Under such stressful circumstances, it’s easy to show up in vindictive and defensive ways. We human beings are hard wired for attachment and when we go through a breakup, our brains go a little haywire, throwing the nicest of us into a fight-or-flight frenzy where we’re prone to behave in unusually mean-spirited and selfish ways. Where normally you might think of yourself as a good, fair and honorable person, you may suddenly find yourself tempted to greedily grab for everything you can. Hiding and hoarding those assets your soon-to-be former partner might not be aware of, or aggressively going after all you can get. Often mixing the difficult task of sorting your possessions with the primitive desire for retaliation and revenge.
As the creator of conscious uncoupling (yes, I’m the one who inspired Gwyneth and Chris), I have had to walk my talk. When my husband and I divorced after a decade of marriage, we delayed dividing our assets until we made sure any anger festering between us was resolved, lest we confuse a courtroom with a boxing ring. In fact, we went one step further than aspiring to an amicable divorce. We decided that ours would be a generous breakup, characterized by an uncommon amount of kindness and big-hearted gestures meant to generate a continual flow of goodwill and wellbeing into our newly forming post-breakup “expanded family.”
My former husband came up with the idea of a “parting gift” first. When sitting with our mediator, he stunned us both by denouncing his right to royalties from my first book, generously gifting them back to me in a kind-hearted gesture of love. Inspired by his generosity, I followed suit, and when he moved out of our home, I surprised him by gifting him with enough money to make sure his new home would be well-stocked with all he might need to comfortably settle into his new life. This new culture of gift giving continued when he lost his job soon after our separation, and I looked for ways to increase my income in order to relieve him from having to make child support payments until he was able to secure new employment. Soon after, when I took ill, he voluntarily brought me groceries and medicine and refused my attempts to reimburse him.
Strange as it may seem, it’s possible to feel even more loved at the end of a relationship than at it’s beginning. For when we fall in love, we assume we will get all that we want and need from our partner, which makes it easy to open our hearts and give of ourselves. It’s at the end of love, when we’ve been deeply disappointed and understand the very real limitations of the relationship that we have the opportunity to give and receive authentic care–care that has no agenda but to demonstrate how much this person has meant to you, and your desire for their life to be happy even though things did not work out between you. These generous gestures of goodwill go a long way towards building new bridges at a time when old ones are being torn down, and help repair and resolve old festering hurts and resentments.
The word generous shares the same root as the words genesis or generate–gen, which means “to give birth.” A generous gesture initiates new life, giving birth to a beautiful new beginning and liberating all involved from the cycle of reactivity and retaliation. At a time when we might be tempted to behave badly, we instead choose to interrupt and redirect the snowballing momentum of potentially hostile and aggressive actions, consciously turning things in a more harmonious direction by a disarming gesture of genuine goodness and grace.
Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod teaches about the concept of “karma.” More than cause and effect, karma is the idea that the actions we take will, over time, begin to grow our new lives in a particular direction. During a breakup, when our fight-or-flight biological reaction to rejection and pain may pull on us to take rash, retaliatory actions, the challenge is to not give in to the temptation to plant seeds of ill will and revenge–actions that could eventually grow into bitter fruits in your backyard that you may be forced to eat for years to come. Instead, you’ll want to chose to plant seeds of forgiveness, goodwill and generosity, so that in time, your actions will grow to be a cornucopia of riches for yourself and all those you love.
Katherine Woodward Thomas, M.A., MFT is the bestselling author of Calling in “The One,” a licensed psychotherapist and author of the newly released book, Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After. www.consciousuncoupling.com