The merits of Consciously Uncoupling?

The recent news that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow were to separate, announced via her Goop online publication in this article, sparked a wave of commentary, criticism, support and general interest around water coolers everywhere. Media commentators appeared split on the “new ageism” of the term, whether such a thing was realistic or even desirable. Some derided it as a publicity stunt or further evidence of celebrity narcissism. Other journalists, such as Barbara Goldberg in the Huffington Post, accepted the need for a more open discussion on how best to deal with the reality of separation and divorce.

Around the ARC water cooler, we concluded that this was something we helped people do every day. As both an engineer and a mediator, I felt dissatisfied with some aspects of Dr Sadeghi’s and Dr. Sami’s article on “Conscious Uncoupling”. Specifically, while I can’t deny biological imperatives, the article tends to overemphasise the role of longevity on relationship breakdown. This is difficult to prove because divorce is a recent phenomenon, replacing desertion and informal separation for which reliable figures are not available. There may be other sociological factors at play here including increasing levels of wealth in the developed world, changing attitudes towards career and attitudes towards marriage, conception and religion. It’s a complicated stew of issues and it’s perhaps overly-simplistic to describe an ever-increasing number of separations as the inevitable result of longer lifespans.
We couldn’t support the assertion that

“To put in plainly, as divorce rates indicate, human beings haven’t been able to fully adapt to our skyrocketing life expectancy”

Divorce rates are clearly growing faster than average life expectancies, see Future Of Children article for commentary.

What is inarguable is that relationships are hard; that relationships can be derailed by the stress of both every day life and further weakened by loss and tragedy. It is inarguable that we are often blind to the spiritual and ideological differences that undermine a relationship during the honeymoon period, itself a biological imperative. There comes a time when a relationship is physically and psychologically damaging for one or both people and when ending that relationship is necessary in order to have a healthy and fulfilling life. Nobody anticipates reaching that point. Even the most pessimistic person will not anticipate how quickly the bedrock upon which they built their life can crumble.

If two people mutually face that decision in a compassionate way; it won’t reduce the hurt and pain they feel initially. No matter how selfless or rational we believe we are, the end of a relationship is the death of a shared dream with all the hopes and aspirations that went with it. Hurt is a powerful emotion which can invert love to hate, trust to distrust, comfort to unease and hope to despair. These inverted emotions are evident to everyone who has ever suffered relationship breakdown, they are universal, in other words. The separating couple may distrust every emotion, feeling and hope they had during the relationship; each one a pointed reminder of what will never be.

Overcoming this pain is a conscious effort. It requires a conscious effort to see the good in the person we once loved. To separate the pain they’ve caused from their intentions. To accept that a relationship is a conscious meeting of 2 spirits and that dissolving that relationship requires conscious decision making, acceptance, dignity and respect. This is never truer than when there are children of the relationship.

Our emotional brain is in turmoil and we instinctively want to lash out. Mothers want to punish fathers. Fathers exercise control over their finances and the maintenance-access dance is performed by both parents to the detriment of their children. When mediators point out that children are being used as pawns, they are often met with horrified or dismissive responses. This is because the negative actions are subconsciously motivated by a desire for retribution or even to provoke further conflict. It’s the classic “flight or fight” response. When this response becomes the primary response to all interaction with the other parent, the person has entered a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our mediators have engaged with psychologists and counsellors who treat separating couples and they have been very clear that separation can lead to PTSD and symptoms of Generalised Anxiety putting the sufferer in a near constant state of stress. Psychologists increasingly treat this physiologically damaging stress using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps the sufferer in the conscious awareness and processing of their fears, diminishing the unhealthy and subconscious stress response.

Far from being “new agey” or “faddish” the process of consciously and rationally discussing a separation is necessary. We’d argue that most people need help in doing so; relationship counsellors and mediators have been assisting in this process for decades. It’s not a panacea for the heartache of separation but it’s helpful in avoiding the suffocating stress of trying to make decisions for you and your children while dealing with the emotional turmoil of the end of your relationship. Consciously Uncoupling is a good way to describe that process.