, and assumptions of fury lurking on both sides.
But isn’t divorce, in many cases, as much a beginning as it is an end?
Perhaps our instinct to pity the divorced set is unwarranted—or it would be if we weren’t all so inclined to demonize the process, thereby feeding its association with the ugly sentiments of resentment, wrath, and shame.
To change our communal outlook on divorce, we must first learn to toast it as the achievement—the path to reclaiming happiness and personal fulfillment—that it can be. People tend to leave each other for good reasons, and doing so often requires courage; doing so amicably requires a good deal of self awareness and empathy. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Richard Branson, who threw a party to mark his separation from his third wife, is ahead of the curve on this front. Cameron Diaz, who recently told Extra that she is “so proud” of her friends Paltrow and Martin, also seems to get it.
If a new name is what society needs to strip divorce of its stigma, I can accept the mouthful that is conscious uncoupling. I can already envision a New York Times section devoted to the milestone, which would allow people to chronicle their entire marriage histories—and hopefully muzzle those of us misguided enough to dream of deletions. I can also see the multi-billion dollar industry sure to sprout up around the act once it earns its badge of social acceptability. Soon to follow, a reality TV craze driven by hits like Say Yes To The Division Of Assets, brought to you by Bravo, and E!’s Parting Ways Demands A Party .