Given that I specialize in working with women whose partners are struggling with addiction, chronic immaturity, unresolved mental health issues and abusive attitudes, to me, “Conscious Uncoupling” as it is articulated by Katherine Woodward Thomas can miss its intended mark entirely. There are universally helpful aspects to it and there are trapdoors through which many people could fall.
When Freud discovered women were being sexually abused at high rates, his immediate culture pressured him to take that discovery back and reframe it as a new insight: women were imagining this victimization as a result of repression. Later psychodynamic re-enactment theory told us that women seek out abusive partners to resolve unconscious wounds from previous relationships. Our organized spiritual quests have long struggled with blaming the victim–once victimization was seen as a sign of a retributive god acting upon a sullied soul, then as a sign of the victim’s failures of spiritual awareness. It is the prison of goodness.
When spiritual awareness calls us to take responsibility for the relationships we create, it is a high calling. Yet by doing this, we can accidentally collude with partners who act abusively in the process when we confuse the levels at which we are speaking.
For we must always keep in mind that partners who are destructive also tell you to take responsibility for the inaccurate perceptions you have projected upon them, thus causing the problem in the relationship. It is a common manipulation tactic.
Responsibility for destructiveness is not shared in the common relationship dynamics I work with. There are abusive partners who have caught on to the conscious uncoupling bandwagon. They seek to hide their responsibility in calls for systems theory derivatives like Conscious Uncoupling that tell you everyone plays an equal part. I know of a man, a meditation teacher, who tried to throw his partner out of a moving car while yelling that he was ‘just a projection of her own sick mind.’
And so, I am aware of the levels of meaning at play here. Can I tell a woman who has tried so hard to work with her girlfriend who has become addicted to heroine, a girlfriend who also has some abusive values –shall I tell her that really she “baited her partner into acting out her own unconscious patterns so that she could take a victim stance and deny her responsibility for ‘seeking’ someone who had these hidden values or who lapsed into addiction?”
Do we ask Nelson Mandela what unconscious pattern he is working out to have goaded his jailers into imprisoning him? Do we tell the marital rape survivor that she really was, metaphysically, “asking for it?”
No, it is unkind and ineffective to do so. Even if on a metaphysical plane we all “wrote our stories,” or that “we all scripted exactly what we need and we all are recalling how we awakened,” even if we accept these points of view to be profoundly and paradoxically true, I am still acting unwisely to respond to women in this way. It is the wrong medicine.
What helps is still very much a consciousness raising process. We can help that woman with the addicted partner (or abusive or traumatized or mentally ill or chronically immature partner) to see her partner as responsible for their own behavior. We can help that woman appreciate her efforts to strive and help and support and love her partner. We can help her to acknowledge the limitations of that good-hearted, hopeful striving. We can help her to grieve loss–to come back to her center. To see how she has changed in that destructive context–how it may have exacerbated old wounds.
We never want to examine her old wounds or place them equally side by side with the wounds of her partner who is actively being destructive. If we do this, equalizing our understanding into a stance that says, “You see, we are all hurting or acting out our patterns,” then people end up staying longer in situations that are causing them more pain.
We want instead to make sure her own anger and grief are understood in her own context of surviving her partner’s destructive patterns.
In situations such as I describe (which are so common), understanding and compassion for the partner who is destructive or abusive is rarely lacking. Taking responsibility is rarely lacking–it can be the very problem.
I have long embraced the concept of “completed” relationships—that we can fully mine all of them for the insights that they bring. We must do this without taking on any responsibility for destructive or oppressive behavior. This will make our relationships the deep fountain of our wisdom. And will stop our deep cultural, psychological and spiritual history of blaming a survivor.