Conscious Uncoupling

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Like the few others in the world who happened to be paying attention at the time, I heard of the phrase “Conscious Uncoupling” about five years ago, when actress Gwyneth Paltrow split with her husband. They made a joint statement to the media, didn’t make big fighting scenes and generally seemed to be OK with the reality that their 10-year marriage was over. As a woman who has had more than her fair share of adult relationships fizzle, I was amazed. I was envious. I decided the next time, if there were a next time, if I were to break up with someone I once loved, it would be in a way that was respectful to both of us.

Easier said than done.

Some times along my journey I am in a relationship and some times I am not. I still find love everywhere.

The concept is quite similar to one of the habits of highly successful people: Always go for a win-win. That is, there’s no reason for one person to be the winner and the other to be the loser in business or in a relationship. The key, of course, is self-awareness as a foundation. With conscious uncoupling, you are using each and every moment as a teaching opportunity to look within yourself to identify the past hurt that the situation is bringing up in you. You become thankful of the lessons the other person teaches you, and you forgive yourself and love yourself. This is also the essence of Radical Forgiveness, which is a worthy process for anyone hanging on to a bunch of old hurt.

Sure is a nice concept, isn’t it? Turns out, it takes two to uncouple, and it’s unimaginably difficult to have both parties be mindful all the time.

At least, that’s what I realized this week as I waited on the street, now for the third time in my life, for a girlfriend to pick me up on the side of the road, help me gather my meager belongings and let me sleep at her house for the night instead of being alone and homeless. All three times, the relationship was crashing down around me and abusive, mean words filled the air. When someone tells me to get out, I will.

Anyone who’s been through a breakup knows how ugly it can get. I’ve witnessed more than one punched wall. One ex got so mad that he slammed a glass-paned door, shattering it everywhere. Another ex called me more than 50 times in a day, begging me to take him back despite his compulsive lies, naked pictures of women and habit of constantly interrupting me. Yet another, I had to sue to try to retrieve thousands of dollars I lent him. I won in court, but I never saw the money. Instead, I heard all the horrible things he would say behind my back.

And why? Simply, it’s the old adage: “Hurt people hurt people.”At some point, we decide the best way to alleviate emotional pain that’s been locked deep down inside is to try to dump a little on someone else. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. It usually makes things worse. Because I’ve had so much experience in this department (and years of work on myself to release my own stored-up hurt), when my last partner would lash out at me, I was able to not take it personally. I tried to create a safe space for him and clearly express how I felt when this would occur. I wouldn’t fight, and I would never say something I didn’t mean (Being impeccable with your words is one of the wonderful Four Agreements). He would apologize and eventually it would blow over – until the next time.

Eventually, too much love was lost. After weeks of thought, I decided to go. We talked really calmly about it, and he seemed to understand. I was so grateful – it was going to be my first successful conscious uncoupling! It didn’t have to be a disaster! It felt like a golden ticket to adulthood. He told me that I showed him a lot about himself, and I told him how blessed I felt to have been able to travel around Australia in the cute tiny home we built together.

As I was packing, I let myself feel my emotions. I would cry over my disappointment and over my doubt as to whether I deserved love, all those sad stories you tell yourself. My partner would be there and held me. In some ways, that also felt difficult. Because of all the times he tried to fight with me, I had lost trust in his love. But it was so nice to have someone to soothe me. He cried a couple times, too, and I held him. It was hard, but we were honest and authentic. 

In the days leading up to my flight out of the country, however, I started to notice he was acting oddly light and cheery. He would bop along to the music in the restaurant, acting like it was his favorite song but then not knowing who sang it. He wanted to buy me a massage, treat me to dinner, and told me that he wanted to drive to the airport with me and see me off. I looked at the calendar and realized that it had been about 10 days since he lashed out. He never went more than 10 days. (Read “The Power of Now” to understand this cycle.) I found myself getting sad and thoughtful. In the last months of the relationship, I found myself not talking much and instead just thinking. It was lonely. 

And that’s when it happened. He wanted to buy me a beer so he could tell me about all his latest big plans for his life. This was common, me listening politely as he tried to figure his life out. I wanted him to figure his life out. I really wanted to help. For some reason, I brought up the last time he lashed out at me. I think I wanted validation for my pain, maybe one more apology. Well, I didn’t get it. He dug his feet in, finally over it. He told me I had been overreacting to everything and wanted me gone immediately.

So, there I was, on the side of the road in the middle of Melbourne, unconsciously uncoupled. I had hoped for a hug goodbye and an ex that I could call a friend. But you can’t always get what you want. You get what you need– and I guess I needed a little more practice in patience, self-love, compassion and mindfulness.