Gwyneth Paltrow introduced a new concept into the nation’s lexicon this week: “conscious uncoupling.” Translated, that means Paltrow and her husband, Chris Martin (front man for the Grammy-award-winning group, Coldplay), are separating and will divorce. The announcement was followed by a pop-psychology article about “the idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone” and how couples can now “evolve our internal, spiritual support structure” in order to “avoid the drama of divorce” and experience “conscious uncoupling.”
Another psychotherapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas, has weighed in as well, using the Martins’ separation to promote her five-week course, “The Conscious Uncoupling Process.” She leads couples through separation to discover their “highest vision” of themselves and helps them develop “a new, different kind of love — one that is built to last.”
One gets the impression that the Paltrow announcement is merely PR for the psych gurus who are pitching an evolving attitude toward divorce — “there are no bad guys, just two people” who are “partners in each other’s spiritual progress.” After all, such attitudes in utopian isolation, “creates families that continue to function in a healthy way outside of traditional marriage.”
And, not to be too cynical, but it doesn’t escape attention that both Gwyneth and Chris are entering new media projects and a jolt of publicity that gets the social media world in high gear can’t hurt.
Ironically, this new spin comes at the same time that new research shows that the harms of divorce are worse and divorce rates are higher than we thought. In their land-breaking study in Demography, Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles show that data on divorce after 1990 “underestimated recent marital instability.” They examine new data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to declare that there was a “substantial increase” — doubling in two decades among those over age 35 — in divorce between 1990 and 2008. Kennedy and Ruggles used age-standardized divorce rates, a complex statistic analysis that not all social scientists trust. The ACS surveys report on the whole household from the perspective of a single individual in that household, so researchers recognize the possible slanting of the data.
The Kennedy/Ruggles research contradicts most of the research conducted by family studies scholars over the past three decades. It has been the conventional wisdom that divorce peaked about 1980 and then declined and stabilized. The American Community Survey data seems to indicate that the divorce rate has actually gone up by 40 percent and did not peak until 2011. The ACS shows that “almost half of ever-married Americans had divorced or separated by the time they reached their late 50s.”
It should be a simple matter to check official data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the Census Bureau, to determine the accuracy of the ACS data. But as I have lamented several times since 1996, the federal government stopped collecting data on marriage and divorce. For a while, counties and states kept track of the data even without federal support for their efforts, but some states stopped reporting, which left researchers without reliable sources to keep track of what was happening to marriages (i.e., make comparisons between states, regions, and years).
The trend toward cohabitation has also thrown uncertainty into the data pool. Cohabiting relationships are notoriously unstable, yet couples increasingly are choosing to live together before getting married or instead of getting married. The ACS is clear — half of all cohabiting relationships end within five years, and that fact has profound influence on the divorce statistics
Kay Hymowitz, writing for the Institute for Family Studies, finds hope in the Kennedy/Ruggles research, because younger married couples “who used to be at high risk of breaking up, are actually enjoying more stable marriages than their older peers did at their age.” Hymowitz also notes that the Boomer generation skewed the statistics, and by 1990 they were divorcing “at unprecedented rates.” Sadly, as we can all attest from our own anecdotal evidence, divorce among women in their fifties has “massively increased.”
One tidbit that I found particularly dismaying is that while young adults are delaying marriage, they are “entering a first union” at the same age they always have — while they are teens. Our culture tells young people to wait for marriage until their careers are successfully on track, and they do, but they end up having numerous sexual partners before marriage and bringing all that emotional baggage into their marriage relationships. No wonder the divorce rate is worse than we thought it was.