Maybe you heard the buzz a few years ago when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled”—shorthand for amicably divorced. At the time, I joined others in dismissing it as a New Age-y claim to somehow be beyond the pain, shame, and notoriety that often accompany divorce in our society.
But earlier this year I listened to a podcast where one half of a non-celebrity couple described how they had “consciously completed” their marital relationship. (The other half of the couple wrote a blog post to share his experience as well.)
The host also interviewed the woman who wrote the book on conscious uncoupling, and while the book’s tone is more “follow your bliss” than “uphold your marriage covenant,” its process, as the podcast couple used it, sounded profoundly challenging and compassionate.
Then, recently, Jesus-following devout friends of mine let me know they were very amicably divorcing.
So I started wondering: how does “conscious uncoupling” fit with Christianity?
It doesn’t—at least not as the get-out-of-marriage free card the media portrayed it to be.
Jesus is clear that divorce is a sin. Not because it’s something to be ashamed of or feel guilty for, but because it’s the ending of a covenant meant to be kept.
But the idea of using “conscious uncoupling” the way it was intended—as a compassionate, loving path through the end of an already broken relationship—should be compelling for Christians.
Progressive interpretations of Jesus’ sayings on divorce range from countercultural protection of vulnerable women to hyperbolic moral exhortation.
But for me, the heart of Jesus’ saying is found in Matthew 19:8 and Mark 10:5: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce.”
Pair that with Malachi 2:16 where God says, “the man who hates and divorces…covers his garment with violence,” and suddenly it looks like hatred and hardness of heart within marriage are the real concerns here.
I think we ridicule people like Paltrow and Martin in part because we accept the status quo that divorce is a pitched battle. We talk about “fighting for our marriage,” friends taking sides, and “lawyering up” when things go south, as if the value of a union is measured by how much blood is spilled in the attempt to save it.
No clergy I know want to contribute to the divorce rate by making it “easy” to end a marriage. By contrast, “conscious completion” sounds like we gave up too easily. After all, if you can remain on decent, even friendly terms after a divorce, was it really that bad to begin with?
But we might have it backwards.
If marriages only end when we’ve wounded each other irreparably, maybe we’ve missed the opportunity to recognize a broken relationship before it breaks us.
The hallmarks of conscious uncoupling—honestly naming our conflicts and emotions, working with integrity on our own history and baggage, gracefully facing the truth that our marriage is over, striving to maintain a soft heart toward the other person even as we dissolve a relationship—are not easy. In some respects, they are harder than blowing up a marriage via traditional deal-breakers like infidelity.
As someone who presides over weddings where the marriage covenant is made, it feels counterintuitive and somewhat uncomfortable to look for a soft-hearted way out. But if we take Jesus’ admonition about hard-heartedness and God’s distaste for marital hatred seriously, shouldn’t we be looking for a more caring model when that covenant ends?
‘Cause let’s be real: covenants end. Even the one Christian marriage is most often compared to—God’s covenant with Israel—was repeatedly broken through Israel’s infidelity and would have ended in divorce if not for the infinite graciousness of God.
God’s grace is definitely something to strive to model in marriage, but last I checked, every last one of us married or formerly married people is merely human and we fall far short of matching God’s track record.
For the podcast couple, “conscious uncoupling” was by no means a process devoid of pain or sorrow, but it was devoid of rancor—and, actually, full of grace, and love.
Clergy don’t traditionally preside over divorces. But “conscious uncoupling” might be what it would look like if we did.
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is a thrift-vangelist, writer, preacher, preacher’s wife, mama, and Midwesterner transplanted to the South. She has a not-so-secret passion for pop music and loves being the lone millenial in her baby boomer-filled yoga class. Born & raised UCC, she’s bi-vocational, preaching at Decatur UCC in Atlanta every other Sunday while doing admin work at a big Presbyterian church during the week. She blogs at http://thriftshopchic.com.