Conscious Uncoupling: Happy Ever After?
Everyone seems to have an opinion about the ending of the 10 year marriage between Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. Many are shocked that what appeared to be the perfect relationship isn’t the happy ever after story that it seemed. Many more seem furious with the pair for suggesting that their split could be positive. In particular, there appears to be rage about Paltrow’s use of the term ‘conscious uncoupling’ to describe what is happening to their relationship, particularly as this seems to reflect hippy ideals which are not relevant to those of us who aren’t Hollywood actresses or rock stars. But maybe this is a happy ever after story. The terminology used to describe what is happening, and the explanation by Paltrow’s spiritual advisers on her website, may be difficult to comprehend but, boiled down, there is some common sense and ideas which apply to us all.
It may not sound very romantic but couple relationships offer a form of personal development. Most of us kiss a lot of frogs before finding the one. When we do, we hope and expect that the relationship will be warm and enable us to grow and develop, that we will reach our potential supported by someone who is on our side. What separates the princes from the frogs is a complex attraction which encompasses both conscious and unconscious elements. It is interesting that we might meet people who tick all the boxes in terms of looks, similar interests and attitudes but lack that certain something that makes them extra special - what we often call ‘a spark’. That spark is the unconscious element of our attraction to one another.
Research following the unprecedented breakdown of marriages following the world wars suggested that couples often turn out to have uncannily similar or complementary forms of adversity in their backgrounds which have the potential to help them heal one another’s emotional wounds. Like it or not, we all have elements of our lives that we need to make sense of as we grow up, and this is often successfully sought and achieved through adult couple relationships. We unconsciously search for someone with the spark, someone who offers the possibility to help us settle ourselves and move forward. Unfortunately, sometimes we are attracted to people who can damage us too, who repeat some of the challenging experiences from our past. To correct this, we feel the need – and encourage others -- to hang on and keep fighting to get it right. Hence, some of the most stable and enduring relationships are the most volatile and spiteful. Where both the partners need the other’s approval to feel OK about themselves, they may be locked into a destructive relationship where the same fight is repeated over and over. Couples often present for counselling saying that they have tried everything when, in fact, they have repeated the same pattern of relating without feeling able to attempt anything different or even realising that they could. Those people who are able to feel safe in their own skin, and do not look to their partner for reassurance that they are a good enough human being, are often able to move on from a relationship when all the developmental tasks are complete. They don’t need to stay in the relationship to feel OK about themselves, and they don’t need to continue the same old fight. They may, however, need to find another relationship to fulfil different tasks which they are now ready to face.
As this is largely an unconscious process, and many people remain locked in a relationship where they are desperate for the approval of the other, this also offers some explanation as to why so many people are so upset by the Paltrow-Martin split – if they can’t get it right, who can? Yet, in the case of Paltrow and Martin, it seems they probably did get it right. They had a very positive relationship which met their unconscious needs, allowing them to grow and change. It was the relationship which facilitated their growth, now enabling them to continue as co-parents and friends rather than as lovers. This has all the hallmarks of success, not failure. Happy Ever After may be what comes next, what the relationship has made possible.
Moreover, living happily ever after is associated with fairy stories, not with real life. Fairy stories offer potent symbols of good and evil, happiness and distress. When we grow up, adult fairy stories are promulgated by celebrity magazines and TV programmes, offering as much excitement, comfort and reassurance as Cinderella did when we were tots. Particularly for those of us who find it difficult to validate ourselves, and look to partners for approval and reassurance that we are OK, it is difficult to appreciate that anyone could be comfortable with the idea of splitting up. For some, it is as if a part of themselves would be lost with their partner, and it seems particularly ironic that the relationship itself should facilitate the split. Furthermore, many of us are also often quick to apportion blame, so many unhappy couples feel forced to continue if only to prove that they tried as hard as they could and that the unhappiness is not their own fault. When they do decide to split, sometimes they feel compelled to complain bitterly that the other partner was always bad, wrong and that the relationship was a mistake. The world needs to know that this ‘failure’ was not of their own doing.
Even when couples are enormously unhappy, separating is hard, as so much has been invested in what they had. This is what can also lead to couples provoking one another or viewing the relationship as though it was always awful -- just to make the parting more bearable. If they are constantly in dispute, rather than getting on, they can cope through the separation. And even when both the couple is sure they wish to part, there are echoes of the love and hope that was so powerful at the beginning. Their children, the experiences they’ve shared and the years that have passed, all contribute to a poignant tang which makes every parting sad and difficult.
In some relationships, though, the shared experience and support of each other is enough to keep the couple together. They are able to keep on growing and changing comfortably. Where developmental work is still needed, or there is overt conflict, they are more likely to need to separate and to continue the work individually or in a different relationship. As the article on Paltrow’s website points out, twenty-first century couples are likely to be together for a long time and to change considerably over the fifty, sixty, seventy or more years of their adult lives. Inevitably, what they need from their relationship changes too. For superstar couples, there are opportunities and pressures which the rest of us are unlikely to ever experience, including access to other relationships, the chance to explore new experiences and achieve outside the partnership and enough money to manage several kinds of adversity which stress the rest of us. That they are also subject to intense scrutiny and lack of privacy, coupled with the world’s judgement about the most private and personal aspects of their lives, is a pressure most of us will avoid. This is something we can understand and consider as a contributory factor in celebrity splits. However, in many ways, we can experience judgement and scrutiny of our relationships and behaviour which is just as damaging. We are influenced by the views of family, friends and social discourses which all affect the way we conduct ourselves and our relationships. In my work as a relationship counsellor, I am often saddened by the stories of couples who have felt they had nowhere to turn to explore why their relationship was so disappointing. This is often because they are worried about appearances and ashamed to consider confiding in friends or seeking therapy in case just thinking about what could be wrong signals catastrophe.
The initial ‘honeymoon’ period of our relationships is often what we imagine to be the way things should be forever. Yet keeping up the intensity of emotion involved would be exhausting, particularly as we are actively looking for positives in our partner during this time. When couples move in together it is difficult to be quite so starry eyed, particularly when daily life creates strain. Paying the mortgage, sleepless nights with young children, finding and losing jobs, leaving up the lavatory seat, loading the dishwasher the right way, and all number of large and small factors, impinge on couples’ sense of satisfaction with their lives.
Throughout all of this, our struggle to correct our earlier disappointments and disasters is being played out. This is sometimes evident in a couple’s ‘fit’; for instance, it might be clear that one is very strong and the other is vulnerable or that one takes care of all the money and planning while the other takes a back seat in decision making. Some couples seem perfectly matched and create what seems like an invincible wall around themselves which protects them from the rest of the world. Others remain locked in a permanent cat and dog fight which is never resolved. Whatever the fit, it keeps the couple together until one of them starts to change and admits they aren’t comfortable with their pattern of relating. If both the partners are able to take care of their own emotions, and don’t feel threatened by this, they can negotiate changes together. However, when any change feels truly dangerous, couples may be pushed apart by the threat, creating a defensive wall which makes it increasingly difficult to communicate. Conversely, for Paltrow and Martin, what happens now is all about self-care and communication. The relationship has enabled them to flourish and it seems they can genuinely move forward together but separately. What they have called conscious uncoupling is simply about the mature acceptance that their needs are no longer fully met in the couple relationship but that they can develop a bond which allows them to co-parent effectively and to remember and use positively, rather than belittle, the experiences that comprise their marriage.
Most of us would accept that a good marriage or serious partnership involves a feeling of being able to rely on and trust each other, of feeling understood, of containment and security. We probably would not advise anyone to persist with a relationship where there is little security or trust, where bitterness and acrimony have replaced friendship and understanding, where there is criticism and dissatisfaction. Yet many enduring relationships contain these negative elements. Received wisdom is that we should ‘work at’ these partnerships, often ‘for the sake of the children’. Yet children do not thrive in relationships where their parents are unhappy and, in any case, motivation for staying together may often have more to do with pragmatism than devotion or good parenting. The reality is that Paltrow and Martin are rich and can afford to split. Many couples who experience windfalls also choose to separate, leading to the idea that ‘money can’t buy happiness’. Actually, in such cases, it really can. For many people, the prospect of having to juggle their finances, maybe rely on benefits, become a single parent, be alone or lose a friendship group, have difficulty seeing children, lose their comfortable home or their social standing are powerful motivators to keep plugging away. Even more powerful may be the feeling that if we split we tell the world that we just aren’t a good enough person to have a relationship. Low self-esteem and feelings of failure undoubtedly keep many people attached to the notion of being in a relationship, rather than the relationship itself. We cling to the idea that the relationship defines us rather than daring to consider that if the relationship was supportive, we wouldn’t be experiencing low self-esteem and feelings of failure in the first place.
That to split would be an admission of failure is certainly an idea encouraged by the media. The denunciation of Paltrow and Martin has included fury that they can’t have an acrimonious divorce like everyone else. But not everyone does – and it is ironic that a mature attitude to a split should be the cause of so much condemnation. Relationships do continue beyond divorce. Even without children to co-parent, even when they never meet again, couples’ memories of the relationship and thoughts about their partner affect the way they approach new relationships and partners, with an angry and rancorous ‘uncoupling’ likely to disable their ability to fully trust and enjoy future couplings.
Having said this, what seem like unhappy relationships don’t inevitably break up and sometimes those in relationships that ‘work’ are more able to recognise when they need to change, . It is always going to be difficult where one partner has changed and the other is still clinging to old ideas about the way the relationship should be -- this is often what causes the most painful and passionate break-ups, when the couple’s fight may even go on for many years beyond the split, being played out in court and custody battles and endless complaints and blaming. Is this really to be preferred to the way Paltrow and Martin are handling their change process? If nothing else, this celebrity split may have helped some of us re-evaluate our expectations and assumptions about what ‘should’ happen in relationships, and even allow us to risk thinking about what we need as individuals, how to get our needs met and how to proceed if we recognise our relationship can’t help us with that.
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