There's been a great frenzy in the media recently about the concept of "conscious uncoupling" generated by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chis Martin announcing that they've decided to end their marriage. As I'm a strong proponent that a loving, healthy relationship can sustain over a lifetime, I have a thing or two to say about this.
I'll start by saying that, as with all couples, we have no idea what goes on behind closed doors. While Paltrow and Martin seem like thoughtful people, we simply don't know why they've decided to part ways. So if you're in a healthy marriage and your anxiety was spiked upon hearing this news, or when you read the corresponding article on Goop by Dr. Habib Sadeghi & Dr. Sherry Sami — as were many of my clients and course members — remind yourself that their marriage isn't your marriage, and that you don't know what led to their decision to part ways.
Are there times when the most loving choice is to allow a marriage to dissolve?
Relationship experts and proponents of the benefits of longterm marriage, myself included, believe that there's basically only one reason: an unworkable and obvious red-flag issue in the relationship that hasn't responded to counseling or other forms of intervention.
Red-flag issues are defined as the following:
- Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse currently occurring in the relationship
- Any addiction which includes alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, and in some cases, work and media
- Unhealed issues around trust and betrayal
- Severe issues around control – keeping in mind that everyone has control issues, but what I’m talking about are deeper issues where one person feels consistently trapped or unsafe by the other’s need for control
- Irreconcilable differences around core values like religion or having children — ie, one of you definitely wants to have kids and the other definitely doesn’t.
If a marriage is suffering from an untenable red-flag issue, then the underlying mindset of conscious uncoupling — which basically means tending to your own grief and other uncomfortable feelings so that you don't project them onto your partner in the form of retaliatory anger and longterm resentment — is a gentle and responsible way to dissolve a marriage.
The authors of the article assert that only one person needs to adopt this approach for it to be effective, and I agree. (By the way, the same is true for creating a better marriage: only one person is required to effect positive change.)
So if there's truly an irreconcilable red-flag issue and the couple has done everything they can possibly do to heal it without success, then consciously uncoupling is the way to go. It's worth emphasizing here that even red-flag issues can be healed if both partners are committed to seeking help and working on themselves and the relationship.
But what I really hear in the article is the authors giving people an easy way out of marriage, and using biology as the excuse. They assert that, "Our biology and psychology aren’t set up to be with one person for four, five, or six decades." But in the next sentence they say, "This is not to suggest that there aren’t couples who happily make these milestones — we all hope that we’re one of them."
Hmm ... there is a major hole in this argument.
If we were biologically and psychologically incapable of sustaining a lifetime, loving partnership, then nobody would be able to do it. And since we know that plenty of do people have lifelong happy marriages, the underlying issue must lie elsewhere.
From what I see in my work, the problem that leads to the 50% divorce rate is not about biology or life expectancy; it's that we haven't evolved our model of marriage to align with our increased spiritual awareness and needs. Historically, marriage has served primarily as a practical and economic relationship: the man provided the financial stability and the woman took care of the home and kids.
Love may have entered the relationship over time, but it wasn't the impetus for joining or remaining together. The greater purpose of the marriage was more of a business contract than anything else.
Clearly this is an archaic model, but if we no longer need a partner for financial stability or even to have a family, why marry?
Pioneering thinkers in the world of relationship, like Gary Zukav, John Welwood, and Susan Page, believe that the new model of marriage is more of a spiritual partnership in that we commit to another for the purpose of evolving our capacity to love and be loved. As Welwood writes in Love and Awakening:
"In former times, if people wanted to explore the deeper mysteries of life, they would often enter a monastery or hermitage far away from conventional family ties. For many of us today, however, intimate relationship has become the new wilderness that brings us face-to-face with our gods and demons. It is calling on us to free ourselves from old habits and blind spots, to develop a full range of our powers, sensitivities, and depths as human beings — right in the middle of every day life."
Is it challenging at times? Without a doubt. But it's these very challenges that invite the deepest level of healing and growth. If we run when it gets hard or when our partner no longer "makes" us feel alive and happy, we'll be running from partner to partner for the rest of our lives. And this seems to be what the authors of the Goop piece are encouraging when they write:
"...this creates a boomerang effect as these negative issues always come right back to us, triggering our unconscious and long-buried negative internal objects, which are our deepest hurts, betrayals, and traumas. This back-and-forth process of projection and aggravation can escalate to the point where it impacts our psychic structure with even more trauma."
Instead of seeing this cycle as a sign that it's time to leave, the conscious coupling approach would view it as an opportunity to turn inward, take full responsibility for your pain, and embrace the chance to heal wounds that are sometimes only re-opened in the context of intimate relationships.
It certainly sounds evolved to uncouple consciously by letting go of the belief that marriage is supposed to last a lifetime and taking responsibility for your pain so that it doesn't come out as resentment and anger toward your ex. But while it sounds responsible, it's still a blame model. Instead of blaming your partner, the model encourages you to blame the institution of marriage. Claiming that human beings aren't biologically set up to remain married for 60 years is a convincing argument that allows people to avoid taking responsibility for their unattended pain.
It's so easy to shun responsibility and believe that the problem is that you're with the wrong person, that you've outgrown each other, or that marriage isn't meant to last a lifetime. But the fatal flaw in this thinking is that because the triggers are yours and live inside of you (not caused by your partner's behavior), they will inevitably be re-activated in your next relationship.
If you can take responsibility as you're walking away, you can certainly take responsibility while remaining in the relationship — again, provided there are no unworkable red-flag issues. And this requires tremendous courage. It requires the willingness to uncover buried projections and hidden pain and move toward everything uncomfortable inside of you while you challenge the belief that your numbness, stagnancy, or lack of aliveness are your partner's responsibility.
So if you're in a basically healthy relationship, you may as well stay put and commit to the sometimes hard but ultimately rewarding work required to sustain a lifelong, fulfilling partnership.
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