Shifting Divorce Myths—Strive for an amicable divorce, but don’t compare yourself to the “perfect” celebrity splits you see on social media

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Over many decades, portrayals of divorce (real and fictional) in media and entertainment have reflected and affected our view of it. Those depictions may impact couples and families going through a divorce—in helpful or harmful ways.

Everyone is familiar with the “War of the Roses”-style divorce: a flat-out, no-holds-barred burn-it-all-down battle.

Then there’s the lighthearted, starry-eyed (and unbelievable) “Parent Trap” version—in which, if only the long-separated twins could get their folks talking again, they’d patch things up, and everything would turn out fine.

In this social-media-crazed culture, when people’s most private business is exposed across all the apps and 24/7 news outlets, we’ve all been privy to the real-life details of high-conflict, high-profile splits like Kardashian-West, Depp-Heard, and more recently Costner-Baumgartner.

The internet loves drama.

But when it comes to how divorce is depicted, there’s another—opposite—trend in recent years as well—

The “picture-perfect” divorce.

Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin began “consciously uncoupling” in 2015, many divorcing celebrity couples have cultivated a peaceful, even sunny public image, releasing formal statements saying how much they still love each other, how they’ll remain best friends and a happy family even though they’re no longer married.

“It is with grace and gratitude that we announce we are divorcing,” Toni Collette said of her split from Dave Galafassi in March 2023, adding that they would “continue to thrive as a family.”

This spring A-list celebrity Reese Witherspoon also shared on Instagram that she and her husband, Jim Toth, were divorcing. “It is with a great deal of care and consideration that we have made the difficult decision to divorce,” they wrote. “We have enjoyed so many wonderful years together and are moving forward with deep love, kindness, and mutual respect for everything we have created together.”

When actor Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan announced the end of their 9-year marriage in 2018, they called their marriage a “magical journey.” They claimed that “Absolutely nothing has changed about how much we love one another, but love is a beautiful adventure that is taking us on different paths for now,” adding that they are “best friends.”

“The prevailing trend for celebrity divorces has been one of performing civility,” The Cut said in June.

An amicable divorce is admirable, something to aspire to—and in many cases, it is achievable! It’s almost always preferable—less stressful and expensive than a protracted court battle. So, it’s inspiring that we’re seeing high-profile couples commit to a graceful separation, centering their children, and finding a way forward with some version of harmonious family life. “These recent celebrity divorces have set the public stage for a reversal from acrimonious to amicable,” Michelle Crosby wrote in HuffPost in 2015.

At the same time, it’s essential for “regular” divorcing couples to realize that A-list exes usually have a PR machine helping shape their divorce narrative. This Instagrammable version of divorce may set up unrealistic expectations.

In our media-saturated environment, we take in a steady diet of images and messages that have the power and potential to influence our mental health and well-being and shape the way we perceive our circumstances or even our image of ourselves.

“A growing body of research and argumentation suggests that being saturated with such picture-perfect imagery in which every scene represents life at its best can actually make people less happy as they compare its staged imagery to their own lives… [E]mphasis on unattainable perfection actually has a harmful effect on our mental health,” says Forbes Magazine.

It would be easy to look at idealized celebrity divorces and think, not only did my marriage not survive, but I have failed because my divorce is messy, devastating, and contentious—my ex and I are not friends.

“We judge ourselves for feeling pain, sadness, fear, which produces shame and guilt… We end up just feeling bad about feeling bad. It stalls out any healing, progress, or problem solving,” said the Washington Post in a 2020 article on toxic positivity. “Research has shown that accepting negative emotions, rather than avoiding or dismissing them, may actually be more beneficial for a person’s mental health in the long run.”

While studies demonstrate that a positive approach and a focus on good outcomes can help us be healthier, happier, and more successful in life, it’s also true that to heal, you have to allow yourself to feel your feelings.

During your divorce, it is normal to experience sadness, anger, guilt, fear, doubt, regret, blame, rage, disbelief, disappointment—and a whole range of intense emotions; to cycle through all the stages of grief. It may not be a pretty process. Don’t let the “good vibes only,” unflaggingly upbeat public stories make you feel worse. It’s okay not to be okay. Seek support if you need it.

And although some couples do stay friends (or find their way back to friendship eventually), for many exes, just agreeing and learning to co-parent peacefully is a worthy goal, a tall order, a big success. You don’t have to be BFFs with your ex to thrive after divorce—and you haven’t failed if you’re not.

Divorce is much more nuanced than any polarized media depiction, as unique as the partners going through it. Ending a marriage is complicated and painful and can be the best choice.

The skilled and compassionate San Francisco family attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate your unique dissolution and achieve the best possible outcomes for your family.

by Debra Schoenberg

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