The silent divorce: Why so many couples hide their separation

Meryl Streep and Jada Pinkett Smith are two examples of a trend that raises the possibility that silence is the best way to manage a divorce without (too much) drama

Divorcios Rupturas
Don Gummer and Meryl Streep at the Oscars in 2014.Dan MacMedan (WireImage)

Social media has made celebrity breakups part of our daily lives. Instead of issuing official press releases, as had been the norm, well-known personalities now prefer to announce their breakups via posts on their social networks, without the need for third parties. Thus, between posts from our family and memes, our social media feeds are also filled with news of famous couples separating, which in turn strengthens our parasocial relationships with our favorite celebrities and makes us feel we are somewhat closer to them… And this is precisely the reason why, when we find out they separated and hid the news for some time, we feel not only surprised, but in a way, even betrayed.

Although more and more celebrities seemed to be opting for separations that could have very well been coordinated by Gwyneth Paltrow, with texts announcing their breakup that read more like love letters filled with affection, respect and empathy, we are now witnessing the phenomenon of silent separations. We are talking about breakups that occurred some time ago and that we are just now finding out about.

Perhaps the first case that comes to mind is that of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith, who had been separated for seven years without us having any idea. Shortly after Pinkett Smith broke the news, however, we discovered that Meryl Streep and Don Gummer had also been divorced for six years. In the world of over-information and lack of privacy, these secrets come as a surprise, while also raising the question of whether it is healthier to prioritize self-care over rushing to announce a separation. What if a silent divorce is the best way to heal?

When secrecy and silence are the new luxury

The truth is that, in Hollywood, secret divorces are not so rare thanks to the private judges that well-known figures like Elon Musk and Chris Pratt have made use of. Popular private judge Jill Robbins, who oversaw the divorce of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, explained to The Cut that contrary to what we might think, in reality most of those who hire her are not celebrities, but dentists, doctors, life insurance executives, lawyers... Quietly separating from one’s spouse is not exclusive to celebrities. Normal folk desire privacy as much as any A-lister. In a world where secrets are scarce, enjoying secrecy and silence is a new luxury.

“The wonderful thing about this is that this way we avoid people giving us their opinion about it. In the end, everyone thinks they have the right to give their opinion and, really, opinions that are not contrasted with professionals (lawyers or psychologists) can create a huge mental mess and can even cause disagreements with our partner… Friends and relatives, with all their good intentions, do not know about our particular case and can do more harm than help,” says Nieves Aparicio, director and founder of Válory, a company specializing in divorces for women with children.

Having some time to ground one’s ideas, to manage the grief and even to look for a new home, makes it easier for us to process the emotions that arise after a separation. Often, after a breakup or a divorce, we’re forced to listen to comments and questions from friends and relatives, which make an already complicated situation even more tedious. In the face of a society engulfed in noise, keeping silent, at least in emotional matters, can help.

At the same time, we have become accustomed to the fact that celebrities and those around us have turned social networks into a megaphone for their private lives, so we often feel that we are required to let everyone know where we stand in our relationships. “We feel almost obligated to keep everyone informed of our relationship because, if we uploaded photos [together] at some point and we stop doing it, they will think we have broken up. In fact, this is how, on many occasions, we find out about celebrity breakups, because they stop following each other on social networks, delete photos together, etc. It is also common to see that one partner pressures the other to post photos or videos showing that he or she is in a couple, as it is common for some people to interpret the absence of photos with a boyfriend or girlfriend with the person being single. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We have the right to not want to keep anyone informed of our private life,” explains Elizabeth Clapés, author of Perderte para encontrarme: Supera una ruptura y vuelve a enamorarte de ti (Losing you to find myself: Overcome a breakup and fall in love with you again).

During the holidays, communicating a breakup is especially complicated. Any relative who shows up to a family gathering without his or her partner will immediately be subjected to an interrogation. For this reason, there are those who prefer not to let the family know and wait for time to pass. “Not telling [others] is a way of avoiding that they bring up the subject, [of avoiding their] questions and [reopening] the wound. The ideal would be to reach an agreement with the ex-partner in this regard to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary conflicts,” Clapés says.

We must not forget the fact that culture, ethnicity, social norms and expectations may also play a role in keeping a separation a secret. “Depending on how divorce or separation is understood in the person’s environment, he or she will tell or not, will separate earlier or later, or even will or will not do so. It will always depend on the person’s involvement in that culture or ideology, but it has a great influence. Let’s remember that there are religions in which divorce is not allowed and is even punished,” the psychologist says.

Silent separations attract our attention because they are completely opposite to the emotional exhibitionism that now reigns in social networks, where our own family and friends often issue authentic communiqués about the state of their relationships and their breakups, as if they were celebrities themselves.

As Dan Lyons says in STFU: The Power of Keeping Your Mouth Shut in an Endlessly Noisy World, “The noise will never go away. But we can. For the sake of our physical health psychological well-being, we must.” In a world that encourages us to talk more, shutting up may be the ultimate act of self-care and rebellion.

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