Conscious Uncoupling

I will admit to not following Gwyneth Paltrow, or her brand Goop, enough to hate her, but I will also admit to clicking on quite a few articles about her recent “conscious uncoupling.” As a linguistics major, I find semantics and word choice really fascinating, and I was very interested in the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow seemed to have invented a new phrase to stand in the place of “divorce”; clearly she wants to change the way she, and others, view the dissolution of her marriage.

I don’t begrudge her that, nor do I begrudge her request for privacy during what must be a difficult (even if it is conscious) time. I do smirk a little at the whole thing. The phrase itself, the announcement on her website, with the airy, sunlight photograph below said announcement, the bazillions of articles that have been written about it. I get what she is trying to do. And I get why so many people hate it (hate her for it?). Mostly I just found the whole thing mildly amusing–not thought-provoking, just a diversion.

That is, until I read the actual article about conscious uncoupling on her website. Under the announcement, if you scroll past the beautiful photograph, there is an piece (with a significant word count) in which two doctors give us a little lesson in human history and social science, explaining what conscious uncoupling is, and can be.

The article explains that our definition of marriage as “until death do us part,” is antiquated. They argue that until 100 years ago, our lifespans were halved; being married to one person until you’re 47 is one thing, sticking with one person until you’re 78 is quite another.

During the upper Paleolithic period of human history (roughly 50,000BC to 10,000BC) the average human life expectancy at birth was 33.[i] By 1900, U.S. life expectancy was only 46 for men, and 48 for women. Today, it’s 76 and 81 respectively.[ii] During the 52,000 years between our Paleolithic ancestors and the dawn of the 20th Century, life expectancy rose just 15 years. In the last 114 years, it’s increased by 43 years for men, and 48 years for women.

I will admit, I found the statistics rather shocking. I knew our longevity was greatly increased, but I don’t think I realized by how much, or how quickly. As I read the rest of the piece–getting significantly lost during the long winded bit about giant insects and exoskeletons–I wondered quietly if they had a point. Is it asking too much that we stay married to the same people for 30, 40, even 50 years? If so, what does that mean for the institution of marriage?

I’m somewhat ashamed to say it, but I didn’t get married this past January assuming that my partner and I would make it for the long haul. My commitment to him was to do my best to nurture our relationship. I would love for us to be happy together for the rest of our days, but I don’t presume that will be the case. I could see us growing apart, succumbing to “irreconcilable differences.” And I don’t really think I’d see our marriage as a failure if it ended some day.

And that is really the whole point of the article, and the idea behind “conscious uncoupling.” If you view your divorce as a failing (on your part, or your partner’s), you come to the dissolution of your marriage with shame, anger and resentment. All this negativity will make it hard for you to stay present and make the best choices for yourself and your family. But if you don’t view your divorce as a failure, if you accept that humans were not meant to spend the entirety of their now long lives committed to just one person, you can learn from your partner (and teach them in turn) and you can come out of the process of “uncoupling” more whole than you were to begin with.

I’m not saying I agree with all this, but I find it interesting. I want to think more about it. I want to consider the possible implications. The article suggests that changing the way we think of marriage could be renewing, and maybe it could be, if we thought about it in the right way.

The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone. In fact, it would be interesting to see how much easier couples might commit to each other by thinking of their relationship in terms of daily renewal instead of a lifetime investment. This is probably the reason why so many people say their long-term relationships changed overnight, once they got married. The people didn’t change, but the expectation did.

I don’t think my expectations changed much when I got married. I’ve always been a realistic person. Some might say, pessimistic. When such a large number of marriages end in divorce, I don’t presume to be half of a more perfect union than so many others. I do like that idea of a “daily renewal,” and might try to think about my own marriage that way. Lord knows that the weight of “forever after” can feel crushing at times.

Honestly… I have a hard time writing about my marriage. I believe the parameters of socially acceptable discourse on marriage is narrow: We are invited to speak glowingly of our partners, and simultaneously encouraged to vent about the ways in which they frustrate, or even disappoint us, but anything veering outside of those two topics is frowned upon.

There are times when I wonder how much I love my husband, if it’s “as much” as other women love theirs, or if it’s “enough” to keep us together for the long haul. I have never been in another relationship, so I have nothing to judge my love for him against. I know that I love him, but I also know that it’s not the kind of mad love that is written about in books or portrayed in movies. Does that kind of love exist? I’m assuming so, or it wouldn’t be the subject of so much of popular culture. That’s not to say I believe everyone experiences it, or even believes themselves to. I guess I’m just not sure of what I’m experiencing, and that makes me wonder where we’ll end up.

The only thing I am sure of is my commitment to my husband. I may not know how to quantify or qualify my love for him, but my commitment to making a life with him is very, very strong. I’m nothing if not committed (some may even consider me stubborn) and I have every faith in my desire to make our family work. I hope we’re together, and happy, for as long as we can be, as much for my children’s sake as for my own.

I guess only time will tell if conscious uncoupling is in our future, and if it is, whether or not I’ll use that term.

What are your thoughts on “conscious uncoupling?” What do you think about society’s view that marriage should be a lifelong commitment? 

8 responses

  1. I love this post. I agree completely that the ideal of modern marriage is a bit…unreasonable. Not only are we supposed to stay with our partner until the end of our ever-longer lives but we are supposed to be madly in love and best friends. Even 30-40 years ago, men kinda did their thing, women did their thing and they tolerated living in the same house and having sex. It wasn’t expected that EVERY ASPECT of the relationship be perfect forEVER. It IS a lot of pressure, and you know I completely agree that there is no socially appropriate way to really REALLY talk about marriage. Yes, either you’re gushing about your “best friend” “love of your life”, or you’re venting in very specific socially-sanctioned ways about things like not doing the dishes, or being hapless at childcare. There is no room for the real issues and not being able to see the real range of how marriages work, we only have the storybook ideal to hold ourselves up to…and we will always feel ours falls short. I remember mentioning this to the counselor I saw last year—that I didn’t know if our marriage was having trouble or just normal, because I have no idea what other couples go through. Its pretty isolating.

  2. I love this post, too. I had read somewhere that not only was life expectancy shorter in earlier times, men married younger women and then died, or women died in childbirth. So a lot of marriages didn’t really last long at all.

    That said, I definitely went into my marriage thinking it was forever, no matter what. I felt that having an attitude of “HOW are we going to make this work?” instead of “ARE we going to make this work?” would make all the difference. And of course I wanted my kids to have what I had, the security of married parents.

    Yes, I have felt that kind of mad love, and we both felt that way for years. I remember thinking, a few years in, that I knew I’d marry someone I was compatible with, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that we were so madly in love as well. But now… I don’t know.

    You’re right, though, and Ana’s right, that we’re expected to complain about things like not replacing the toilet paper roll or leaving crumbs on the counter. But beyond that, we’re never supposed to admit how really hard it is. And sharing your life with someone is really, really hard.

  3. Wow, so interesting – I’m always fascinated by the ways culturally-endorsed narratives shape what is sayable and what is not sayable about anything, and I think what you say is true regarding our cultural narratives about marriage (and they’re not that different from what’s sayable and not about motherhood, I think…) I feel like I entered marriage with a clear-eyed perspective on my mate’s limitations, and that has helped me/us through several rough spots – I feel like I knew what I was signing up for/getting into overall. There have been times when it has been much harder than I thought it would be, for sure. Somehow I see us growing old and cantankerous together though. Somebody told us before we were even dating that “you two argue like an old married couple!” I think that it would only be in a very anonymous space, though, that I’d feel free to dish about the things that *really* bother me in him and in the relationship. Too vulnerable.

  4. Love this thought-provoking post and the perspectives in the comments. You’re making my sleep-deprived brain hurt with all of your excellent thinking! I need to get my head around this to properly comment, but wanted to thank you again for writing such interesting posts, and writing them so well.

  5. I never expected to find that mad romantic sappy love-at-first-sight sort of love, and then I did. Love at first sight snuck up on me and it’s been a wild ride since. I do think there’s something in the length of marriages being so long now that changes it and should change our expectations. My great grandmother was marrying for the third time at my age having buried her first two husbands, and that wasn’t much more than a century ago. We got married young and I’d say almost a decade in, I’m not married to the same person anymore. We’ve grown and changed and are very different and yet not so different in some ways. We also have talked about how we don’t like the idea of being best friends as well as spouses because we think friends need to be different things to each other than we can be because we’re married. Not that we’re successful at having other best friends right now, but it’s a goal for each of us to maintain strong friendships so we get that friend support from someone else.

    And you’re right, and Ana and Deborah, that the ways we can talk about our marriages are so limited. The things I really want to talk about can’t be said in almost any venue and that’s hard. We as a society probably need to develop new rules of conversation if we’re going to have successful marriages last for all or most of our adult lives.

  6. The longevity statistics shocked the hell out of me when I saw them. Whoa!

    People give Gwyneth a lot of s*** but I thought the post was interesting too. I think celebrities must have a 1 in 1000 chance of making a marriage work in the longterm! Seriously other than Paul Newman and Joann Woodward, I can’t think of another long term marriage that made it in Hollywood?

    For the rest of us with a 1 in 2 chance, it’s probably mostly a matter of chance. For me, my parents own marriage looms large as the model I try to follow. My parents are that rare, super cute old couple you see in diamond commercials, holding hands. I’m glad I had their love for each other as a light to guide the way when I was looking for love. It made me not settle, and that was helpful. I always knew a crazy head over heels love that was also long lasting was possible. And so I waited for Darcy.

    But I also knew they worked hard on their relationship, putting each other first always. I try to follow that too.

    Great post. I’ll be thinking about this for a while…

  7. Considering my current circumstances, this post hit home pretty hard. I am one of those “idyllic” people who believe when you marry it is for the long haul. I don’t necessarily believe that the entire marriage will be unicorns and rainbows, but I do believe that marriage is forever. You marry for the good and the bad. When a couple chooses to commit their lives together, I believe that commitment is life long. It’s not easy, and there comes a point in the marriage when you have to consciously choose to love your partner and work at the marriage. Part of me thinks this whole idea of “conscious uncoupling” is people’s way of rationalizing their inability to do the work. That society has slapped a label on this saying, hey when things get tough, it’s ok to just walk away. My grandparent were married for 65 years, my parents are celebrating their 50th this August. This is the example I had hoped to provide for my children. Marriage, like parenthood, it really effing hard. It takes a lot of work and effort and I think sometimes people just don’t’ feel like doing the work so they simply walk away, especially when things don’t stay in that “honeymoon” or love at first sight stage. I may be in the minority in my beliefs, but I do feel strongly about them. I always swore divorce was not an option…..too bad my partner didn’t feel the same. Thank you for a thought provoking post. Reading the comments has been enlightening.

  8. I have been thinking on this since your post landed in my inbox. Fabulous comments, and so much to think about! I was just sharing all of this with my husband… And leave it to him to point out a scientific flaw.

    B found this all intriguing, then said, “Gwennies doc failed to talk about why life expectancy was so short back then. It includes the infant mortality rate.”. I balked at him and said no way… But WAY. YES life expectancy rates DO include infant deaths. So I did some digging and this little link has some great info.

    Yes, life expectancy was lower in 1900 than it is now, but not really by the numbers we’re reading in this article of Gwenyth’s. But, yes… They were lower. If you look at life expectancy of 1 year-olds in 1900 and then again in 2002, yes it’s gone up by 20 years which is significant… But not like what the article implies.

    That said, I think “conscious uncoupling” is something to really ponder for all the reasons stated minus the science. It’s something that should be counseled when marriages break up, in my opinion.

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