Gwyneth and Chris -- Another Celebrity Split -- But What Does It Mean?

The good news is that, celebrity or not, you can now understand the way love works; and, what you understand, you can shape.
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The couple themselves call it "Conscious Uncoupling." I'm not sure what that means; perhaps, "We can't connect, but I still respect you and don't want to murder you in your sleep, at least for now."

If certain comments are typical, we should prepare for an onslaught of, at best, seriously silly, and at worst, totally deluded, inferences about marriage and our human ability to love arising from this news.

Does this pretentious form of gossip matter? To me, as a serious researcher and couple expert, it does. The cultural conversation we have about relationships impacts every one of us. This conversation worms its way into those moments when we are in pain and our partner looks like the enemy. It guides us onto the path of hope and reconnection or into the kind of despair and cynicism that fills the divorce courts. It can make the difference between, "I will turn and reach again," and "Marriage doesn't work; the only solution is to leave."

The commenters say the usual stuff, most of which, to quote my old English granny, is a "load of old cobblers." (If you are interested, this is Cockney rhyming slang from the awls cobblers used. Awls rhymes with balls).

First, they over-estimate the number of us that divorce. For years, divorce has been dropping steadily, especially for those who have a college education.

Second, they use the old evolution argument. I don't think evolution, a huge biological process that occurs over millennia, has anything to do with Gwyneth and Chris. If early human history, where relationships lasted about three weeks before someone got trampled by a wooley mammoth, is the baseline for what is natural now, then we should not even aspire to relationships that last for one or two decades -- or even a lifetime. But we do. Surveys tell us that even among eighteen year olds, assaulted by our throwaway culture, the longing for a lifelong bond with a mate is going strong.

What is prehistoric here is the vision of love that most of these comments set out. These writers talk of strength as the result of turning inside ourselves -- seems like this means not depending on others. They imply that turning inward, learning about your own past, your "negative internal objects" and building "internal support" is the way to better love relationships. This ignores the hundreds of studies on bonding and romantic attachment that have changed the way we understand love in the last fifteen years. We know now that we are born to bond. It is a natural source of strength to be able to reach for others and so find our own emotional balance. We know, from our studies of couples repairing these bonds, that accepting our need for secure bonds and learning how to reach for each other is the key to lasting love.

I would like to suggest a simpler, more scientific, more hopeful way to understand why marriages, anyone's marriage in fact, breaks up.

Marriage has gone through a sea change. It has shifted, relatively recently, from an economic enterprise to an emotional one. The question I was asked about my first beau by my English relatives was, "Does he have a suit?" It was not, "Can he talk about his feelings?" Second, we have not understood the laws of love. Yes. There are such laws. Do we think that Nature would leave to chance the bond between parents responsible for the survival of young offspring, who are vulnerable for over a decade?

The main factor that decides the fate of love relationships is mutual attunement and emotional responsiveness to our partner. Many of us have not experienced this with our parents. We do not even know what it looks like. We simply have no idea how to tune into this emotional dance and move in synchrony with our partner; indeed it is a testimony to the wired-in longing for a lasting bond that so many of us continue, over years, to struggle to connect with our chosen mate. Partners tell me constantly, "I don't know why we fight, or why she is so angry with me. I don't know what makes love work. What am I supposed to do? I am not even sure how to make sense of how I feel."

The good news is that, celebrity or not, you can now understand the way love works; and, what you understand, you can shape. You can create a stronger love bond. Maybe this is one reason why couples that have the opportunity to learn about and practice all the discoveries about love and loving are divorcing less.

So never mind "conscious uncoupling." This is the age of conscious connection. For the first time in human history, we have a science of love and how to make it last.

Let's use it.


Dr. Sue Johnson is a professor, researcher and prominent figure in the field of love relationships and couple therapy. Her latest book for the public is Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships. You can find out more about her at