Unfenced – The Day After

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“Can I come in?” asked Claire, my beloved sister-in-law. I beckoned her inside once I peeled myself off the ceiling.

Claire was a sister beyond marital formality; she and I were soul sisters in humor, spirit, and heart. I had the privilege of watching her grow from a silly, gangly 12-year-old girl to a graceful, self-assured and still quite silly 25-year-old woman.

Our memories spanned a hilariously pitfall-ridden trip to Hawaii, finding out I was pregnant with her brother in a pirate ship-themed motel room in Disney World, and bonding in tears over what could be described as a traumatic breastfeeding experience. We were so close that she was a major part of the package deal when I married Mark, my soon-to-be ex-husband. And, Claire was one of the biggest reasons I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on separating from her brother.

Ending a marriage in the world we live in today is synonymous with catastrophic emotional and financial hardship. This was top of mind for me for years as I contemplated whether to continue my matrimonial obligations. However, nothing was more terrifying about the idea of divorce than the unraveling of my family tapestry.

Divorce today typically means clumsily dragging a metaphorical Exacto knife down the middle of your family’s life. No more family holidays together. Awkward or strained exchanges with in-laws. The need to take one side and stonewall the other. I was convinced this was the eventuality I was sure to face if I separated from Mark. And I couldn’t do it; I valued my family portrait more than my own happiness. Luckily, my relationship coaches shone a brilliant light on a different path: conscious uncoupling. 

Brought to the mainstream by the public separation of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, the process of conscious uncoupling is growing in popularity and holds promise to prevent families from becoming divorce casualties. A Women’s Mag article thoroughly describes this concept:

“According to relationship therapist Rachel Sussman, author of The Breakup Bible, conscious uncoupling takes place when a couple believes that they have both tried to work through problems in their relationship to no avail. And together, they decide that it’s best to end the relationship or marriage in a way that causes the least possible damage to themselves, their integrity, and their children.

Conscious uncoupling also refers to the way in which a couple goes about getting divorced. “It is a conscious choice to avoid adversarial attorneys,” explains Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., a licensed relationship therapist and author of The New Monogamy. “Choosing instead mediation, where both parties meet with a mediator to work through a parenting plan, a financial agreement and any details that need to be settled before going to court for the final divorce.” Essentially, everyone involved is committed to getting through this experience as a better, more complete person—without the fighting and drama that can often come with divorce.”

I often thought fondly of one of the moments where I felt all of my relationship coaching into conscious uncoupling had paid off. Claire was driving me home from our Father’s Day celebration, and I was already overwhelmed with gratitude that I was still able to share in her family’s presence despite no longer being committed to their son. It was the first time she and I had been alone since our marital split in St. Kitts, and she broke our tentative silence so poignantly as she pulled up to her house.

“You know that no matter what happens with you guys, I will always love you,” she said tearfully. “You’ll always be my sister. Nothing will ever change that.” Her declaration put to rest all of the fears I’d allowed to encroach upon my mind for years, and we embraced in the dark driveway for what seemed like hours.

When my coaches lauded my work as the shining example of what conscious uncoupling could look like to other potential students, I reflected in bemusement. Representing an ideal divorce was never my intention when I bestowed my bejeweled Kleinfeld wedding gown. But, as my coaches often told their students, things don’t always look the way you think they will. And that can be a beautiful thing.

The idea of conscious uncoupling first popped on my radar a year earlier with a fateful email from Jennifer Bianchi, a Tony-Robbins certified powerhouse of relationship hacking wisdom. It arrived the exact date of my deep rupture with Mark, and yet I had no recollection of opting into her list. But her message was potent enough to bypass any emotional spam filter I had created to protect myself from the truth. The email demanded to know, point blank, had I done the work to heal my relationship before walking away from my marriage? Am I prepared to bring all of that baggage to my next relationship? And, do I understand that if we don’t stay married but do have children, we will still be co-parents for life?

This resonated throughout my entire body upon reading, and I knew that I had much work ahead of me before entertaining visions of running off to a crunchy granola commune in Boulder, whiling away my days fermenting crocks of spiced carrots and distilling flower remedies. Mark and I were going to be “together” forever no matter what happened with our relationship, and we would need to co-parent harmoniously to ensure the emotional safety of Sean, my ebullient and highly sensitive 3-year-old son.

I subscribed to Jennifer’s self-guided LoveWell Fast Track program on the spot, and proceeded to tear through hour after hour of mind-blowing videos. I realized we had made every relationship mistake in the book and were neck deep in trigger and resentment quicksand. After attending Jennifer’s LoveWell breakthrough healing retreat, I realized that I needed to call in heavy-duty reinforcements to fight for my marriage. Despite Mark’s heated objections, I signed away $10,000 and a year of my spare time to join her elite LoveSchool mastermind group, and my passion for relationship hacking was born. After diligently applying every tool, framework, and rubric in the program to our relationship, Mark and I were laughing and enjoying each other’s companionate company within several months.

Our healing process was right on track, until I reached the modules regarding intimacy. No matter what new adventure we created to reignite our spark, I just couldn’t bring myself to feel that deep yearning to meld with him, body and soul. After a tense, sexless retreat week in St. Kitts, we both knew it was over. When I tearfully apologized to Jennifer and John at “failing” their mission to save our marriage on that beautiful island morning, she simply replied, “We didn’t come into your life to save your marriage, sweetie. It wasn’t meant to be saved. All we did was empower you to heal your relationship to co-parent as friends and bring your best self to your true love.” With that single sentence, I felt my entire financial and time sacrifice transmute into the most important investment I’d ever made.

I was about to spend an entire day with the coaches responsible for that emotional kick in the pantaloons. It was a private live event with my fellow relationship-hackers, my original reason for being in Princeton that day. As I got ready for a marathon session packed with emotional breakdowns and breakthroughs, Claire and I chatted and giggled about work, health, and Sean. I decided to keep my date a secret for the moment since I was still in such an early phase of my separation. It was so hard to withhold my excitement from someone so dear, and I was afraid that my secretive buzz was lifting its skirt.

I hustled out of my in-law’s aging Colonial home under a dreary rain-soaked sky and flung myself into my car. I was just a short thirty minutes away from joining up with my very special LoveSchool tribe, and my body was flushed with excitement. This private group meeting would be the first time seeing the tribe after the emotionally wrenching retreat, but they wouldn’t be seeing the old me today. The gloomy weather was no match for the newfound high of Ella getting her groove back.

The morning breakfast was a flurry of zealous hugs and excited squees; no awkward or restrained handshakes in this crowd. Gasps of delight ensued when the lord and lady of the hour, John and Jennifer Bianchi, sauntered into the room hand-in-hand. Jennifer, donning her signature watercolor shoulder cut-out blouse and crisp white jeans, welcomed the group in her typical effervescent, my-unicorn-ate-your-rainbow-for-breakfast aura. I was instantly transfixed by her charisma, passion, and brilliance. The incredibly passionate and loving dynamic between Jennifer and John were the main selling point of the school, and I reveled in their playful exchanges.

Mid-morning, Jennifer commenced a deep dive into a of one of the most profound learning paradigms I’d encountered during my group enrollment: the Six Human Needs Framework. Every human being in existence has six basic needs that they must fill in some capacity every single day:

  • Significance – Make me feel special!
  • Certainty / Safety – Never leave me!
  • Uncertainty / Variety – Let’s get hitched in Vegas tonight!
  • Love / Connection – There ain’t nothing wrong with a little…
  • Growth – You make me want to be a better person!
  • Contribution – Let’s serve the world.

How we fill those buckets of needs are as unique as our fingerprints, and even more unique is our priority of buckets. And, that a truly healthy relationship is built around partners who work to understand the other’s needs, and also work to fill their own. Understanding these needs was a crucial first step in decoding Mark’s triggery behavior, and moving us towards a newfound platonic appreciation. The world could possibly be a more harmonious place if the Six Human Needs framework could replace Home Economics in school curricula.

A knowing smirk formed on my face as I steeped mint, chamomile and hibiscus teabags together in a single cup. My newfound adventure had thrown into spotlight a lifelong and extremely pronounced need for variety. Peering back through time, I fondly recalled combining five breakfast cereals in one bowl. A peek in my shower would reveal at least two body washes (for different parts of the body), three shampoos and four to five conditioners. I could never do the same workout more than twice in a row, and it took enrollment in 3 universities before landing on my final collegiate destination. How I never came to terms with the fact that this need for variety clearly translated to my love life will remain one of my life’s great mysteries.

And then along came a Kai, the solution to this unrequited need. Yes, there would be mountains of work to do to release the possessive and jealous tendencies so deeply ingrained into me by family, friends and Hollywood. But the idea that I would never again have to ask myself, “is this all there is?” because of the freedom in this love style…the possibilities were heady. Possibilities, not limitations. It felt like I was rewinding my clock of love back to its first ticks, with no limit to the romantic adventure I could experience.

As I listened to my relationship coach deliver mindgasm after mindgasm, I found myself orbiting around a niggling fear that I was avoiding facing. What am I so afraid of? Deep down, I knew the answer. The prior evening had been intoxicating, arousing, indulgent, exhilarating, healing, and, terrifying. I had felt many of these intense sensations before with another, at great cost.

Adam.

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