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  1. Law
August 3, 2023

How to make divorce look good

For high-profile figures, the need to manage the PR aspect of a divorce adds yet another complication to an already difficult process

By Rory Sachs

It is nearly a decade since the world was introduced to the now immortal phrase, ‘conscious uncoupling’. But for all the raised eyebrows at Gwyneth Paltrow’s attempt to style her divorce from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin as an aspirational process worthy of her lifestyle brand Goop!, it has been influential. More and more high-profile people are mindful of what their separation says about them and, crucially, what perceptions of it mean for their reputations, their business interests and, of course, their families. 

So what should you say about your divorce, and how? In most cases, a basic rule of thumb is ‘less is more’. That’s according to Davina Katz, senior partner at Katz Partners and a Spear’s Top Flight family lawyer. ‘You really don’t want to communicate anything more than [you need to], because doing so is effectively an invitation to share more information,’ she says. ‘I sit with the mantra of “never complain, never explain”. That really does carry you quite far.’ 

Gwyenth Paltrow and Chris Martin popularised the 'conscious uncoupling' divorce / Image: Getty
Gwyenth Paltrow and Chris Martin popularised the ‘conscious uncoupling’ divorce / Image: Getty

The Hollywood trend is to be discreet

Some of the most ‘successful’ high-profile divorces since the advent of ‘conscious uncoupling’ have been discreet – even when Hollywood actors have been involved. Jennifer Garner’s split from Ben Affleck in 2015 was succinct, with a pithy plea for their children’s privacy – as was James McAvoy’s and Anne-Marie Duff’s 2016 statement, notes Nichole Farrow, a relationship coach who most frequently advises couples with children who are separating. McAvoy and Duff ‘just quietly got divorced’, says Farrow. ‘They never really shared anything about their private life anyway, so it was quite easy to put that statement out and then just be left alone.’ 

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Divorce is a potentially volatile moment in people’s lives, notes Katz. Using a joint statement to present a united front – in public, at least – can reap rewards down the line. ‘The ideal, the paradigm, is that the parties both agree on the content, and they put it out there and it’s done,’ says Katz, who worked with Kate Winslet to craft a statement that was jointly issued with her ex-spouse, Sam Mendes, in 2010 that stated ‘there won’t be any more information placed into the public domain’, Katz adds. ‘And that was the end of it. It worked very, very well.’ 

Sometimes, however, even carefully choreographed communications plans can unravel – especially when one half of a separating couple wishes to share their own perspective. Bill and Melinda Gates issued a joint statement around the end of their 27-year marriage in 2021, requesting their family be given privacy and space but also expressing their intentions to continue working together as co-chairs of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Yet less than a year later, Melinda gave an exclusive interview to CBS Morning News in which she responded to questions relating to alleged infidelity on the part of her husband. 

Bill and Melinda Gates intended to remain as co-chairs for their foundation / Image: Shutterstock
Bill and Melinda Gates intended to remain as co-chairs for their foundation / Image: Shutterstock

‘There just came a point in time where there was enough there that I realised it just wasn’t healthy,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t trust what we had.’ Bill later said he felt ‘terrible’ that he had ‘caused pain’.

Keep your cards close to your chest

Farrow cautions her HNW clients to avoid oversharing through press interviews or social media. It is far better, she says, to stay ‘on message’.‘You know, they just start to sound really crazy on social media. And the narrative then kind of gets a little bit carried away with itself.’ 

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Katz says that for HNW businesspeople, a lack of discipline around public statements or leaks can lead to contradictory information ending up in the public domain. This can undermine confidence, particularly where family businesses are involved. ‘The share price may be impacted by the fact that your [spouse] has decided to put something in the public domain,’ she notes.

However, some HNWs have no choice but to go it alone. Katz has helped prepare unilateral statements for a client whose spouse was not ready to engage with the process. Certain people can remain in a state of denial, adds Farrow: ‘You usually get one person who feels kind of liberated and another who’s feeling very hurt.’ 

There’s also a question of what your nearest and dearest need to know, and when. ‘I think [your] inner circle needs to almost get smaller until you know it can get bigger again, because things can get leaked,’ Farrow says, adding that she encourages clients to have a carefully considered timeline over ‘who needs to be told when, and the messaging you’re going to do’. ‘You don’t want someone hearing about it through the media if you should have told them yourself.’

[See also: What divorcing couples can learn from Gwyneth Paltrow’s conscious uncoupling]

When it comes to divorce, trust only a few

Katz advises high-profile clients going through ‘something incredibly personal and difficult and far-reaching like a divorce’ that ‘you must assume that there are very few people that you can trust’. With many UHNWs surrounded by large entourages, she worries that confidential information can easily slip into the wrong hands. ‘Once it’s there, there’s nothing that you can do about it. You can seek to take it down, you can phone Schillings – they’ll do a great job, all the rest of it. But the point is, it’s already been put out there.’ 

PR impresario and former News of the World editor Phil Hall says journalists are generally respectful of requests for privacy. ‘If you say, “Please leave us alone, please respect our privacy,” they do.’ But it isn’t possible for high-profile figures to run away from lurid stories about their personal lives for ever. ‘If you don’t address [an issue] at some stage, every interview you do in the future, the press are going to bring it up.’

Although Hall believes Paltrow’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ neologism was ‘asking for trouble’, he thinks that she and Martin handled their separation well: ‘They were both extremely friendly towards each other and showed a lot of maturity in what they did. 

‘You’ve got to show proper humility,’ he concludes. ‘Play the long game. You know, very often children are involved.’ Even if those children are ‘too young to understand the nuances’ of the relationship, Hall cautions that terse exchanges might haunt the next generation. ‘When they grow up and read it in 10 years’ time, you’ll regret having said anything that’s nasty about the partner.’ 

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