If getting a divorce is bad for mental health, having an acrimonious divorce is ten times worse. So it’s good to hear that couples and their advisors like lawyers and clergy, are becoming increasing aware of the movement towards ‘Conscious Uncoupling’.
Made famous by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin and popularized by a handful of other celebrity couples, the idea that separation can be a respectful, compassionate, private process and need not be bitter or vicious is growing. Despite the natural tendency that many individuals feel to make the separation permanent by being as objectionable as possible, couples are increasingly opting to avoid the ‘slash and burn’ approach to divorce and are seeking a courteous way out.
The consequences of a ‘bad’ divorce are both superficial and deep. It’s clear that separating from someone for whom we once declared a permanent attachment and with whom we once swore a vow of lifelong commitment is going to be traumatic. But the deeper damage is far more grievious. People who experienced childhood woundings will be re-wounded, and those who believed that their marriage offered them permanent safety in the world will feel devastatingly alone. Post-divorce, breakdowns are common and alienation is frequent, with all the mental health problems that those entail.
There is a correlation between the length of the relationship and the time required to restore emotional equilibrium. Some people recover from a break-up within a year, but for many it takes up to five years to truly feel minimal emotional arousal when thought of the ex crosses their mind. Some people never get over it, ranking their divorce experience as worse than a death because there is not the finality of a funeral and a grave.
And there is no denying that sometimes a separation and divorce are for the best. When a relationship, however short or long, has reached a point of irretrievable breakdown and is chronically damaging and toxic for the couple and everyone else in the vicinity, then it’s best to separate. But just as in a business partnership, there needs to be a recognized process which makes the termination as straightforward and unlitigious as possible. This is what Conscious Uncoupling offers.
The Conscious Uncoupling process is based on a dialogue with steps which require each to mirror, validate and empathize – it comes from the process founded by Harville Hendrix with his Imago Relationship Therapy. The outcome is that each learns to ‘listen so the other will talk, and talk so the other will listen’.
As part of the process each expresses their frustrations, which are acknowledged, and voices their issues, which are explored. They listen to each other without interruption, and can calmly discuss and explore their dissatisfactions. Emotional arousal is defused. Unlike couples therapy, however, where the agenda is to repair and revitalize the relationship, Conscious Uncoupling sets out to teach the couple how to accept that their dreams have not been fulfilled and it may not be all the fault of their partner. Taking responsibility for their part is a major aspect of the process, and where the other has transgressed, understanding can grow from appreciation of the underlying factors.
Many separations are characterized by blame, shame and criticism, often with considerable anger and resentment. When this is deconstructed it almost always comes from a place of grief, and it is this underlying sadness that Conscious Uncoupling addresses. This grief is rooted in the loss of the dreams, hopes and the contract of permanent attachment with all the support and love that that entails. Once they feel that their pain is acknowledged many couples find that it is easier to accept that being negative and vindictive is as harmful to them as to their soon-to-be-ex. The old adage that anger is like taking poison and expecting the other to die is no truer than within a divorce scenario.
Couples find that the Conscious Uncoupling process gives them the space to air their grievances without degeneration into argument, and to express their sadness without their vulnerability being taken advantage of. They feel heard and nurtured, and they come to realize that the person that they once loved so deeply can still be someone that they can respect. From that respect can grow long-term emotional good health, which puts people in the best place to go forward and begin a new relationship.
Lawyers are reporting that couples engaged in Conscious Uncoupling are reaching agreement far more swiftly (and therefore more cheaply) which is critically important for the emotional wellbeing of their children as well as the couple themselves. The cost is not great – often six or eight sessions – but the savings in emotional terms is huge.
Conscious Uncoupling may deny those who love to be voyeurs the gory details of the car crash that many divorces become, but it is saving many who are going through the experience from the depression, anxiety and insecurity that separating frequently instigates. As such it is a crucial element in the structure that civilized, intelligent society can offer to those going through this painful time, and it will be good for all when it is even more widely available.