High-profile Hollywood splits are nothing new. But recently, A-list couples like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, and Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale have publicly stated that while their marriages may be ending, they plan to put their children first and focus on co-parenting. These celebrity parents seem to embody the peaceful divorce of the future, at least in the public eye. But how possible is this really, for the average couple?
"For better or for worse, people do look to celebrities as role models," Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, says. Parents may wonder, "What is wrong with me? Why can't I do that?" Of course, we have no idea what goes on behind closed doors.
Jean Bunker, a Washington, D.C. health care exec, admits that ending her six year marriage to her former husband wasn't easy, especially since they shared a 17-month-old son. "There were many tears and more than a few fights," she says.
But then the couple had an 'aha' moment. "We realized that no matter what, our son was at the center of our worlds. We would always be linked by this beautiful child we created together," Bunker says. "That became a common ground that allowed us to finalize our divorce in peace, and effectively co-parent as a team."
Their rule was simple. "We always put our son first. Period. If you stick to that discipline, it really helps diffuse tensions and makes decisions easier. It's not about me. Or [my husband]. It's about [our son]."
In fact, Dr. Saltz says, it's the couples who are able to separate their roles as parents from the tension and hurt feelings they are experiencing from the marriage ending that have the most amicable divorces.
Of course, that's easier said than done.
"Even if you came to a mutual agreement that you didn't want to stay married, and neither has seriously betrayed or rejected the other person, it's still sad. It's still a loss," Dr. Saltz says.
Sadly, kids often become the vehicle through which parents express those hurt feelings. They will speak poorly about the other parent, or try to keep a child away from him or her, even if harm isn't happening. But children "need to feel they have two loving parents," Dr. Saltz says, so another rule of the peaceful divorce is to avoid bad-mouthing your ex in front of your kids. "It's not good for your child to say bad things about the parent, or withhold them from the parent, or make yourself seem so preferable," Dr. Saltz says.
She suggests finding another outlet for your hurt feelings, like a therapist, or a friend who is not in the other parent's circle. And although you may be tempted to vent to multiple family members and friends, resist the urge.
"Little ears hear you," Dr. Saltz cautions. Even comments that start with discipline and intention can set a negative tone and extend to others who spend time with your child, like grandparents.
Ultimately, parents need to remember that divorce is a terrible loss to children as well. "Divorce ends the narrative that family was going to have," says Dr. Saltz. She advises parents to explain to their child that even though the two of them aren't going to stay married, their relationship with their child will never change, and they will always love him or her.
Even if they eventually remarry. "You are still co-parents of you kids," says Dr. Saltz. Her advice:
- Don't set up a parent versus step-parent dynamic.
- Listen to everyone's point of view.
- Validate how someone might be feeling a certain way, even if you don't agree with them.
Maintaining traditions you once enjoyed together helps to reinforce that some things about your family will remain the same, even after divorcing and creating new families. Key times when a child is most likely to feel sad, such as birthdays and holidays, are especially important to celebrate as a family. Dr. Saltz adds that children find real comfort in the repetition of traditions the family shared, even if it's something as simple as taking a hayride to find a pumpkin at Halloween, or going on a picnic each year for a birthday. These traditions remind kids that although the marriage may have died, the ethos did not.
That's something Paltrow, the queen of "conscious uncoupling," and Martin have clearly made a priority; they spent time together with their two kids recently for Mother's Day and even vacationed in Mexico as a family. "It's been hard, and you know, like, we've gone through really difficult times with it," she revealed at BlogHer's 2015 conference, "but we've always said, 'These children are our priority.' What that really means is, 'Even though today, you hate me and you never want to see me again, like, we're going to brunch, 'cause it's Sunday and that's what we'll do!'"
This approach has worked for Bunker, too. "My son just recently celebrated his 12th birthday," she said. "We all celebrated together: me, my husband, my former husband (I don't say 'ex') and his lovely new wife."
But don't think the arrangement is always smooth sailing. "There are certainly challenges, and times I get frustrated—even angry. Those emotions are normal. But, we successfully broke the negative pattern that ended our marriage and created a new pattern as co-parents of a really amazing young man."