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How the Science Behind “Conscious Uncoupling” Can Save Your Relationship

by Dawson Church, PhD

When Gwyneth Paltrow and husband Chris Martin announced that they were consciously uncoupling rather than “getting divorced” their choice of language caused a stir. Yet bringing consciousness into a divorce has benefits that are backed up by solid science. These benefits apply equally well to a conscious marriage.

Being conscious, in the sense of acting with awareness of the implications of your actions, engages the frontal lobes of our brains. These brain regions process what are called executive functions, such as abstract thought, and the ability to distinguish innocuous stimuli from genuine threats. For example, a loud bang can activate the survival centers of the brain. The executive centers are the brain regions that figure out it’s a car backfiring, not a gunshot.

Conflicts that arise in marriage often uncover deep emotional wounds. If couples speak and act from those wounds, they inject negative emotion into their relationship, compounding their problems. Eventually the backlog of bad feelings accumulate to the point where they get divorced.

If on the other hand they have a high enough degree of emotional self-regulation to avoid saying and doing hurtful things, their chances of a happy marriage increase, and the changes of divorce recede.

It’s fascinating to look at the neurological patterns of a person who is emotionally triggered. They literally “go unconscious.” The emotional midbrain, composed of sub-structures like the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus, is fully engaged. It sends signals to the hindbrain, which regulates survival functions like respiration, digestion and circulation.

That’s why when you’re stressed, you feel a knot in your stomach, as the body shunts resources away from digestion. Your shoulders tense, as blood is forced into your peripheral muscles. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow, providing a burst of oxygen to your muscles. Non-essential systems like your reproductive system and immune system shut down.

Studies show that when primates like humans are highly stressed, the capillaries in the brain’s frontal lobes contract. These tiny blood vessels shut down, forcing blood out of the frontal lobes and into the parts of the body most needed for the fight-flight response, like the muscles. The executive centers of the brain that are responsible for wise decision making are starved of oxygen. Up to 70% of the blood in the frontal lobes drains out, effectively taking our rational decision-making capacity offline. The computer’s hard drive is still present, but the power supply (oxygen and nutrient-rich blood) is turned off.

Not only does the kind of high emotion found in marriage and divorce take our intellectual assets offline, but if we repeatedly express our negative emotions, our brains become more adept at carrying those signals. They develop increased capacity to relay the messages of emotional distress.

Studies of identical twin men, one of whom was deployed in Vietnam while the other was not, demonstrate this clearly. The twin who saw combat has a faster stress response than the non-deployed twin; over time the volume of the combatant’s brain’s executive centers shrinks, along with the brain structures responsible for memory and learning. Stress isn’t just a behavioral habit; over time it turns into an anatomical reality.

In people with this type of brain change, studies show that stress signals go straight from the brain’s emotional center to the hindbrain, which turns on the fight-flight response. When your spouse says something that annoys you, you respond with reflexive annoyance.

In people with good emotional regulation, stress signals are referred forward to the frontal lobes, who decide if the stimulus is truly a threat. If not, they block the referral of the signal to the hindbrain, so the body doesn’t get the instructions to gear up for trouble. Your spouse may say that same annoying thing, but if your prefrontal cortex is online, you aren’t tempted to scream at him or her. You choose your words consciously, and heighten your chance of a constructive encounter. Your creativity, logical reasoning ability, cognitive skills, and sense of perspective remain intact.

It is possible to train your brain. You can cultivate the habit of responding to the emotional problems you encounter in marriage with calmness. Over time, you build up those neural pathways, and calmness becomes habit. In this way, whether you’re coupling or uncoupling, your prefrontal cortex is online, and you have the full spectrum of life skills you’ve learned available to you.

Here are some scientifically proven ways of halting those knee-jerk reactions:

  1. Take a long, slow, deep breath. Make your inbreath last at least five seconds, and your outbreath a similar length. Studies show this type of breathing signals your nervous system that you’re not facing an objective physical threat, and you’ll be less likely to treat your spouse’s words as such.
  2. Relax your tongue on the floor of your mouth. When we’re stressed, our tongues tense up along with many other muscle groups. A study found that that relaxing your tongue sends a relaxing signal to your hindbrain, telling the fight-flight response to stand down.
  3. Stimulate your acupressure points with your fingertips. Over 50 studies of Emotional Freedom Techniques or EFT, the most popular acupressure technique, show that it produces large and immediate reductions in anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress. The basic EFT routine uses 12 acupressure points and takes less than a minute to perform.
  4. Wait five minutes before responding. Cortisol is your main stress hormone. Our bodies produce it fast in response to a threat. However, cortisol molecules are also rapidly broken down when we no longer need them. If you wait five to twenty minutes, your levels of both cortisol and adrenaline will drop, and you’ll feel calm and rational again. EFT has also been proven to lower cortisol in a randomized controlled trial.

Couples that become adept at these skills are able to navigate the emotional ups and downs that are inevitable in a relationship. With the benefit of emotional self-regulation, their consciousness remains online during times of conflict. They’re able to use the skills they learn in therapy when emotions run high. They’re more likely to get through rough patches without lasting damage to the relationship. This builds resiliency, and a sense that the relationship is strong enough to navigate through life’s challenges.

And if the relationship is not going to endure, as for Paltrow and Martin, a conscious approach to uncoupling can spare them and their children the recriminations and bitter fights that characterize a pair of brains locked in fight-flight mode.

For many years I’ve been identifying the skills essential to a conscious relationship. I’ve now assembled them in a systematic program called Tapping Deep Intimacy. It’s a 12-week online course, and it trains you in the practices that foster love, trust and connection. Learning and practicing those skills has made all the difference to the more than 1,000 people who have enrolled in the course so far. This link will introduce you to one of those simple skills that makes all the difference.

However you get conscious, and whether you are in a relationship now or not, you can save yourself a lifetime of stress by using your relationships for joy and peace instead of conflict and pain.


dawson-church-phd-headshotDawson Church, PhD, is an award-winning science writer with three best-selling books to his credit. The Genie in Your Genes was the first book to demonstrate that emotions drive gene expression. Mind to Matter showed that the brain creates much of what we think of as “objective reality.” Bliss Brain demonstrates that peak mental states rapidly remodel the brain for happiness. Dawson has conducted dozens of clinical trials, and founded the National Institute for Integrative Healthcare (NIIH) to promote groundbreaking new treatments. Dawson shares how to apply these health and performance breakthroughs through EFT Universe.

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