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PERHAPS THE MOST public and protracted case of relationship turmoil of all time, that of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, may not be over with the fallout of the saga potentially reframing the dynamics of modern relationships.

Instead of marriage, separation, divorce, the template that Will and Jada are striving so hard to achieve right now is marriage, therapy, separation, therapy, fuck around on each other while acting like you’re married, therapy, continued separation, and then, just maybe, marriage once again… with ongoing therapy.

A little back story in case you’ve missed the latest plot twists in what’s becoming a dramedy of Shakespearean proportions: last week Pinkett Smith revealed that the couple secretly separated in 2016 and were not together at the time of Smith’s infamous slap of comedian Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars.

She professed to be surprised when Smith referred to her as his “wife” when he yelled at Rock, “Keep my wife’s name out your motherfuckin’ mouth”. It now appears Smith should have said, “Keep my separated wife’s name out your motherfuckin’ mouth”, which is admittedly clunky, but so is so much of what happens during the murky shadow period between a break-up and a divorce.

In the latest twist, Pinkett Smith has revealed that although the couple are separated, they do not intend to get divorced and are working hard at saving their relationship.

“We are working very hard at bringing our relationship, yes, bringing our relationship back together … Back to a life partnership, yes,” she told Today Show host Hoda Kotb.

“Husband-wife marriage for me, for my healing process. I came into that with very specific ideas, right? Very specific ideas that were blocks. To me just seeing Will to who he is. He can’t be this perfect idealised husband. I have to be able to accept him for the human he is. He accepts me for the human that I am, and we want to love each other there. We really have been working hard.”

Pinkett Smith previously told People magazine that she never wanted to get divorced from Smith.

“I made a promise that there will never be a reason for us to get a divorce,” she said. “We will work through whatever. And I just haven’t been able to break that promise.”

For his part, Smith told The New York Times that his wife’s series of bombshell admissions (she is promoting a new memoir, Worthy) had “kind of woke him up” to the fact that she is more “resilient, clever and compassionate than [he’d] understood”, and that he’d developed “emotional blindness” to her “hidden nuances”.

“When you’ve been with someone for more than half of your life a sort of emotional blindness sets in, and you can all too easily lose your sensitivity to their hidden nuances and subtle beauties,” the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star said.

Will and Jada at the BET Awards in 2005 I Getty Images

Now, there is a lot of therapy-speak to wade through here but the idea that separation is not the end of a marriage is a potentially revelatory one. The average period from separation to divorce in Australia is three to four years. Why so long? In most cases couples wrap up the life admin areas of their split, such as custodial rights, financial settlements and who the fuck gets the cat, in a year or so, but often aren’t prompted to sign papers until one of them enters a new, serious relationship.

As Jerry Buss recently showed in the HBO series Winning Time, in which he and his first wife never signed divorce papers and he then married another woman who subsequently sued him, this is a potentially hazardous practice.

One factor that can lead to a prolonged separation is when one partner holds out hope of a reconciliation. This is a regular trope in Hollywood films. A rejected lover, often a dejected dude, will stare at the divorce papers then shove them in a draw, while his separated partner keeps nagging him to sign them. He eventually does, usually in dramatic fashion with a swiftness that emphasises the fact that though this is a small act, it has seismic consequences.

That’s not what’s happening with Will and Jada, though. They have previously talked about how theirs is an open relationship, which in hindsight should perhaps have been called an ‘open separation’ or just a separation, with Pinkett Smith’s “entanglement” with rapper August Alsina the most highly discussed case of the pair’s ‘pseudo-infidelity’—you see how nebulous separation is? Your status is so unclear and the waters so murky you don’t even know if you’re being unfaithful.

But there is another factor in prolonged separation that we would be silly to overlook: laziness. After the initial relief of no longer sharing a roof with someone you can’t stand subsides, you may actually become ambivalent about the relationship’s status. As people often say of marriage, ‘it’s just a piece of paper’. Yet so is divorce and as anyone who has ever felt their will to keep breathing wane while filling out a lease, mortgage agreement, tax return or passport application, completing and signing forms can be extraordinarily difficult—I once let a citizenship application (was born in the UK, grew up here) sit in my drawer for 10 years, not because I didn’t want to become an Australian citizen, I just could not face the paperwork involved in becoming one. I suspect the same is true of divorce and while it is perhaps monstrously cynical and wilfully reductive to cast marriage and divorce as largely clerical constructions, that’s essentially what they are: paper… work!

You could look at Pinkett Smith’s claim that the couple is not planning on divorcing as a sign that they intend to remain mired in the ambiguous swamp of separation, for who knows how long and how much therapy it will take for them to get over their issues and resume their union as husband and wife—an open separation would seem to be antithetical to that goal.

But, if you’re being generous, as I’m inclined to be, you could instead celebrate the strength of their bond and their unshakeable commitment to their relationship. They will not give up on each other, no matter what comes between them, who they sleep with in between, how many people get hurt while they protect each other’s honour, and how much of the minutiae and machinations of their relationship they reveal during press tours for their memoirs.

That’s inspiring, it’s romantic, it’s an advertisement for couples therapy and well, it beats the hell out of paperwork.

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