I have been going through the process of consciously uncoupling over a period of several months, starting last year. 2017 brought me some major personal life changes and challenges. I experienced a couple of catalysts in the second part of the year to bring to my attention that my long-term partnership needed to be evaluated and transformed. Until these two events unfolded, I had been trying to fix instead of admitting that repairing only works when you still have enough overlap in your value systems. The catalytic events brought to the surface that we had reached an impasse. Our needs and wants as well as our core values, by which we as humans all live, had grown farther and farther apart. And we cannot compromise our core values or ask this from another person. To live in integrity with our values is one of the most important decisions to make for our happiness and health.
So how do we part consciously? How do we transform a romantic relationship into a friendship in which we feel safe?
When a relationship nears its end, you might have experienced that you are tempted “to try to violently vomit someone right up and out of your heart and soul” (Katherine Woodward Thomas). Ironically, by trying to cut a relationship off too quickly, we keep the connection festering in our psyche. Contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds. John James and Russell Friedman name this idea as one of the myths around loss which hold us back from achieving completion. It depends on what we decide to do with the time.
Initially, my experience was deep grief. Part of the grieving when a relationship ends is around grieving the future, or as Katherine Woodward Thomas says, “Much of the horror of a breakup is the insult to our expectations of how this story was supposed to unfold versus how it actually did”.
Woodward Thomas points out that “when our expectations are in line with reality, our brains receive a hefty dopamine hit to reward us… Yet, when our expectations are not met, our stress levels shoot through the roof, shifting our brains into a threat state”. Failed expectations can throw us into deep confusion and inner chaos. We might even experience humiliation, inferiority or shame because of the external rules and expectations of society.
The phrase “and they lived happily ever after” summarizes our collective story of how romantic love is supposed to work. If it lasts, then it’s real love; if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t love to begin with. But we are forgetting that people and their needs and value systems simply change.
So rather than defining the success of a relationship by whether it lasted “until death do us part” or not, why don’t we define the value of it by the wisdom and learning we have gained. A second, and in my mind very important, way of defining success or failure of a relationship is by consciously deciding to end a union in a loving way rather than with hatred and revenge.
Conscious uncoupling is “a way to end a romantic union with dignity, goodness, and honor, and where no one was left shattered or destroyed by the experience.” (Katherine Woodward Thomas). It is the decision to remain as conscious as possible while separating and to strive to overcome the impulses of our limbic-brain. The aim of conscious uncoupling is to plant seeds of forgiveness, goodwill and generosity. The word generous shares the same root as “genesis” and “generate”, which means “beginning” or “to give birth”. One way to be generous and initiate a new beginning is to get to a place where we can honestly offer a blessing to our former partner, wishing them well.
Of course it is great if both partners want to part this way, but it only takes one person to consciously uncouple. Even if your partner is revengeful or angry, you are not bound to behave in kind. Even if he or she does not show up as generous, you have the choice to be that forgiving person. The motivation of forgiveness is for-giving yourself freedom, so that you can move forward empowered to create a happy, healthy life. In order to do that, we need to take what is ugly and rotting, and turn it into “compost” to grow something better from it.
Most marriages or relationships unfortunately end with one or both parties becoming obsessed with winning or getting some form of revenge. Angry and reactive words and deeds are the norm. Well-meaning friends or family members can also do some damage. They often want to see us as a strong hero or heroine. They tend to take sides, “insisting upon devaluing, diminishing, and dismissing your former love, and your relationship in the process, to try and help you move on” (Woodward-Thomas) but that will not ultimately bring us relief and peace. After all, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference or detachment. Hate is just as strong a bond as love, and keeps us energetically tied to our former partner.
And because our brain is hardwired to keep us safe and ensure our survival, it is also prone to stay connected to the previous attachment figure. For our ancestors, being part of the tribe was essential for survival. Being rejected and excluded creates feelings of unsafety and danger in the reptilian complex, the evolutionarily oldest part of our brain. To that part of our brain, it might seem that it is better to have a negative bond than no bond at all.
To comprehend the pull a former love can still have, we need to understand what happens in our brain when we love somebody and lose somebody. In her TED talk “The Brain in Love”, Dr. Helen Fisher shares how brain research shows activity in the brain cells which produces dopamine when we are in love. This area is part of the brain’s reward system, part of the reptilian core of the brain, below our cognitive functions or more advanced parts of our brain. The same brain region becomes active when someone feels the rush of cocaine.
But romantic love can become even more of an obsession than cocaine. The obsession can get worse when you have been rejected. Our conscious mind is very much aware that the best thing to do is move on and start a new life, but our brains are hardwired to increase our desire for the one we are losing because the exact part of the brain that became activated when we fell in love is the part of the brain that becomes stimulated when we are rejected. It sparks activity in the brain that is similar to the experience of a cocaine addict seeking that next fix.
Dr. Fisher sums it up by saying, “I have come to believe that romantic love is an addiction. A perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly… Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on earth.” Love comes from the wanting or craving part of our mind; it’s a drive.
In fact, three different brain systems are involved in the experience of being in a loving relationship, says Fisher in another talk titled “Why We Love, Why We Cheat”. One is the part of the brain where the craving for sexual gratification originates from, you might want to call it lust. The second of these brain systems is romantic love, characterized by the elation of early love. The third brain system is attachment; that sense of calm and security that you can feel with a long-term partner. Our brain’s main function is to ensure survival of the species. The sexual energy prompts us to look for a number of partners for the survival of our genes, romantic love focuses us on one partner and the attachment need we have enables us—according to Fisher—to tolerate this human being long enough to raise a child together as a team.
The three brain systems don’t always go together and that’s where complications occur. They can go together and that’s why casual sex is not always casual. When experiencing orgasms, you get a spike of dopamine and a rush of oxytocin. Dopamine is associated with romantic love and oxytocin with attachment. We can experience a sense of a strong cosmic union with someone after we have made love to them. That’s when we can fall in love with somebody who we just wanted to have casual sex with.
But these three brain systems aren’t always connected to each other. We can feel deep attachment to one person while we can feel romantic love or sexual attraction to another person. Good long-lasting healthy relationships need to be consciously created despite these instincts. We need to understand our learned attachment styles so we can actually form a long-lasting, secure bond.
So what if we would not just strive to consciously create fulfilling and well-functioning relationships, but also create break-ups “where neither party was blamed or shamed, yet where both people were left valued and appreciated for all that they’d given one another” (Katherine Woodward Thomas)?
If a love relationship ends for any other reason than death of one partner, we assume that it failed. Yet, we would never say a friendship or business venture was a failure if after some time one or both people realize their needs aren’t met and it is time to move on to new adventures.
Life changes, like a relationship loss, are a time when we find ourselves in the corridor between two worlds. We are no longer the person we used to be, and not quite yet the person we are going to become. Even though a break-up is most likely one of the more painful experiences we can have in our life, it holds great promise for growth and awakening.
Every fear and insecurity we have ever swept under the rug now stares us straight in the face to be dealt with. But you can use the shock of the loss “to break your heart open, expanding and enlarging your capacity to authentically love yourself and others” (Katherine Woodward Thomas).
If we do not work on completion of a relationship, the baggage we have buried will come up again in the next relationship. It will leak out in toxic and destructive ways into the relationships we have, which are ultimately all a reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her former husband, Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin, brought conscious uncoupling into the headlines of the press when they announced the end of their marriage in 2014. I would like to end with their announcement as a perfect example of uncoupling with consciousness:
“It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate… We have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer that we have ever been.”
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