If it's even possible you haven't heard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin (a movie star and rock star, respectively, if you're not familiar) announced their divorce this week after a respectable 10 years of marriage. Country music's Trace Adkins and his wife are also calling it quits after 17 years.
The Paltrow-Martins announced their split as a conscious uncoupling -- a term they believe sums up how they're trying to go about the whole marriage dissolution thing. Their divorce, they'd like us to believe, is a thoughtful split not overrun by anger and high emotion. And that's an admirable goal. But how do Gwyneth, Trace and countless others end up as midlife divorce statistics?
The seeds of conscious uncoupling are sown somewhere in unconscious coupling. And, by unconscious coupling, I'm not referring to alcohol-fueled one-nighters. What I do mean is that many of us choose mates who aren't right for us by ignoring our unconscious motivations for doing so. Nevertheless, our unconscious -- our brain's holding place for repressed emotions and memories -- helps fuel our decisions. In other words, we're not doing enough psychological due diligence when making such a momentous choice. We simply don't know ourselves as well as we consciously think. And with the divorce rate hovering at 50 percent, it's pretty clear we need to dig deeper.
How do half of us choose marriages that aren't built to go the distance? Given our extended lifespans, marriages must be able to withstand the storms of decades. And some do. But many more don't. If 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, it doesn't mean the other half are happy and satisfying. It only means that some percentage of that other 50 percent is happy. Non-newsflash: many folks stay in unhappy marriages. Let's guesstimate that there's a 25 percent chance of having a happy marriage. Those odds are pretty slim. Emaciated, really. And it all begins with unconscious coupling.
There's no question that we tend to marry what we know. And that's not always a good thing. A part of the function of the unconscious mind is to suppress memories with unresolved negative emotions. One stereotypical example is the daughter of an active alcoholic who marries a dry alcoholic. Her conscious mind believes she is choosing something different for herself but her unconscious mind betrays her.
My stomach always sinks when a client announces her betrothed is, "nothing like my mother," or, "the complete opposite of my father." It's just that, generally, these predictions don't end up being true. He is more like your father than your conscious mind might believe. And, while you're trying your darndest to upgrade from your dad's questionable behaviors, you may be overlooking that your mom had her issues, too -- and that your fiancé/e might just share them. To complicate things further, your partner brings his or her own version of this familial do-si-do to the table. And so we begin the dance of unconscious coupling.
I'm currently conducting a study of women's experiences with midlife divorce. In a few short days, nearly a thousand women have responded. The survey is still open if you'd like to be heard. Among other questions, I asked respondents why they married in the first place. Most popular answer: I was in love. But as it turned out, being in love when tying the knot wasn't enough to sustain the union until death parted them.
The majority of respondents reported their spouses had been emotionally or psychologically abusive. Many of their spouses had affairs. They also confessed they no longer loved their spouses or their spouses no longer loved them. So, they decided to end their marriages. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents filed for the divorce and an even higher number said they had no regrets in doing so.
But we have to wonder if the clues the marriage wouldn't last were always there, lurking quietly in the wings -- waiting for time and stress to do their dirty work -- and for the bright, shiny finish of new love to fade to lackluster. My guess is yes. The clues are there but we just don't know how to access or recognize them. Or we notice something suspicious out of the corner of our (unconscious) eye but quickly avert our gaze because, yes, we're in love.
The midlife divorce statistics are trying to show us something. And, in good conscience, we can't look away. Instead, we should consider that the antidote to conscious uncoupling is conscious coupling. And knowing oneself -- both consciously and unconsciously -- is, undeniably, a wise place to start.