‘Conscious uncoupling’: why it’s not always the answer to an unhappy marriage

Opinion: Paltrow and Martin’s public separation is a personal tragedy

In an article on Goop, the website of Gwyneth Paltrow (above), Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami explain that in their opinion the concept of lifelong marriage is impossible given that we now live so long. Photograph: Craig Barritt/Getty Images

In an article on Goop, the website of Gwyneth Paltrow (above), Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami explain that in their opinion the concept of lifelong marriage is impossible given that we now live so long. Photograph: Craig Barritt/Getty Images


No one dreams of growing up to be divorced. No one sets off down the aisle dying for it all to end in tears. So no matter how tempting it is to roll our eyes at Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling”, it is important to remember it is a personal tragedy for all concerned.

It is still an awful phrase, though. While “conscious coupling” sounds like the tantric sex Sting is allegedly so fond of, what on earth is “conscious uncoupling”?

In an article on Goop, Paltrow’s website, Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami explain that in their opinion the concept of lifelong marriage is impossible given that we now live so long. We should expect to have two or three significant long-term relationships instead.

They also believe that every marriage begins with projection – a time when you idealise the other person. This is followed by negative projection, where all the things you don’t like about yourself are projected on the other. If you see this process as inevitable, you can gracefully disengage when it happens, thank the other person for being so helpful as a teacher, and go on with your respective lives.

I have a question. If you are that conscious, why can’t you realise you are in the negative projection phase and work your way through it to loving the person for him or herself, at least most of the time?

Of course there are couples who should separate. No one should have to endure physical or emotional abuse.

There are also many spouses who are divorced against their will. In recent times, although more women than men initiate divorce proceedings, I have seen several cases where a husband announced rather brutally that the marriage was over, and that he was already involved with another person.

But many, many couples end up divorcing who could work their way through to a happier place. Again, surely if you are conscious enough to uncouple gracefully, could you not use that high level of consciousness to stay together? (Assuming there is no violence going on, of course.)

It is most important when there are children involved. Staying together for the sake of the children is seen as outdated, and if it means staying in misery together that impacts on children, it probably is a bad idea.

But that is not the only choice. Choosing to put everything into finding a way to be happier together, even if your primary motivation is your love for your children, is a far more positive choice.

For children of low-conflict marriages, there is no such thing as a good divorce, much less conscious uncoupling. There are only less bad divorces. Elizabeth Marquardt, an American researcher, herself a child of divorce, describes the process even for well-adjusted children of divorce in her book Between Two Worlds – The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce .

She says divorce turns children into “little adults” who anxiously protect their fragile parents, instead of being protected themselves. Divorce forces children to guard parental secrets – protecting Mum by not telling Dad, or vice versa.

It becomes even more complex when new parental partners, and possibly their children, enter the scene.

Some divorced parents strive heroically to work as amicably as possible with their former partner, but sadly some parents treat their children as pawns in a game of revenge.

When it ends up in the courts, according to research carried out by Roisin O’Shea, funded by the Irish Research Council, it appears fathers lose out, as even in shared custody, the children tend to reside primarily with the mother.

There is so much we could do to help people achieve happy marriages. For example, relationship and sexuality education at second level virtually ignores marriage.

Concepts such as “love languages”, that is, the things that people need in order to feel loved, which can be wildly different for spouses, are virtually unknown. Simple example: the husband continually does little and big things for his wife, because that is what would make him feel loved. He cannot understand why she seems frustrated and unhappy, but it is because her love language is undivided attention, not acts of service.

Learning to speak the other person’s love language has revolutionised marriages. There are so many resources available, including Retrouvaille, a non-judgmental approach to improving marriages.

The biggest problem is that we have made an idol of romantic love, which ebbs and flows, instead of prioritising unconditional love.

Some marriages will fail, and some people should separate. However, ridiculous ideas, such as those of Dr Sadhegi and Dr Sami, that lifelong marriage is no longer possible due to greater longevity, are likely to be self-fulfilling prophecies.

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