What is 'conscious uncoupling'?

Here are strategies for moving gracefully out of a relationship without acrimony and hardship

Special to The TribuneMay 13, 2014 


When megastars Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced their breakup, they brought the term “conscious uncoupling” to our collective attention. While at first glance conscious uncoupling may seem nothing more than actor-speak for divorce, it merits closer inspection.

The concept "uncoupling" was introduced by Katherine Woodward Thomas, author of “Calling in ‘The One’” and developer of the five-week “The Art of Conscious Uncoupling” seminar. She explains on her website that her goal was “to create a map for a couple to consciously complete a relationship — to have an honorable ending.”

She adds that most of us cling to the fantasy that our marriages will last a lifetime. When they don’t, we feel like we’ve failed. In fact, the mate-for-life notion began when life expectancies were much shorter than they are today. Realistically, individuals may experience several long-term relationships that span distinct segments of their lives.

Conscious uncoupling provides couples with a strategy for gracefully moving out of a union without the acrimony and financial and emotional hardship typical of a divorce.

To achieve this, both parties agree to work together in a respectful, pleasant and constructive way.

They set aside the disappointments and differences that necessitated the split for the greater purpose of rearing their children and establishing new lives.

In the March 27 issue of the Huffington Post, relationship therapist Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., said, “It is a conscious choice to avoid adversarial attorneys, and choosing instead mediation, or a collaborative attorney.”

Of course, mediation is nothing new. Divorcing couples have successfully relied on neutral mediators to guide them through such painful decisions as child custody or spousal support.

What Paltrow and Martin are modeling is the admirable way marriages can end if both parties choose to be civil and cooperative.

Still, I wonder what would have happened if they’d put the same amount of energy into the relationship in the first place. Perhaps they wouldn’t need to uncouple after all. Just a thought.


Be cordial at all times. Choose your words and tone carefully. Avoid any putdowns or accusations. The least little slip could send the proceedings into a tailspin.

Be sensitive to your partner’s feelings. No matter who initiated the separation, you’re both feeling lots of pain. Tread lightly. Be empathetic. Allow room for tears and sadness.

Let go of blame. Stop thinking one of you is the cause of your problems. View yourselves as equal participants so you stay on a cordial track.

Share your own ambivalence. Even if the split is your idea, you are likely to have mixed emotions about what’s happening. No breakup is black and white.

Be clear about what you want. Identify and express your boundaries so both you and your spouse know exactly where you stand. Waffling wastes time and emotional energy. Plus it’s confusing to all involved.

Decide on mutual priorities. Work together to determine long-range goals. Envision how those plans will play out in your future. Devise policies that further those outcomes.

Stay focused on the topics at hand. Don’t allow your discussions to veer off track. If necessary, follow an agenda so you accomplish what needs to get done.

Enlist the help of third-party professionals. Skilled mediators, accountants and counselors will provide both expertise and neutrality.

Be patient. The process will invariably hit rough patches. You may even question your ability to carry on. Hang in there. Be kind. Reaffirm your commitment. The process can’t be hurried.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

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