Family life

Conscious uncoupling: Explained

Psychotherapist Liza Finlay discusses "conscious uncoupling," the phrase Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin popularized when they announced their separation.

Photo: API/FameFlynet

Photo: API/FameFlynet

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced news of their “conscious uncoupling,” the world collectively sighed. As opposed to what? An “unconscious coupling”? (Which is precisely what gets so many marriages into trouble in the first place.)

Read more: Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin: Split>

Is this a case of semantics? Does a divorce by any other name smell as sour? Not necessarily. Conscious uncoupling is a term coined by Los Angeles-based marriage therapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas. I don’t know precisely what she does in her office, but I can tell you what happens in mine. Most of the couples I see in my practice want help saving their marriages. What’s rare is for couples to seek help ending their marriages. But, a thoughtful, thorough completion of a relationship—a conscious uncoupling, if you will—provides closure and allows amity.

Here’s what the requirements would be:

1. Airing grievances. You’re ending your marriage for a reason. There are hurts, issues. You need to work through those points of conflict—vehemently. Your marriage may not be at stake, but your divorce is. You don’t need to agree with your dearly departing, but you do need to understand. Understanding someone else’s subjective experience is the first step to accepting—accepting differences, missteps, losses. Indeed, forgiving isn’t about tolerating, it’s about appreciating.

2. Burying old anger. (Or, put another way, burying the hatchet.) Let bygones be bygones. Once you’ve heard and been heard, once you’ve gained an appreciation for “why” he did what he did and you did what you did, move on. If you continue to crucify your soon-to-be-ex-spouse for what happened in the past, you forfeit the future. That’s a guarantee.

Read more: How to have a happy divorce>

3. Caring for each other—now and in the future. If you can let go of old anger, you’re free to see all the stuff that drew you to your partner in the first place. What did you once admire? Mutual respect doesn’t just happen; it’s a choice. You choose where your attention goes. Point it toward the good stuff. We’re all made up of strengths and weaknesses, so focus on the strengths. This commitment to caring is particularly important if there are kids involved. You may not be co-habiting, but you are co-parenting. Being parents who are “in like,” if not “in love,” is a gift you can give your children by choosing friendliness over pettiness.

And of course, once you’ve succeeded in these three steps, you’re free to entertain the fourth: reconciling.