Conscious Uncoupling vs. The Joy of “Yes” Forever
by Emily Macke
C.S. Lewis popularized the term “verbicide,” coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes to delineate the “murder of a word.” Verbicide is committed, in part, when we redefine an action or a concept with a new word that paints a rosier picture. “Pro-choice,” for example, has been hijacked to mean support of abortion.
A new act of verbicide recently made headlines when a celebrity couple announced their decision to “consciously uncouple.” Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin announced their separation on Goop.com, a lifestyle publication site begun by Paltrow in 2008. Below their brief announcement appeared an analysis of “conscious uncoupling” by Dr. Habib Sadeghi (an osteopathic physician) and Dr. Sherry Sami (a dentist), a husband-wife duo whose philosophical ideas and lifestyle advice include the concept embraced by Paltrow and Martin.
Sadeghi and Sami ask whether or not divorce is the negative thing it is perceived to be today. They begin by examining data concerning the dramatically increased life expectancy of those who live in the 21st century versus the beginning of the 20th century (and even farther back, during the BC years). Because the average person lives more than 40 years longer than our ancestors of one hundred or more years ago, the doctor and dentist pair posit that, “we need to redefine the construct” of lifelong marriage, which is unrealistic “when we’re living three lifetimes compared to early humans.”
“Our biology and psychology aren’t set up to be with one person for four, five, or six decades,” Sadeghi and Sami continue. “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.” They add that couples who do stay together aren’t necessarily happy or fulfilled, suggesting that lifelong fidelity should no longer be the “yardstick by which we define a successful intimate relationship.”
Sadeghi and Sami next examine the difference between insects, who have an exoskeleton (an “external shield,” define the authors) and humans, who have an endoskeleton and are thereby more vulnerable than insects. They write, “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.”
How does this anatomy lesson relate to “conscious uncoupling”? Sadeghi and Sami explain: “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. A conscious uncoupling is the ability to understand that every irritation and argument was a signal to look inside ourselves and identify a negative internal object that needed healing.”
“Conscious uncoupling,” then, refers to a divorce that lacks animosity because the spouses regard each other as both teacher and student on the evolutionary path toward “wholeness.” “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,” they write.
In a striking contrast, about six weeks before Paltrow and Martin announced their “conscious uncoupling,” Pope Francis met with engaged couples on Valentine’s Day to speak about the beauty of marriage and the joy of “yes” forever.
One engaged couple asked the Holy Father to address the challenges of lifelong fidelity. He responded by acknowledging the “culture of the temporary” that surrounds us all, a culture that makes it that much more challenging to commit to lifelong marriage. He advised that if love is merely a sentiment then it cannot last. “But if, instead, love is a relationship, then it is a reality that grows, and we can also say by way of example that it is built up like a home. And a home is built together, not alone! To build something here means to foster and aid growth.”
Pope Francis also shared practical advice for engaged couples preparing to enter the Sacrament of Marriage. “How, then, does one cure this fear of the ‘forever’? One cures it day by day, by entrusting oneself to the Lord Jesus in a life that becomes a daily spiritual journey, made in steps — little steps, steps of shared growth — it is accomplished through a commitment to becoming men and women who are mature in faith.”
“Conscious uncoupling,” a striking example of verbicide, is portrayed as an effective method for divorcing individuals to find themselves and to grow together, but separately. Contrast this with the call of Pope Francis: “Marriage is also an everyday task, I could say a craftsman’s task, a goldsmith’s work, because the husband has the duty of making the wife more of a woman and the wife has the duty of making the husband more of a man. Growing also in humanity, as man and woman. And this you do together. This is called growing together.”
Sadeghi and Sami write, “The idea of being married to one person for life is too much pressure for anyone.” But Pope Francis reminds us that the ability to live lifelong fidelity does not come from our own power, but from the love of God: “He has an infinite reserve! He gives you the love that stands at the foundation of your union and each day he renews and strengthens it.” He told the engaged couples, “Ask Jesus to multiply your love. In the prayer of the Our Father we say: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Spouses can also learn to pray like this: ‘Lord, give us this day our daily love.’”
While “conscious uncoupling” may seem like a harmless, perhaps even beneficial, movement, Pope Francis’ exhortation to embrace the challenges and joys of marriage call us to something more.
About the author
Emily Macke serves as Theology of the Body Education Coordinator at Ruah Woods in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her Master’s in Theological Studies at the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC, and her undergraduate degree in Theology and Journalism at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Emily shares the good news of the Catholic faith through writing, media appearances and speaking opportunities, which she has done on three continents. She and her husband Brad live in southeast Indiana.