Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Conscious Uncoupling

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin recently made headlines when they announced the end of their marriage, perhaps less because of the split and more because of their use of the term "Conscious Uncoupling."  While some explored the concept earnestly, it was widely derided - this is, after all, a couple who named their first child Apple, and Ms. Goop is the poster child for all things flighty and New Age-y.
But it gave me pause.  We as a society love cliches and catch phrases when they're the equivalent of a battle cry toward success.  What repels us about the idea of trying to find civility in failure?
Back in the Stone Age, as I completed my senior year of high school, I was thrilled to be selected to deliver an honor essay at graduation.  Thrilled, but if I'm honest, not surprised.  The honor essay competition consisted of taking a quote provided by the powers that be and weaving words around it to a predictable, graduation-ceremony-appropriate end.  The quote, from Andre Gide, was standard commencement fare: "Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."  I was good with words, better at leaping through hoops.  I took that quote, spun it in the direction my teachers and school administrators expected, and then spit the trite piece out from the podium at graduation.  I'm sure my classmates and their families alike fought to remain conscious as I went on.  And on.
The funny thing was, I knew what a farce the whole exercise was.  "Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."  Well, duh!  Who the hell were these fools afraid to lose sight of the shore?  Who, at seventeen or eighteen - perhaps particularly at our provincial high school - wasn't utterly ecstatic at the prospect of discovering new oceans?  I, for one, was beyond ready.
Except, as it turned out, I wasn't.
I left my provincial high school certain I was destined for great things, and I went on to fail spectacularly.  I had a scholarship to an enviable college, and I let an eating disorder and depression take it from me.  I gained admission to another impressive school, and I let important paperwork slip, rendering enrollment impossible.  I married, had a child, and divorced, more or less in that order.  I made a career of a job I'd intended to hold temporarily.  I found and dated every emotional train wreck within a considerable radius.  I felt myself shrinking under the weight of the chip on my shoulder.  I was a master of self-sabotage, yet I wondered why my life wasn't improving.
And then, about a decade or so ago, a shift began to happen.  A friend introduced me to the work of Dr. Susan Gregg, whose approach to life I initially found insufferably optimistic.  Yet it's funny the way the human mind and heart work: once a door is opened, it can't be closed.  Considering the possibility of the world as Dr. Gregg saw it led to considering other possibilities.  Slowly, my very paradigm of life shifted.  I gave thanks for the short-lived marriage that gave me an amazing child to love and learn from.  I felt grateful for the career that sustained me as I began doing more of the creative work I loved.  I stopped dating the train wrecks and gave marriage with a reasonably decent human a shot.
And you know what?  I continued to fail.  I still fail.  All the damn time, to be perfectly blunt - it's part of this pesky business of being human.  But at least I now have a sense of humor about it.  I accept it as part of the journey, and I do my best to turn negatives into positives.
That was my gut reaction to the news of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin's "Conscious Uncoupling" - they were doing their best to turn a negative into a positive.  This pair of people so accustomed to success had failed at something important, but they weren't going to let the failure define them or their family.  There would be no knock-down, dragged-out battles to feed tabloid headlines.  They would protect their children and work through the failure of their marriage with civility and love.
Funny?  No.
I may not have had much use for the Andre Gide quote assigned to me at graduation, but this quote from Erich Fromm rings true:
"The task we must set for ourselves is not to feel secure, but to be able to tolerate insecurity."
Insecurity has been a companion for more of my life than I'd have liked.  But it's a companion I've learned to tolerate well.
Even as I edge the bastard off onto the sidelines.


  1. I love this piece, Karen. When I was going through my divorce I ran across this article in the NY Times from the Modern Love section (http://alturl.com/o6di8) which describes a happily ever after divorce. I emailed it to my soon-to-be ex, if only to prove that it could be done, and was showered with another barrage of you-always-think-you-know-what's-best-for-everyone.

    Seems to me that amicable is the adjective that yields a "conscious uncoupling" as well and I applaud Paltrow and Martin for putting out something that the tabloids won't really know how to sink their teeth into properly. The present-day optimist I became, by opening that door you are talking about somewhere along the way of feeling like a total failure, has always wished that my ex and I could move on to a better stage where wounds on both sides were healed. But, as you experienced, it takes that very real shift in our hearts and our minds and I don't know how some of us get to that place and some of us don't.

    In the end, our own survival is what we salvage... family and friends who understand this join us for the next chapter as we continue to learn and grow. Insecurity, as I have found, becomes a good barometer for all kinds of things and keeps me from the kind of blind bravado that can only lead to disappointment. Optimistic humility.


  2. Thanks for your heartfelt response, Dar. Your experiences and observations feel very familiar to me, and insecurity is indeed an excellent barometer. Hurt taught me to be fearful and closed, but failure - and learning that failure was often just a step toward success - helped me become an open and hopeful person. I have a tough time understanding folks who aren't open to change or who don't attempt it in a kind and gentle way, but I've found that such people and I generally go our separate ways, while more like-minded people (you!) naturally find their way in. If nothing else, it's an amazing journey!