Gwyneth was right: The push for a happier, saner divorce

By Tim Elliott

Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Chris Martin separated in 2014, in a process which introduced the world to the term “conscious uncoupling”.

Despite her beatific cheekbones, perfect hair and role as a Global Ambassador for Vaginas, Gwyneth Paltrow is, alas, only human. In 2014, she and her then husband, the musician Chris Martin, were sitting in a hilltop cottage in the Tuscan countryside. Below them was an autumnal forest (falling leaves, a doe or two, maybe a kindly truffle-hunter). Inside, by the fireplace, the kitchen table overflowed with peaches, vine-ripened tomatoes and freshly laid eggs. It was Paltrow’s birthday – her 41st. And yet there was sadness in her heart. As she later wrote in an article for Vogue, “I knew – despite long walks and longer lie-ins, big glasses of Barolo and hands held – my marriage was over.”

As celebrity marriages go, Paltrow’s and Martin’s seemed remarkably civilised. They were never photographed fighting outside nightclubs. They had money, but weren’t gross with it. Importantly, they appeared to parent their children, Apple and Moses, in a responsible, adult manner. And yet, like an increasing number of people today, they couldn’t make it work. In 2014, after 13 years of marriage, they announced their divorce. But there would be no tawdry custody battle or fight over finances. No, the couple would practise what Paltrow described at the time as “conscious uncoupling”.

As with almost everything to do with Paltrow, “conscious uncoupling” sounded like an alternative wellness therapy, one maybe involving sex. But the idea is straightforward. As she explained, it’s really all about separating in a saner, more humane way, in a manner that leaves both partners emotionally whole and connected. In other words, it’s all about acting like grown-ups, which, when it comes to divorce, is easier said than done.

In this post-pandemic world, the idea of a saner separation is more relevant than ever. The number of divorces grew from 48,582 in 2019, pre-COVID, to 56,244 in 2021, as we began emerging from the lockdowns. There has also been a surge in demand for charities like Parents Beyond Breakup, which has seen a 110 per cent jump in calls to its helpline over the past two years.

“COVID-19 has had a significant impact on relationships,” says Nick Tebbey, national executive officer of Relationships Australia. “Lockdown, and trying to work and school from home, put incredible pressure on families. As people emerge from that, they are reevaluating their relationships. In some cases, they were made stronger because they were able to communicate and work together and it brought them closer. In other cases, COVID revealed fractures and points of friction. As they return to normal, people are deciding whether their relationship has the longevity required.”

Each separation is to a greater or lesser extent a broken love story. But that collective pain has had an unlikely upside, with more and more couples now determined to find better ways to split up – of untying the knot, so to speak, without ripping their lives apart. As it turns out, their time might just have arrived.

Marriage is hard. Despite the best intentions, all those vows and bouquets, people change; they fall out of love; they have affairs, they get restless. But the challenge of remaining monogamous might also have to do with our biology. Up until about 10,000 BC, the average life expectancy was 33. By 1900, in Australia, it was 51 for men and 54 for women. Today, it’s 81 and 85 respectively. Some sociologists have suggested that our bodies and brains haven’t adapted to our lifespans, and that we are simply not built to be with one person for 40, 50 or even 60 years.

Still, marriage as we know it is meant to be for life, and for good reason. “Men didn’t want to pass on their wealth to another man’s child, and so they did everything they could to keep their partners monogamous,” says Marguerite Picard, a Melbourne-based family lawyer, who has been practising since 1982.

Legally speaking, marriage was framed as a contract, one designed to make divorce as difficult as possible. Spouses had to prove that the other party was “at fault”, either by way of insanity, infidelity or habitual drunkenness (among other grounds). A partner who wanted a divorce had to catch their spouse out. A whole industry arose, with private detectives staging “divorce raids” aimed at ambushing errant husbands or wives and photographing them in flagrante.

The photographs “could be startlingly graphic”, as retired barrister and former NSW Supreme Court appeal judge, John P. Bryson, wrote in Anecdotes of the Old Divorce Law, a 2013 article in the NSW Bar News journal. The “evidence” could then be taken to trial. If both parties wanted a divorce, they might collude and fabricate evidence. According to Bryson, “Sometimes [the raids] were not unwelcome, and an air of ‘What kept you?’ hung over events.”

The system was dysfunctional and often degrading, and in 1975, the Whitlam government scrapped it, introducing what came to be known as “no fault” divorce. Couples no longer needed to show grounds for divorce, just that their relationship had irretrievably broken down, by separating for 12 months. To dissolve the marriage, you simply signed the divorce papers and paid a filing fee. (Today it’s $990. You can do it online.)

This caused “a cascade of divorces”, according to Picard. “People who couldn’t prove fault but who were miserably unhappy could now get divorced.” The new system was a watershed, but not a panacea. “In the current system, you can file a divorce and there’s no question of fault in that,” she explains. “But those old grounds for divorce didn’t just go away. They are still issues of contention in the current system, but they now play out in areas like child custody. When people file an affidavit they talk about the behaviour that has led to the end of the relationship, especially if they find a way to use it to their advantage. It can still be a brutal process.”

Even if a couple avoids court, a hostile separation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, mostly in lawyers’ fees.

And expensive. Even if a couple avoids court, a hostile separation can cost tens of thousands of dollars, mostly in lawyers’ fees, analysing finances, negotiating and mediation. “But in court it’s never less than $100,000 each [to bring it] to a final hearing,” says Picard. “And often multiples of that.”

Picard, who is 64, works out of a quiet office in Hawthorn East. She is slim, with a black V-neck top and lavender-tinged hair with matching lotus-shaped ear pendants. She has an air of lethal efficiency; I suspect she’d be a formidable opponent in litigation. But she’s made it her abiding goal to stay out of court.

Family lawyer Marguerite Picard runs a mediation centre that brings in psychologists, counsellors and financial planners to collaborate on conflict resolution.Credit:Angel Leggas/3Fates Media

“I had a number of cases that convinced me we were going about it all wrong,” she tells me. “One of them was in 2007, where my client got nearly everything, above and beyond expectations. I was applying for costs and she tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Stop, no more. I’ve got too much and I’m going to give some of it back to him anyway.’

“She wanted him to be okay so that he could have a connection with his kids. She realised then that she’d been playing the wrong game, for which I have to take responsibility as well, as a practitioner. It was a pretty confronting moment for me.”

And so, in 2009, Marguerite Picard co-founded an interdisciplinary mediation centre, MELCA (Melbourne Collaborative Alliance). The practice encourages lawyers and clients to think about separation as a transition that is best supported by building common ground, rather than letting the law drive people apart. “It’s conflict resolution,” she says. “Courts don’t resolve conflict. They’re there to stop you from killing each other.”

When Picard takes on a client, or preferably, clients (yes, couples sometimes come in together), she assigns each of them a team – a neutral financial planner, a psychologist, a counsellor, a child specialist and a lawyer. Each member of the team then assesses the client’s needs according to their speciality, with a case manager overseeing the process.

“The financial planner will try to get a high-level look at what is there in terms of money, but also an understanding of how you think about financial risk. The counsellor will then look at your family of origin, your baggage, your conflict style. The team then meets together, and says, ‘So what have we got here? What help does this couple need?’ ”

Often, clients don’t really understand themselves. “They say, ‘I’ve got to keep the house!’ ” says Picard, who has studied Edward de Bono’s problem-solving techniques. “So what is that really about? Is it that they value the neighbourhood, proximity to school, their friendship group? Is it about the house or something else?”

Sometimes she gets her team, including clients, to write down their best idea, their worst idea, and their wildest idea. They then drop them in a hat and discuss them. She has since turned some of these suggestions into laminated cards (“Give everything away”; “Live in an ashram”; “Get your kids to buy the house and you live there”).

The end of the process is a negotiation between the former partners. “You sit around a table and the conversation begins. But everyone has done the preparation with each client before we walk in, so they’re emotionally ready, they have considered the other’s perspective, they have insight into their own money psychology, and are focused on the future.”

Of course, the approach presupposes a certain level of cooperation. If your ex refuses to go there – to accept at least some responsibility, to compromise and communicate civilly – then it won’t work, either in Picard’s model or in court. “Most couples are at least willing to come to one of our information nights,” she says. “And most of them like the idea that the process is defined. That it’s not open-ended like in court.”

Of course, not everyone needs a team of experts. They might not even need a lawyer. Sometimes all they need is a horse. “Horses are very sensitive animals,” says Melbourne-based separation coach Tamir Berkman, who sometimes uses horses in his work. “They can be great teachers for just being in the present without an agenda.”

Not everyone needs a team of experts. They might not even need a lawyer. Sometimes all they need is a horse.

Berkman, who is 48, trained as a copywriter and worked for years in marketing. But he always loved horses, and took classes in dressage, polo and trail-riding. In 2019, however, after 10 years of de facto coupledom and one daughter, his partner pulled the plug. “Suddenly, I didn’t have a clue who I was,” he tells me over the phone. “There was a lot of fear. Leaving the comfort of the marriage, breaking up the family, and going to live by myself. ‘Will I be lonely?’ And then the financial fear.”

He saw a psychologist and had a mentor, an older man he’d met in a cafe years before. But the best help he got was from a counsellor who used equine-assisted therapy. “Horses don’t lie or judge or have bias,” says Berkman, who still sees his counsellor. “Getting feedback from a horse is pure and unfiltered. They always teach me the lesson I need right now, like how to be present, have gratitude and authenticity, and how to communicate clearly.”

Separation coach Tamir Berkman often uses horses in his work. Credit:Angelika Waesch/Your Brand Photography

In 2021, he decided to set up his own equine-assisted coaching business, mainly for men, called the Divorce Cowboy. Berkman, who will get his diploma in February 2023, does most of his work on Zoom, but he also conducts what he calls “paddock sessions”, on a friend’s property in Ferntree Gully, east of Melbourne. “It’s basically a walk and talk, with horses around,” he explains. “The horse decides if it wants to participate. It’s going to be the right horse that feels a connection.” He goes on: “The way people interact with horses has many analogies to the way we interact with other people.”

Berkman is a kind of conduit, interpreting these human/horse exchanges for the client, who can use it to reframe or change their behaviour. “So the way a man interacts with the horse will highlight some aspect for him to work with, whether it be a lack of boundaries, people-pleasing behaviour or connecting on an emotional level with their kids.”

He says men respond particularly well to the outdoors. “There’s the element of nature, the trees and the wind, the sense of going somewhere. It’s not another office or doctors’ rooms – that’s not the way that men learn best. Most men love it because it’s doing things versus just talking.”

And he’s okay with the sceptics, with those who question whether a horse can help you heal. “Sure, that’s fine,” he says. “I recommend talking with anyone who makes you feel comfortable and safe, no matter what their title is.”

The family court system has evolved substantially since the introduction of “no-fault” divorce, with measures that encourage, and in some instances, order, couples to mediate. But forced mediation is something of a lame-duck option, especially if it involves people who are unwilling or incapable of coming to the table.

For such people, a better solution might be a mandatory viewing of Marriage Story. Released in 2019, the film, which was directed by Noah Baumbach, tells the story of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and their efforts to navigate a gruelling divorce. It’s grisly viewing; less an emotional roller-coaster than an emotional roller-coaster fuelled on bile that has run off the rails and crashed into a children’s playground. Nicole and Charlie fight over custody of their young son, Henry; they weep and wail like wounded animals.

A scene from the 2019 movie Marriage Story, in which Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play a couple trying to navigate a hostile divorce.Credit:Alamy

The moral to the story is that a hostile separation is mutually assured destruction, and that whatever you “win” in court will be eclipsed by what you lose inside yourself. To some extent, this is unavoidable. A marriage is, after all, an act of faith; an affirmation of life’s promise. A separation is the opposite. It’s an insult to hope. That nasty smell? That’s your belief in humanity going up in smoke.

The Family Court can’t help with this, any more than a hammer can bake you a cake. “Divorce is largely an emotional problem,” says family lawyer Cassandra Kalpaxis. “The worry, the sleepless nights and lack of appetite. But the traditional narrative of family law ignores this human aspect.”

Kalpaxis, who is 35, works with a staff of eight at her family law practice, Kalpaxis Legal, in Sydney’s north-west. Her sixth-floor office has a view of nearby parkland; there’s a conference room with a tidy little bowl of sweets on the table, and a “quiet room”, on the wall of which is a chirpy neon sign that reads “COME AS YOU ARE”.

Kalpaxis has been practising law since 2011, and is the author of Dignified Divorce: How to Separate Simply and Stay Out of Court. Her theory is that a kind of triage should apply to separation, with the most inflammatory concerns being dealt with first. “Otherwise you can get what I call ‘litigation regret’, where people make decisions during litigation that they wouldn’t have made had they got advice earlier from a psychologist, counsellor and child-inclusive mediator, and also a mortgage expert and a financial planner. You don’t want to take that hostility and anxiety into the legal process.”

“Divorce is largely an emotional problem. But the traditional narrative of family law ignores this human aspect.”

Like Marguerite Picard, Kalpaxis is all about collaboration and dispute resolution. But she’s best known for a divorce retreat she runs called Detox Your Divorce. The retreats are held over two days, and include a series of expert panels and workshops. Last year’s event, which cost $800 per person, took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Terrigal on the NSW Central Coast, and featured talks on money management, co-parenting dilemmas, and the legal intricacies of coercive control, harassment and AVOs.

In a famously miserable area of law, Kalpaxis has somehow found a way of making divorce sound like fun. Retreat attendees do yoga sessions, Pilates and nutrition classes, meditation, essential oils and sound-healing workshops. In Terrigal, women heard a relationship expert called Dr Lurve (not her real name, in case you couldn’t tell) talk about how to begin dating again, among other issues. Attendees even got a gift bag, including luxury items and vouchers for day spas and dinners out.

I asked Kalpaxis if I could come along to a retreat, if only to meet Dr Lurve, but she told me that the doctor was no longer affiliated with the events. Besides, Kalpaxis said, her attendees didn’t like the idea of a journalist hanging around, particularly a male one.

Family lawyer Cassandra Kalpaxis runs a divorce retreat designed to help women prepare emotionally for the process of separation.

In this post-Oprah age, where every aspect of our lives, from keto diets to dental health, is a “journey”, divorce has assumed redemptory potential, with separation regarded as a possible pathway to self-improvement and spiritual growth.

Not surprisingly, then, divorce retreats have become closely aligned with the self-care industry, especially in the US. Many such retreats double as wellness weekends or personal-growth events. Even some fitness and weight-loss camps are now branding themselves “divorce retreats”, presumably so you can come out the other side of your separation with both a better grasp of child custody arrangements and improved aerobic performance.

But divorce as group therapy comes with risks. “There’s a real danger with group retreats,” says Adèle Théron, CEO of a company called Naked Divorce, which offers a range of programs that cover virtually every stage of divorce, and includes one-on-one post-divorce recovery retreats and real-time coaching programs. “With a [group] retreat, where people all sit in a room telling each other how awful their ex was or whatever, there’s the potential for vicarious trauma – that you can be traumatised by someone else’s trauma.”

In a previous life, Théron, who is South African by birth, was a consultant to the finance industry, specialising in change management, mainly in London. “That area is very target-driven, goal-oriented,” she tells me. She’s taken a similar approach to Naked Divorce, which offers a full suite of options, from pre-separation counselling to divorce coaching to post-divorce recovery – a kind of cradle-to-grave coverage for the unlucky in love.

But her real product is certainty – no candles, no gift bags; just cold, hard results. She tells me that 97 per cent of clients in the post-recovery programs report feeling “satisfied” within a six-month period. (There’s even a money-back guarantee.) “By the time they come out of our programs,” she says, “they’re done.”

When Naked Divorce launched in 2009, people told Théron she was “arrogant and dangerous, and a bit of a twat”, she says. “But I’m pretty confident,” she adds. “I’ve always had a sense that time by itself doesn’t heal; it’s actually what you do with that time.”

In this post-Oprah age, where every aspect of our lives, from keto diets to dental health, is a “journey”, divorce has assumed redemptory potential, with separation regarded as a possible pathway to self-improvement and spiritual growth.Credit:Josh Robenstone

Healing is so individual. Naked Divorce might work for the cashed-up and time-poor, but if you’re not the kind of person who regards a successful separation as a KPI, there are alternatives. You could try a co-parenting app, especially designed for divorcees, featuring custody calendars and tips for better communication.

For fans of voodoo, there’s the wedding-ring coffin (place ring in a wooden box, bury it upside-down and urinate on the grave), or even a divorce party, where divorcees can burn their wedding outfits or bludgeon a pinata in the shape of their ex, or even, in rare cases, celebrate a new beginning in the company of their former partner.

In the US, a cottage industry has grown up around “ayahuasca divorce ceremonies”, where people travel to the Amazon for shamanic rituals involving the plant-based psychotropic, the effects of which supposedly help participants let go of negative emotions and forgive their former spouses, or themselves.

Of all the negative emotions surrounding separation, perhaps the most pernicious is guilt. “There is a deep shame around divorce,” says Tamir Berkman. “I felt like I had a ‘broken marriage’. I had failed at the relationship. I had failed in something I was always proud of.” Indeed, Berkman was so ashamed that he didn’t tell his family for almost two years.

“There is a deep shame around divorce. I felt like I had a ‘broken marriage’. I had failed at the relationship.”

The stigma can also deter couples from accepting the inevitable. “I was trying to avoid that sense of failure at all costs,” says a Melbourne woman who I’ll call Leah. “And so my husband and I kept on going to marriage counselling and trying to repair something that was beyond fixing.”

Leah, who is 38, attended counselling for three months before deciding to separate in mid-2021. “My husband and I had been together for 20 years, the last five of which we were married,” she tells me. “We’d known each other since high school, and had a four-year-old boy. Our lives were so enmeshed.”

There were many elements to separating that Leah was unprepared for, including the legal aspect (she’s a planning consultant, not a lawyer), as well as how to co-parent and communicate effectively. Then there was the grief. “I went into mourning, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I thought grief was only something you feel when someone dies, but it was so strong.” And so she did what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing: she hired a coach.

Divorce coaching is a subset of life coaching, a concept that, like Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling”, once seemed faddish but has since been granted grudging acceptance. Numbers are hard to come by, but Australia’s main accrediting body, Beautiful You Coaching Academy, has recently seen a growth in the numbers of coaches wanting to specialise in divorce. “This usually stems from them having experienced a divorce themselves and not receiving the support they felt would best have suited them during that time of transition,” says the academy’s CEO and founder, Julie Parker.

Coaches claim they differ from counsellors in that they are future-focused. “It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when you’re going through divorce,” says Leah. “So it’s great to have someone to make you look forward, and get an idea of what you want your future to look like.”

Leah’s coach, a Melbourne woman named Sallyanne Hartnell, asked her to think of her ex as two versions of the one person. “There is the ex that I’m dealing with in the present,” Leah explains, “and the future ex, the one that exists in the type of positive co-parenting relationship I want to work towards. The idea is to frame my responses and actions around that future version.”

Hartnell also devised a personalised series of guided meditations, which helped Leah reimagine her options. “You have this picture of your whole life ahead of you,” Leah says. “I wanted more kids, I wanted the perfect family, all that. Sallyanne helped me understand that it might still happen, but just in a different way. Like, I might repartner and have more kids that way, or have a blended family, or I could have kids through a sperm donor.”

Sallyanne Hartnell is a life coach specialising in divorce: “It’s about getting out of the anger and identifying your unmet needs.” Credit:Narelle Haas/Moonstone Photography

But a good counsellor could also do that, right? “Yes, but not every counsellor could help me with the logistical stuff, like how to sort out the financials, and put me in touch with a really good collaborative divorce lawyer, and give me a good idea of what the process entails. It’s about feeling supported by someone with a divorce-focused knowledge base.”

Hartnell’s “knowledge base” is a product of her own divorce, which, as it happens, was refreshingly amicable. “Our divorce was finalised in 2012,” she tells me. “My partner and I negotiated what we thought was fair and what we thought was going to work, and did the financial split, and only brought in lawyers to deal with what we had written down. The lawyer I went to said, ‘You could get more,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to get more, all I want is what’s fair and reasonable.’ I wanted to be able to stand next to him at family events and look him in the eye and not feel resentful.”

Hartnell’s approach is paradoxical: she encourages her clients to be rational in dealing with the emotional: she is objective with the subjective.

Hartnell has remained friends with her ex: they’ve even gone on holidays together with their kids. (He slept in a different room.) When friends saw how civilised her separation was, they began asking for advice and support. “Basically I saw a gap in the market, and I stepped into it.”

Hartnell’s approach is paradoxical: she encourages her clients to be rational in dealing with the emotional: she is objective with the subjective. “It’s about getting out of the anger and identifying your unmet needs,” she says. “But to do that, you have to be businesslike and unemotional.”

When Marguerite Picard was a young lawyer in the early 1980s, there were a number of black-and-white photos on the walls of the waiting areas in the Supreme Court of Victoria. The pictures, which had been cut out of old newspapers, showed small children being ripped from their mothers’ arms. “It was a history lesson, to show how far we’d come,” says Picard.

The past 40 years has seen similar progress. Take Gwyneth Paltrow. After finalising her divorce from Chris Martin in 2016, she developed and even managed to sell a candle called “This Smells Like My Vagina” ($US75). That’s quite some feat, even for GP. She has since remarried, to writer and TV producer Brad Falchuk, with whom she has a blended family. (Chris Martin is currently dating actor Dakota Johnson.)

There is, of course, only one Gwyneth Paltrow, and none of us will be like her, not in a million reincarnations. But it’s worth noting that conscious uncoupling is a thing now, and we have her to thank for it. Well, her and all those collaborative lawyers and divorce coaches and yes, equine therapists. In an ideal world, then, marriage will still be till-death-do-us-part.

But that no longer means that divorce has to kill you.

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