Written by: the Editors of goop
Published on: March 25, 2014
Updated on: March 25, 2014
Reviewed by: Dr. Habib Sadeghi
Divorce is a traumatic and difficult decision for all parties involved—and there’s arguably no salve besides time to take that pain away. However, when the whole concept of marriage and divorce is reexamined, there’s actually something far more powerful—and positive—at play.
The media likes to throw around the statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce. It turns out that’s accurate: Many people are concerned about the divorce rate and see it as an important problem that needs to be fixed. But what if divorce itself isn’t the problem? What if it’s just a symptom of something deeper that needs our attention? The high divorce rate might actually be a calling to learn a new way of being in relationships.
Until Death Do Us Part
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.
What does this have to do with divorce rates? For the vast majority of history, humans lived relatively short lives—and accordingly, they weren’t in relationships with the same person for 25 to 50 years. Modern society adheres to the concept that marriage should be lifelong; but when we’re living three lifetimes compared to early humans, perhaps we need to redefine the construct. Social research suggests that because we’re living so long, most people will have two or three significant long-term relationships in their lifetime.
To put in plainly, as divorce rates indicate, human beings haven’t been able to fully adapt to our skyrocketing life expectancy. Our biology and psychology aren’t set up to be with one person for four, five, or six decades. This is not to suggest that there aren’t couples who happily make these milestones—we all hope that we’re one of them. Everyone enters into a marriage with the good intention to go all the way, but this sort of longevity is the exception, rather than the rule. Accomplishing that requires occasionally redefining who we are separately within the relationship and discovering new ways of being together as we change and grow. It’s important to remember too, that just because someone is still married doesn’t mean they’re happy or that the relationship is fulfilling. To that end, living happily ever after for the length of a 21st century lifetime should not be the yardstick by which we define a successful intimate relationship: This is an important consideration as we reform the concept of divorce.
End of the Honeymoon
Nearly everyone comes into a new marriage idealizing their partner. Everything is perfect in their minds because they’ve misidentified what marriage is really about. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve found the love of their life, the person who understands them completely. Yes, there will be hiccups in the process, but by and large, there’s no more learning left to do. They’ll both be the same people 10 or 20 years from now as they are today. When we idealize our partners, things initially go very well as we subconsciously project our own positive qualities, as well as the qualities we wish we had, onto them. This positive projection, as it’s called, happens during the honeymoon phase of the relationship where both partners can do no wrong in each other’s eyes.
Sooner or later, the honeymoon ends and reality sets in, so does negative projection. This is usually when we stop projecting positive things onto our partners and begin to project our negative issue onto them instead. Unfortunately, this creates a boomerang effect as these negative issues always come right back to us, triggering our unconscious and long-buried negative internal objects, which are our deepest hurts, betrayals, and traumas. This back-and-forth process of projection and aggravation can escalate to the point where it impacts our psychic structure with even more trauma.
For most of us, these old unresolved issues can be traced back to our first intensely emotional relationship, the one we had with our parents. Because most of these old wounds are unconscious to us as adults, we’re subconsciously driven to resolve them, which is why many people end up with partners that are very similar in key ways to their mother or father. If we’re not in tune with this type of dynamic within our relationship, all we end up seeing is the repeated mistrust, abandonment, or other issue that’s followed us through all our previous relationships. We never see that it’s the signal to heal the emotional wound that’s connected to it. Instead, we choose to blame the other person.
Because we believed so strongly in the “until death do us part” concept, we see the demise of our marriage as a failure, bringing with it shame, guilt, or regret. Since most of us don’t want to face what we see as a personal failure, we retreat into resentment and anger, and resort to attacking each other instead. We’ve put on our armor and we’re ready to do battle. What we don’t realize is that while a full body shield may offer a level of self-protection, it’s also a form of self-imprisonment that locks us inside a life that repeats the same mistakes over and over again. This includes attracting the same kind of partners to push the same emotional buttons for us until we recognize the deeper purpose of such a relationship.
Intimacy & Insects
To understand what life is really like living with an external shield, we have to examine the experts: Insects. Beetles, grasshoppers, and all other insects have an exoskeleton. The structure that protects and supports their body is on the outside. Not only are they stuck in a rigid, unchanging form that provides no flexibility, they are also at the mercy of their environment. If they find themselves under the heel of a shoe, it’s all over. That’s not the only downside: Exoskeletons can calcify, leading to buildup and more rigidity.
By contrast, vertebrates like dogs, horses, and humans have an endoskeleton. Our support structure is on the inside of our bodies, giving us exceptional flexibility and mobility to adapt and change under a wide range of circumstances. The price for this gift is vulnerability: Our soft outside is completely exposed to hurt and harm every day.
Life is a spiritual exercise in evolving from an exoskeleton for support and survival to an endoskeleton. Think about it. When we get our emotional support and wellbeing from outside ourselves, everything someone says or does can set us off and ruin our day. Since we can’t control or predict what another person does, our moods are at the mercy of our environment. We can’t adapt to the situation if our intimate partner doesn’t behave the way we think they should. Everything is then perceived as a personal attack and attempt to upset us. Up goes our armor and it’s all-out war. When we feel unloved and unsupported, our antagonism is in full swing and needs a target. Either rightly or wrongly, that usually ends up being the person closest to us, our intimate partner.
With an internal support structure, we can stand strong because our stability doesn’t depend on anything outside ourselves. We can be vulnerable and pay attention to what’s happening around us, knowing that whatever comes, we have the flexibility to adapt to the situation. There’s a reason we call cowards spineless: It takes great courage to drop your armor, expose your soft inside, and come to terms with the reality of what’s happening around you. It’s a powerful thing to then realize that you can survive it. When we examine our intimate relationships from this perspective, we realize that they aren’t for finding static, lifelong bliss like we see in the movies. They’re for helping us evolve a psycho-spiritual spine, a divine endoskeleton made from conscious self-awareness so that we can evolve into a better life without recreating the same problems for ourselves again and again. When we learn to find our emotional and spiritual support from inside ourselves, nothing that changes our environment or relationships can unsettle us. Situations we once viewed as problems will be seen as opportunities to reflect inwardly and determine what each circumstance is trying to reveal to us about ourselves. Problems are transmuted into opportunities for growth.
There’s a scientific theory by Russian esotericist, Peter Ouspensky, that the creation of insects was a failed attempt by nature to evolve a higher form of consciousness. There was a time millions of years ago when insects were enormous—a dragonfly’s wings were three feet across. So why didn’t they end up being the dominant species on earth? Because they lacked flexibility, which is what evolution is all about, and couldn’t adapt to changing conditions like humans can. The lives of people who imprison themselves in an exoskeleton of anger usually don’t evolve the way they’d like them to, either. Being trapped inside negative energy like anger and resentment keeps people from moving forward in life because they can only focus on the past. Even worse, over time, these powerful emotions often turn into disease in the body.
To change the concept of divorce, we need to release the belief structures we have around marriage that create rigidity in our thought process. The belief structure is the all-or-nothing idea that when we marry, it’s for life. The truth is, the only thing any of us have is today. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. The idea of being married to one person for life, especially without some level of awareness of our unresolved emotional needs, 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. It’s odd that most of us assume that everything in a relationship will stay the same based on a single promise made during a wedding ceremony and that somehow, no further work is required for the marriage to remain intact.
If we can recognize that our partners in our intimate relationships are our teachers, helping us evolve our internal, spiritual support structure, we can avoid the drama of divorce and experience what we call a conscious uncoupling. The idea of using the word uncoupling to describe divorce has been around since the early 1940s. In 1976, sociologist Diane Vaughan created her “uncoupling theory,” and in 2009 Katherine Woodward Thomas coined the term conscious uncoupling and began teaching this alternative to divorce to students throughout the world. In these previous theories, uncoupling is rooted in how to part amicably, keeping mutual respect as part of the process and remembering the needs of any children involved. While these are admirable and necessary steps for a conscious uncoupling, to us, self-reflection must be the foundation of the process if we are to avoid repeating the same problems in the next relationship. The idea of conscious uncoupling is to gain enough self-awareness that we no longer have to do it anymore because we’ve now found ourselves in a fulfilling, sustainable, long-term relationship.
For our purposes, conscious uncoupling is the ability to understand that every irritation and argument within a relationship was a signal to look inside ourselves and identify a negative internal object that needed healing. Because present events always trigger pain from a past event, it’s never the current situation that needs the real fixing. It’s just the echo of an older emotional injury. If we can remain conscious of this during our uncoupling, we will understand it’s how we relate to ourselves internally as we go through an experience that’s the real issue, not what’s actually happening.
From this perspective, there are no bad guys, just two people, each playing teacher and student respectively. When we understand that both are actually partners in each other’s spiritual progress, animosity dissolves much quicker and a new paradigm for conscious uncoupling emerges, replacing the traditional, contentious divorce. It’s only under these circumstances that loving co-parenting can happen. It’s conscious uncoupling that prevents families from being broken by divorce and creates expanded families that continue to function in a healthy way outside of traditional marriage. Children are imitators by nature, and we teach what we are. If we are to raise a more conscious and civilized generation, we must model those behaviors through the choices we make during the good and bad times in our relationships.
Wholeness in Separation
It seems ironic to say that a marriage coming apart is the cause of something else coming together, but it’s true. Conscious uncoupling brings wholeness to the spirits of both people who choose to recognize each other as their teacher. If they do, the gift they receive from their time together will neutralize their negative internal object that was the real cause of their pain in the relationship. Actually, this dynamic is in play in all of our personal relationships, not just the intimate ones. If we can allow ourselves this gift, our exoskeleton of protection and imprisonment will fall away and offer us the opportunity to begin constructing an endoskeleton, an internal cathedral, with spiritual trace minerals like self-love, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness. This process allows us to begin projecting something different into the world because we’ve regained a missing part of our heart. This addition to our psychic infrastructure creates a wholeness that supports our own growth and ability to co-parent consciously.
The misunderstandings involved in divorce also have much to do with the lack of intercourse between our own internal masculine and feminine energies. Choosing to hide within an endoskeleton and remain in attack mode requires a great imbalance of masculine energy. Feminine energy is the source of peacemaking, nurturing, and healing. Cultivating your feminine energy during this time, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman, is beneficial to the success of conscious uncoupling. When our masculine and feminine energies reach equilibrium once more, we can emerge from our old relationship and consciously call in someone who reflects our new world, not the old one.
Naturally, divorce is much easier if both parties choose to have a conscious uncoupling. However, your experience and personal growth isn’t conditional on whether or not your spouse chooses to participate. You can still receive the lessons he or she has to give you, resist being baited into dramatic arguments, and stand firm in your internal, spiritual support system. By choosing to handle your uncoupling in a conscious way, regardless of what’s happening with your spouse, you’ll see that although it looks like everything is coming apart; it’s actually all coming back together.
[i] Hillard Kaplan, Kim Hill, Jane Lancaster, and A. Magdalena Hurtado (2000). A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity”. Evolutionary Anthropology 9 (4): 156–185. doi:10.1002/1520-6505(2000)9:43.0.CO;2-7.
[ii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011). Life expectancy at birth, at age 65, and at age 75, by sex, race, and Hispanic origin: United States, selected years 1900-2010. National vital statistics system . United states 2011 web updates Washington D.C.: National center for healthcare statistics. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/2011/022.pdf.