Divorce is excruciating for the whole family, whether it’s called conscious uncoupling or not. So why were we all reveling in her pain?
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If you are a sentient human, then you have—regardless of your class or cultural strata, never mind your geographic location—born witness to the hatefest surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow’s divorce, your Facebook and Twitter feeds overflowing with angry screeds about the presumptuousness of her announcing the divorce on her blog (“Why does she think we care?” thousands asked), mocking references to “conscious uncoupling,” and, after Paltrow gave her first interviews, bilious fury over her suggestion that mothers with office jobs—who keep regular hours and maintain an unchanging routine—might have an easier time establishing stability and calm in their households than did she, racing off to months-long shoots in remote places.
None of this is particularly surprising. American women—perhaps women the world over, though one presumes the French exempt—have a strange and dysfunctional relationship with Gwynnie. She’s come to serve as a sort of head cheerleader for our collective high school: Supernaturally blonde and thin, absurdly calm and composed. The girl everyone loves to hate, because her every move—as zillions pointed out in the media, social and otherwise, over the past week—serves to make us feel bad about ourselves. Feel bad not just that we’re not blonde and absent of cellulite, but that we lack the control or discipline to get ourselves that way. We can’t commit to the 30-day cleanse, the meditation retreat, the daily workouts. We can’t freaking get our kids to eat kale or get our pizza dough to rise or go gluten free. We cannot get our hair that blonde or shiny. In other words, we love to hate her, but we hate her because we want to be her. We want our life to be as effortless, as mindful, as perfect as hers, but it can’t be, it won’t be, and so we hate her for it, even as we secretly read Goop—that’s her aforementioned blog-cum-lifestyle-magazine—for tips on what to wear this spring.
Or so the story goes. Here’s the thing about Gwyneth: For most of my adult life, I’ve somehow managed to ignore her. Sure, occasionally, she’d pop up in a movie that interested me—say, James Grey’s Two Lovers—and I’d think, Hmmmm, she’s kind of good. Why does everyone hate her again? Or wait, does everyone still hate her? Or I’d skim a profile of her in Vogue or Elle and think, Hmmmm, okay, I kind of get why people hate her, but she also seems kind of smart. Or friends—writerly, intellectual friends, with doctorates in history and the ability to speak five languages—would contort their faces into masks of embarrassment and confess that they’d made her roasted chicken and it was better than Laurie Colwin’s, or bought her exercise guru’s DVD set on eBay and the routine was truly transforming their outer thighs, or tried her cleanse and lost 30 pounds. “It sounds crazy. You can’t eat anything, but you feel so good. You have to try it.” Links would follow, which I wouldn’t look at, because I’m simply not a person prone to cleanses or exercise, or, in general, advice from celebrities, which seems only to work for other celebrities, with their flotilla of servants to prepare cleanse-appropriate meals. And a day later, I’d promptly forget that Gwyneth Paltrow existed.
Last week marked the first time I’d even glanced at Goop, which I’d done purely out of curiosity about the divorce announcement. Or, rather, for the expressions of vitriol about it, which—this is probably the time to make this clear—were largely coming from women, many of them, here again, smart, feminist women, for whom Paltrow seems to serve as kryptonite, spurring them on to a sort of girl-on-girl hatred usually reserved for mass murderers or conniving neocons, the sort of girl-on-girl hatred that makes me decidedly uncomfortable in its pettiness and lack of compassion.
Because the thing is, Paltrow is getting divorced. I don’t, as I said, know much about Gwyneth Paltrow, but I do know something about divorce. Perhaps you know nothing about divorce. I hope this is the case, for your sake. Perhaps you come from a long line of contentedly coupled-off folks. Perhaps you married your soul mate—your bashert, as Jews like Gwynnie and I like to say (yes, I did a little research; in case you were curious, Paltrow and I are also exactly the same age, born in 1972)—and you’ve never had any money troubles or clashes over family or child-rearing or religion or career or picking up milk on the way home or folding the laundry, and you can’t even imagine why people would get divorced. (I do actually know people that fall into this category. Or, I think I do. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors. More on this in a moment). Perhaps you’ve never read Eat Pray Love or watched Parenthood. Perhaps you didn’t make it to the theaters to see Her or you’re too young to remember Kramer vs. Kramer. Perhaps.
Well, I’m here to tell you: No matter how civil, no matter if you call it “conscious uncoupling” on your blog (which your kids may read, by the way), no matter if your family and friends support you or you stand alone, like Edith Wharton’s poor Madame Olenska, divorce is a nightmare. A nightmare that goes on and on and on, from which you can never wake up. Even when you are working, when you’re drawing with your children, when you’re running by the river, when you’re blowing out the candles on your birthday cake—it infects you. Even the most amicable splits among my friends—those that started with mutual partings and moved on to rational sessions with mediators—have turned into horror shows, with battles over custody. Months, years, spent arguing over which holidays the kids are with dad—and, even more so, money. But even worse than the lawyers, than the call saying your almost-ex is, say, taking you to court for this or that, the eternal feeling that one is at war, under siege, even worse than this may be simply the difficulty of telling the world—your mother, your friends, the shocked parents’ at your kids’ schools, who suddenly regard you as a pariah (divorce, in the subconscious of today’s secretly conservative parents, is catching, like lice)—that your marriage has failed, which is tantamount to saying that you fucked up, in the most major way possible. You married the wrong person. You should have left earlier. You should have stayed longer and tried harder to make it work. You tried too hard and lost sight of your own needs, your own self. You married the right person but messed things up. No matter how you slice it, there is judgment, which you can’t help but internalize, turn over and over in your head as you fall asleep at night (or lay awake at night as the case may be).
But the real nightmare lies in your judgment of your self. Why did you marry the wrong person? How could you ever have been so stupid and young? Or was it necessary to marry the wrong person so you could be the person you are today? Or, why did you marry the right person and mess things up with your own unhappiness, your need for perfection, your need for more? Should you have stayed, in restless misery, waking each morning with looming dread, wondering if the only way to escape this nightmare is to die?
This is divorce. Even if you’re a movie star. A bone thin movie star with $800 worth of blonde highlights and a closet full of couture. A movie star putting on a calm, cheery face for the world, because that is what movie stars do, particularly if they’re intelligent enough not to want the trash media scrutinizing their private lives. We don’t know—we can never know—what goes on behind closed doors. Maybe Paltrow is in love with someone else. Maybe she’s a lesbian. Maybe she should have married a Jew (sorry, that’s my mom talking). Maybe Chris Martin—behind that wannabe-Radiohead emo exterior—has a ferocious temper or is emotionally checked out or horrendously boring, or maybe—as Paltrow says in her much mocked statement—the couple had a good decade together but are now unhappy, so unhappy that they’ve decided to break up their family, and suffer the social and emotional, legal, and financial difficulties that follow, which will certainly be greater than that of your average couple, combined as they are with the relentless scrutiny of the media, eternally assessing their net worth and their levels of adultery. We just don’t know. And it doesn’t matter, because divorce—even if it means greater happiness for both parts of the couple—is hell by definition.
And the truth is that Paltrow should—despite some of the New Age-y mumbo jumbo quoted in her announcement—be commended for taking the high road. She didn’t attempt to take down Martin, or to portray herself as a victim. She didn’t, let’s say, sell her exclusive story to Us Weekly or E! (Maybe next week she will and I’ll eat my hat). She sought, simply, to control the narrative of her divorce, to portray it not as something tawdry and pathetic, but as the inevitable end of something that was once happy and fruitful, something that has given her much good (including two children, whom she’s relentlessly kept away from the media’s ravaging eye). In doing so, she’s given us all a radical new narrative for divorce, one that we should bear in mind when we watch our friends’ and acquaintances’ unions dissolve: The end of a marriage does not have to signify a mistake. This is, of course, ultimately a narrative of compassion, so please, ladies, let’s show her some, okay? Not to sound hokey, but in doing otherwise, we’re only hurting ourselves.
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