“Our journey now is shifting.”
“We are still the best of friends.”
“The decision was an amicable and mutual one.”
“Moving forward with deep love, kindness and mutual respect.”
These days, if you spot an official statement or Instagram caption with one of these positive turns of phrase, chances are it’s not for the most positive news.
In case you hadn’t noticed, 2023 is the year of the celebrity split, with dozens of notable actors, singers and reality stars — and one former mayor of New York — announcing a breakup, separation or divorce. The breakups of pop stars like Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Britney Spears have kept the internet in a chokehold for weeks at a time. And some of the celebrity declarations have been caked with so much aggressive optimism that they can feel forced.
Breakups, especially divorces, have traditionally carried the stench of shame and failure, and the effect can be magnified when the relationship was highly scrutinized. But they can also represent freedom from an unhappy and unfulfilling partnership. Either way, they’re stressful, so why not be honest?
It’s easy to blame the age-old smoke screen of P.R. spin for all the positive language. But on its own, a cultural preoccupation with optics can’t explain the prevalence of Gwyneth Paltrow-style conscious uncoupling.
According to Alex Kapp, a divorce manager in Los Angeles, taking the high road with a collaborative divorce pays off in the long run.
“My thing that I say to clients all the time is: How do you want to look back on this, at the end of it, when you’re divorced and all of a sudden you’ve moved into this new phase in life?” Ms. Kapp said. “How do you want to look back on your behavior, and how do you want your kids to look back on your behavior?”
“It’s not joyful,” she added, “but it certainly can be civil and reasoned.”
This month, the actor Hugh Jackman and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, announced that after 27 years of marriage, they were separating to “pursue our individual growth,” adding: “Our family has been and always will be our highest priority. We undertake this next chapter with gratitude, love and kindness.”
The singer Teyana Taylor also announced her separation from her husband, the former basketball player Iman Shumpert, in an Instagram caption, writing that they were still “great business partners” and “one hell of a team when it comes to co-parenting.” She added that they had been able to “successfully & peacefully separate,” despite rumors to the contrary.
Throughout the year, many former pairs — including Ricky Martin and Jwan Yosef, Billy Porter and Adam Smith, Reese Witherspoon and Jim Toth, and Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello — issued similar breakup statements that showcased their consideration for each other, reflected on many wonderful years together, and proclaimed that they would move forward with love and kindness.
Though the joint announcement has become more common, it can still read to many as insincere. In a society accustomed to acrimony, fans are eager to come up with theories about why a relationship ended and who was to blame. Divorces need a villain and a victim.
Melissa Lenon, a therapist and divorce coach in Santa Clara, Calif., said this style of “reactive uncoupling,” with couples going to court in hopes of getting their “pound worth of flesh,” was what the public had come to expect.
“We’re doing this using our frontal lobe,” she said, referring to a part of the brain that controls critical thinking and judgment, “instead of our amygdala,” a part that processes emotions.
There are times when the courtroom is the only option, but for people in the public eye, mediation or collaboration is helpful, according to Ms. Lenon. “You want control over the narrative, but also you want control over the result,” she said, “because that is what’s going to impact your life and also how you feel about the other person.”
Not everyone in the public eye chooses to release a statement. In 2022, the actress Busy Philipps revealed that she and Marc Silverstein, her husband of 14 years, were no longer together in an episode of her podcast that was released more than a year after they broke up. She said that she did not want to go along with the “conventional idea of what a person in the public eye is supposed to do when their relationship ends.”
“You make a statement, you’re committed to remaining friends, ‘please respect our privacy and our family’s privacy in this time,’” she said. “But the truth is like, who made that rule up, that that’s how you do it?”
The concept of an amicable divorce has perhaps never occupied more space in the cultural conversation than in 2014, when Ms. Paltrow and her then husband, the singer Chris Martin, announced that they were separating — and introduced the term “conscious uncoupling” to the wider lexicon.
In a blog post with that title on Ms. Paltrow’s website, Goop, the couple wrote that despite “working hard for well over a year” to make it work, they had concluded that “while we love each other very much, we will remain separate.”
Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Martin went on to emphasize that they would always be a family and parents to their two children. (Their note has since been replaced on the Goop website with information about conscious uncoupling, a term coined in 2009 by the marriage and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas.)
At the time, reporters tapped counselors and relationship experts to explain what conscious uncoupling meant. (The New York Times called it a “new, ungainly phrase.”) And the online backlash was swift: Critics mocked the stars for their upbeat announcement, which many interpreted as holier-than-thou. One advice blogger, Tracy Schorn, said in a particularly caustic post that she was thrilled the term was being received with “the snark and derision it so rightly deserves.”
“On the other hand,” she added, “the notion that divorce should be free of baser emotions like grief and anger is still a solid part of our culture.”
Writing in British Vogue in the wake of the separation, Ms. Paltrow recalled how quickly the public’s surprise at the news transformed into ridicule: “A strange combination of mockery and anger that I had never seen.”
Now, nearly a decade after the announcement, the Paltrow-Martin model is exactly what many couples navigating a breakup strive for. “Instead of people approaching me with ‘Why did you say that?’” Ms. Paltrow wrote at the time, “they now approach me with ‘How do you do that?’”
What does a marriage mean if a person is happy about the divorce? For her part, Ms. Lenon doesn’t believe that a reduction in divorce stigma and a positive approach to uncoupling will necessarily lead to a lack of commitment to marriage.
“Is the coming forward with a way to divorce, or saying we’ve kept this amicable and we’re taking care of ourselves and the family as we restructure — is that going to change the numbers of people divorcing?” she said. “I think it will stay about the same until we figure out more of the underlying factors of how to make relationships work long-term.”