Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith have been separated since 2016 - when should couples just get divorced?

Jada Pinkett Smith has revealed that she and Will Smith have been separated for seven years. Amber Raiken speaks to relationship experts about the controversial pair, how separations can be beneficial for some couples, and when it’s time to get a divorce

Monday 16 October 2023 14:41 BST

Longtime Hollywood couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith sent shockwaves around the world this week when the Red Table Talk host revealed that she and the actor have been separated since 2016. Both Jada and Will have previously doubled down on their stance against getting a divorce, but her recent reveal about their lengthy separation poses a new question: When should couples just get a divorce?

In an interview with People on 10 October, Jada shared that during the 2022 Academy Awards - when Will slapped Chris Rock after he cracked a joke about Jada’s appearance - the pair had actually been separated for six years. “We’ve been doing some really heavy-duty work together,” she explained, while promoting her new memoir, Worthy. “We just got deep love for each other and we are going to figure out what that looks like for us.”

She praised her and Will’s two children - Jaden, 25, and Willow, 22 - for being her “little gurus” throughout this time, noting that they’ve taught her “a deep sense of self-acceptance”. Although the married couple are not living together, she insisted that their marriage has never been an open one, as she and Will have “eliminated the chance of betrayal” while going on to live their “separate lives”.

This isn’t the first time that Jada and Will have taken some time apart from each other. During a 2020 episode of her Facebook Watch series, Red Table Talk, Jada disclosed that while she and Will were separated amicably, she had a relationship with singer August Alsina, describing their involvement as an “entanglement”.

Throughout their marriage of 26 years, the A-listers have made it clear that divorce was never in the cards. Jada furthered that belief during a preview for an interview with Today’s Hoda Kotb, which aired on 13 October. “I made a promise that there will never be a reason for us to get a divorce,” she said. “We will work through, whatever. I just haven’t been able to break that promise.”

Of course, outsiders aren’t fully aware of the “heavy-duty work” that Jada and Will have done throughout their marriage. But the amount of time they’ve spent separated begs questions about all long-term relationships in general. When is it the time for couples to throw the towel in? And when should separations ultimately become the end result that couples have tried to avoid: divorce.

While there’s never a simple answer to the question, relationship experts have discovered the signs that it’s time to keep fighting for the one you love, or time to let them go.

Speaking to The Independent, New York City-based relationship expert Susan Winter highlighted the jarring differences between a separation and divorce. When it comes to divorce, Hollywood couples can notably get involved in lengthy legal processes, from dividing financial assets to creating child custody agreements. Although we don’t know the terms of Jada and Will’s separation, Winter believes that they’re showcasing a non-conventional relationship that’s not familiar to the public. Will and Jada’s dynamic includes living in separate homes, but it could be a choice that’s for the better.

“It’s an LAT partnership, meaning ‘living apart together,’” Winter said. “While everybody is at a different point as to why they are doing this, the centre point is the same: the preservation of the partnership is paramount. Separations can also be beneficial if both individuals are working on themselves and have the mutual goal of reuniting, or making their relationship better. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their improved relationship will result in them living together again.”

On the other hand, dating coach Jacob Lucas - who’s based in the UK - acknowledged that not all separations end in resolutions. When couples opt not to live together anymore, it could create an emotional disconnect between them. If a lack of connection occurred before couples separated, that separation doesn’t necessarily make the issues go away. In fact, Lucas believes that in these situations, couples could also be avoiding the inevitable breakup for the sake of comfortability.

“They’re not resolving their problems, they’re rescheduling them. So, if you separate from someone, but you live in a separate house and you’re still together, it seems to me you’re just not letting go of the past because you want to stick to what’s familiar,” he claimed. “People stick to what they know, and it’s like you have a tether to that person. Your brain’s like: ‘I cannot let go of them because I am scared of the unknown.’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple separate and come back again.”

It’s unclear whether Jada and Will plan on ending their separation and living in the same home again. However, the couple have been candid about their plans to not get a divorce. Jada previously recalled that when she first decided to get married to Will in 1997, it would be for the long haul. “I told Will from the gate, I said let me tell you something: ‘If you marry me, know this: we’re gonna be together. We’re going to be under the same roof,’” she said during a 2018 episode of Red Table Talk. “For me personally, I’m not mature enough to have a divorce, I’m just not. I don’t think I would ever be mature enough, I don’t.”

Will - who divorced his first wife, Sheree Zampino, in 1994 - has also shared similar sentiments about making his marriage with Jada work. Back in 2006, the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air star first explained to MTV News that divorce wasn’t an option for him and his second wife. “With Jada, I stood up in front of God and said: ‘Til death do us part,’” he said at the time. “So there are two possible outcomes. One, we are going to be together ‘til death, or two, I am dead.”

Speaking to The Independent, Lucas noted that while it’s important for both parties to be invested in their relationships, promising not to get a divorce could spark feelings of resentment down the line. Fans aren’t fully aware of why Will and Jada made that promise to each other, but the dating coach believes that an agreement like theirs could create a false narrative about a divorce.

Jada Pinkett Smith y Will Smith

“Getting divorced shouldn’t feel like a taboo because people grow apart and that’s fine,” he explained. “People get stuck in relationships because of their friends and family or societal pressure, and they worry about getting divorced. They think a divorce has a stigma to its name, which it doesn’t, and they push aside the fact that they still essentially feel trapped with someone they don’t want to be with.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why Jada and Will have promised not to get a divorce is because they also agreed not to sign a prenuptial agreement. In an interview with Parade published on 13 October, Jada explained it was her special connection with Will that encouraged them not to sign a prenup before getting married.

“I feel that was a very real moment for the two of us to look each other in the eyes, recognise that there would be tough times in this journey and to say to each other: ‘No matter what, we’re going to figure it out and that’s why we don’t need a prenup, because I’m making a promise that divorce won’t be necessary, that we will figure this out,’” she recalled. “And we made that promise to each other without all of the bridal wedding beauty; it was just sitting on a log in his mother’s backyard, and going: ‘Hey’ - having to really look at the possibility of us not being together.”

Although they’ve made their dedication to each other quite clear, there have been some grey areas over the last seven years about the terms of Will and Jada’s separation. In 2020, Jada made headlines when she revealed in a Red Table Talk episode with her husband that she had a relationship with Alsina. She explained that she and her husband were “separated amicably” when the romance occurred, which had not been disclosed to the press at the time. “We decided that we were going to separate for a period of time and you go figure out how to make yourself happy and I’ll figure out how to make myself happy,” Jada said. As the Girls Trip star recalled that she “got into a different kind of entanglement with August,” she was prompted by Will to confirm it “was a relationship, absolutely.”

Outsiders are now aware that Jada and Will have been separated since 2016, but the timeline of her relationship with Alsina is still fuzzy. Indeed, the terms of Will and Jada’s separation are still unknown to the public and in some cases, having separate relationships can give couples the clarity they need about their marriage.

“What’s pivotal here is, what was the agreement? Did we agree to separate to work on ourselves for the purpose of coming back together again?” Winter said. “Did we agree to separate and just be alone for a while and not have that discussion? And in the second case, if you have an affair, sometimes it can bring you back to the original person. You can get whatever you need to achieve or gain a different perspective, allowing you to decide if you want to come back or leave for good.”

Will Smith y Jada Pinkett Smith

According to Lucas, some of the controversy surrounding Will and Jada’s relationship ties back to the 2022 Academy Awards - when the King Richard star jumped onto the stage and struck Rock across the face after the comedian made a joke about Jada’s shaved head, which is a result of her alopecia. “Keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth,” Will yelled. Now that it’s been revealed the couple was separated at the time, Lucas questioned Will’s behaviour and word choice during the awards ceremony.

“That’s a weird reaction to have somebody who you’ve been broken up with for six years, you know? So, were they really broken up or is Jada saying that as an attention-seeking thing?” he asked.

However, Winter still believes the controversial incident speaks different volumes about the work Will has put into his relationship. “I feel as though Will has a tremendous love and commitment to Jada, as well as to the marriage and the family unit,” she said. “The pride that he takes in defending his wife is extraordinary, almost to the detriment of his image, at times.”

Ultimately, the public will never fully know what “heavy-duty work” Will and Jada are doing in their relationship, and according to Winter, it’s not necessarily any of our business. Still, she believes that their choice to separate is something fluid and outside of the traditional marriage design - an evolving model that could also come to serve other couples. If Will and Jada have been spending seven years apart as a married couple, why would they decide to go back to living in the same household?

“They’re in the rough with a machete, carving a new path for themselves,” Winter said. “Why would they say: ‘Hey, let’s go back to the house and just relax?’ They’re really exploring something vastly different. It doesn’t end up that you go back into that little box of ‘this is a marriage, we’re living together’. It just doesn’t do that.”

Every relationship is different, living in the public eye or not. Although living separately may not be an issue for some couples, there can still be some major signs that it’s time to leave a relationship behind. “When there is no stone left unturned, or when they have tried every single combination possible to make the relationship function and yet it doesn’t, that’s the time to pull the plug,” Winter added. “They’ve done their individual work and they have done the work together and ended up in the same place.”

Will and Jada’s relationship could end in a variety of ways. The celebrity couple could stay separated, move back in together as a married pair, or they can get a divorce. However, there are still certain behaviours in a marriage that could signal it’s time to get a divorce.

“If you feel disrespected by your partner, feel humiliated, or were cheated on, you probably feel ready to split,” Lucas said. “I also think a real big one is, if you lose sexual attraction for your partner and you’ve actively tried to get it back and can’t, it’s time to go.”

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