Does marriage have a sell-by date?
No, says Dave Robbins.
Gwyneth Paltrow has a lot to answer for. Not only did she introduce us to the idea that butternut squash could be kind of glamorous, she also brought 'conscious uncoupling' to a wider public.
Before Gwynnie, people just broke up. Parted. Went their separate ways. Divorced, even. There was bitterness and rancour. Sometimes, au pairs or ski instructors were involved.
But Gwynnie does not operate at that level of sordidness. A simple break-up would not suffice for a woman whose life seems lived entirely in a mid-western field of waist-high wheat. She and Chris Martin didn't break up, they consciously uncoupled.
Their use of the phrase, and subsequent explanation on Gwyneth's goop.com website, brought relationship expert Katherine Woodward Thomas back into the limelight.
Ms Thomas was already famous thanks to her 2004 bestseller Calling in "The One" (Harmony, $16), a guide to finding your true love in seven weeks. She is a life coach and relationship counsellor passionately committed to "personal and planetary transformation". She also created the concept of conscious uncoupling.
Ms Thomas believes humans are not meant to have one life-long relationship: "We assume that if a relationship ends for any reason other than the death of one or both partners, that it has failed," she says. "Yet that myth [of lifelong love] was created when the average lifespan was 35 years and half the population died before the age of 16.
"Given that cultural context, it made sense to try to keep couples together through thick and thin. However, longevity is not a viable measure of the value of a relationship. And given that our lifespans have more than doubled since then, neither is it a realistic goal for many."
She is effectively saying that marriage has a sell-by date: "We are living three lifetimes compared to early humans so it is natural to want to change partners."
There are several problems with this. The first is this: it's too easy. The idea that hey, it's time to move on because of increasing human longevity is just too pat.
It absolves people from responsibility for their own actions. "Okay, I had an affair at the office, but it wasn't my fault. Blame penicillin, or better nutrition, or the WHO, or whoever the hell is making us live so long these days."
The second is that it denies the power of love. Thomas argues that romantic love suited the times when we died young and life was perilous. It kept people together for that short period. Funny, then, that it has so outlasted its usefulness.
How could that be? Well, because people believe in it. It seems right and true to them; it elevates human relationships above the level of needs into the spiritual.
How often have you heard that a friend of yours has split up from his/her partner? They form another relationship and, surprise, the same issues in the first relationship come to the surface again.
That's because the problem is not with the concept of romantic love, it is with ourselves. We all have emotional baggage. If we don't unpack it and deal with it in the first marriage, then we have to do it in a later one.
We can 'consciously uncouple' all we like, but we're only running away from the issues we brought into the relationship in the first place. "The fault," as a certain Avon poet puts it, "is not in our stars, but on ourselves."
Yes, says Tanya Sweeney
Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy meets girl's parents, puts down a deposit for a lavish wedding venue and settles into a life of loved-up coupledom. Right? Eh, not really. It's not just celebrities who are unconsciously coupling these days – it's all the rage in civilian circles, too. Certainly, we don't reach for the fainting couch when we hear that a marriage hasn't withstood the ravages of time.
Time once was, of course, that Irish couples doggedly stayed together through hell or high water for a number of reasons; none of them particularly legit. Plain old tradition, laziness, complacency, money . . . it all added up to a seething, bubbling cauldron of resentment and hostility. But that was then, and this is now.
So the question looms large: in this day and age, are people able to stay married – and stay solidly faithful and content – for up to 70 years? Not likely. That's why we get so heartened when we hear of couples who met at a bus stop in the 1930s and are still going strong. We get misty-eyed when a husband says that he hasn't minded 70 years of his wife's snoring.
The death of 'til death to us part' may seem like a newfangled phenomenon, but plain old evolutionary theory has long put paid to this concept. Since time immemorial, human beings may have had romantic hearts . . . but they've had promiscuous bodies. Survival instinct meant that men – and to some extent women – were hard wired for short-term sex, and plenty of it. To propagate the species, men had to couple up with as many women as possible. We're no longer foraging for food and shelter, but . . . well, you know how hard habits are to break. Especially if it's been a habit of several hundred thousand years.
Signing up to a lifetime together may have made great sense in the past . . . but now we're living much longer, too. According to Katherine Woodward Thomas – she who coined the now famous term 'conscious uncoupling' – 'the happily-ever-after goal of love that most of us are aspiring to is a myth that was created long ago when a life span was 35 years. We are living three lifetimes compared to early humans so it is natural to want to change partners.'
And, in this post-digital age, several other factors have conspired to kill off the idea of a long-life marriage to one and one only. With online dating, old flames on Facebook and Tinder effectively at our fingertips, we humans are overwhelmed with choice. How hard is it to commit to a lifetime with just one person, when the prospect of the new and the next is constantly around the corner? When human contact can be accessed with one finger swipe how hard must it be to resist the idea that an ailing marriage can be taken back to the Relationship Shop and traded in for a new one? Still, there's no real point in blaming technology for all of this. Tinder and OK Cupid don't kill relationships, after all: people do.
No matter the malaise of the modern age, no couple walks up the aisle and, fingers crossed, simply hopes for the best. With their hearts brimful of hope and romance, they do mean every single word of their vows. Alas, the modern world is a harsh and unforgiving climate within which to keep a long-life marriage alive. Coupled with the intoxicating idea that fun and adventures lie right outside the door, it's a wonder that such a thing as a ruby anniversary exists any more.
Perhaps it's time to recalibrate our viewpoint and see marriage as little more than a public declaration of love and a cracking day out for family and friends. Let's leave 'til death to us part' out of it, for all our sakes.