A better alternative to long-term commitment?
Gwyneth Paltrow used the term, “conscious uncoupling” to describe her separation, and it has become one of the hottest phrases in pop-psychology ever since. I was excited to be interviewed for this article on conscious uncoupling in the Pittsburg Gazette. As a couples therapist I spend much of my time thinking about what makes marriage work, and the topic set me thinking not only about why people separate, but how they separate. Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman wrote in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, “a peaceful divorce is better than a warlike marriage”, and it’s true that harmonious parting is especially important for couples with children, who will co-parent together long after their union has been dissolved. I applaud Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Martin for their commitment to a respectful parting and their awareness of the risk to their children. The following quote is from Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog:
“…while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer than we have ever been. We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children and we ask for their and our space and privacy to be respected at this difficult time…Love, Gwyneth and Chris”
Most people don’t get married expecting to get divorced, and most people who get divorced don’t expect to end up in a high-conflict custody dispute. When people decide to part ways, I certainly agree that it’s a very good rule of thumb to attempt to do so consciously rather than unconsciously. Otherwise anger and resentment can become the drivers in decision-making. It can be a sad, lonely time, and the kinder people can be to one another, the better.
Later in the blog post, Dr. Habib Sadeghi & Dr. Sherry Sami go more into more detail about conscious uncoupling, stating “To put in plainly, as divorce rates indicate, human beings haven’t been able to fully adapt to our skyrocketing life expectancy. Our biology and psychology aren’t set up to be with one person for four, five, or six decades.” I worry about the message that now that life expectancy is extending, it’s simply unrealistic for most of us to stay married over the long-run. It’s not easy and it is perhaps a well-kept secret that long term commitment is long hard work. There is a great deal of loneliness and isolation present for people who are both single and partnered. If we are given a message that we will be happier and more self-actualized alone than together, there is a risk that some might leave their relationships looking for that, and possibly never develop the skills of improving connection. This can lead to a pattern of moving from lonely relationship to lonely relationship. It is clear that Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Martin worked very hard to make things work before parting, and of course there are times when two people just aren’t able to be their true selves within their marriages.
Author and social worker Amy Bloom said “Love at first sight is easy to understand; it’s when two people have been looking at each other for a lifetime that it becomes a miracle.”
Uncoupling, conscious or otherwise, is not the only option. Happy and fulfilling long-term commitments of 50+ years may be extraordinary, but they are certainly possible. We now know that fight-free happily ever after is only true in fairy tales (though now even the modern Disney movies have let go of this fallacy). Arguments and hurt feelings are an inevitable part of any relationship, but thanks to the research that has been added to the field of couples therapy, counselors now know how to teach people research-backed strategies to improve their relationships. This is then encouraging that perhaps “conscious coupling” can replace “unconscious coupling” or “conscious uncoupling”.
For more information on these conscious coupling strategies read the article: The 5 Most Common Mistakes People Make in Relationships (and How to Avoid Them)