Nine years ago I was explaining to my parents the concept of conscious uncoupling. We were driving to the LACMA and I told them what Dr. Habib Sadeghi & Dr. Sherry Sami present on the subject in their article that accompanied Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin's separation announcement.
I was having a relationship with a man, now my husband, who was much older than myself and was previously married two times. My parents have been married 44 years and raised three children together. I wanted to broaden their understanding of relationships and avoid any automatic stigmatization of Duane. Although I was not married before, I too had significant relationships that ended. Our prior relationships equipped us to be better partners.
Relationships do end, and it is important to stop viewing this as failure. The success or failure of a relationship should not be determined by it's length, but by our ability to allow another human being into our heart and grow from the experience. Forming a deep primary bond with someone is an act of discovery on many levels. The only way we come to know ourselves is in a relationship. Each commitment we make is really a commitment to open ourselves to the next developmental stage of our path. The problem is that psychological growth does not always feel good. Change reminds us of death. It can feel terrifying.
Dr. Sadeghi and Sami write that the idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone. perhaps. But we believe that it is precisely this pressure which is needed. It is not just our life expectancy that has doubled since the upper paleolithic era. Our creativity and capacity for invention has exponentially exploded. The creation of a construct that combines commitment and sustainable romantic satisfaction is one such cultural invention. And it is historically recent. It is no more natural than flying, but nevertheless we fly.
One of the tenets of Imago Relationship Therapy is that real change cannot happen without a No-Exit Decision. Commitment enables us to transcend our feelings in the moment and act in a way that is intentionally aligned with a larger purpose. But closing off exits is not enough. Conscious commitment is not just along a horizontal timeline, but an ongoing vertical decision to act in the present moment in a way that promotes connection. It means listening when we don't feel like it and turning toward when we feel like turning away. The first phase of commitment is the honeymoon. This commitment, you might say, is unconscious and sets the stage for the necessary conflict of the second phase, the power struggle. Conscious commitment is needed during the uncertainties of this phase. Conflict is an opportunity for us to gain real knowledge of ourselves and our partner, so that we hopefully arrive on the further shore of love. Only in commitment is our vulnerability laid bare. The no-exit decision provides safety, fostering the deep dependency needed for optimal growth.
But marriages do end, and often for the better. We must re-vision our societal construct of divorce as failure and begin to have a more nuanced understanding of the various paths that relationships take, so we can eliminate the shame that accompanies the inevitable pain when an important attachment bond is severed. Brain scans reveal that the suffering of separation is as real as any physical pain. We naturally think twice before inflicting this upon ourselves. Even if we know that separation is necessary we still hurt. We don't need an additional layer of shame. Coming apart is complicated enough. Conscious uncoupling requires that we look at the gifts we received from the relationship. We need to cultivate gratitude instead of anger and resentment. We need to learn to accurately access the lessons about ourself we learned from this person in order to integrate the new skills we will carry into our next relationship. Our relationships can be seen as the developmental ladders we use to become whole.
How, then, do we reconcile the fact that commitment is a prerequisite for the change that needs to occur with the fact that most relationships will end long before one person dies?
Choosing certainty amid uncertainty is perhaps a combination of denial and existential courage. The neuroscientist, Robert Sapolsky, writes that humans are hopelessly more optimistic than the reality of their situation warrants. "We resist updating assessments when the feedback is bad but are eager and adept at making upward adjustments when the feedback is good." It is this cognitive asymmetry to which he attributes our unrealistic hopefulness. But without this distortion we would not have the capacity for happiness. The alternative, he writes, is clinical depression.
In order to thrive, couples need to hope that their love will endure the test of time. But there are no guarantees in this life. The security of commitment is tempered by the knowledge that we have to earn it on a daily basis, which can be difficult since commitment promotes conflict, and at the same time provides the emotional safety needed to resolve it.
When the commitment doesn't last conscious uncoupling enables us to consolidate the growth that did occur and move forward with gratitude and increased skill. We have plenty of examples of how people come together. What we need now are more examples, like that of Gwyneth and Chris, of couples lovingly coming apart.