• June 23, 2021

Is Conscious Uncoupling the way forward in separation?

If the mediator channelled Gwyneth Paltrow, we’re confident at least one, if not both of the parties would walk out. We get it.

Almost 11 years on from that infamous announcement in Goop’s newsletter that Gwyneth and her musician husband, Chris Martin were consciously uncoupling and ending their marriage (cue near global groan of mockery and disdain), people may be now warming to the idea. And we’re guessing if it wasn’t Gwyneth who brought the idea of conscious uncoupling into the language of couples on the brink of separation, we would have come around a lot sooner.

In our experience as mediators, one thing about separation and divorce we have learned is that it is almost universally painful. It’s a traumatic process for both parties to reach the point of acknowledgement that the relationship in the form of marriage or as intimate partners, has ended. We also know there are multiple reasons and causes why relationships come to an end and that the decision to separate or uncouple is in the best interests of both parties. While there may be a sense of relief amid the sadness in reaching this shared acknowledgement, by a certain life stage it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t felt some version of loss and failure following the breakdown of a long-term relationship or marriage. For most of us it’s simply human to feel that ache. But what if we could apply a mindset to separation that approaches the relationship as being completed in its current form, and ready for the next incarnation (especially if children are concerned), rather than a complete failure?

What is conscious uncoupling?

The idea of conscious uncoupling was first popularised not by Gwyneth Paltrow, but respected US psychotherapist, Katherine Woodward. A specialist in couples therapy (and now, unfortunately referred to as a ‘separation guru’) Woodward was deeply impacted by the traumatic divorce of her own parents when she was a child, in addition to her own adult relationship breakdown. With a deep understanding of the longevity of pain and its impact on a child as they journey through life, she pioneered an approach to separation with the idea of ‘completing’ a cycle in a relationship rather than ending a relationship.

The approach works on a five-step process, the first part focused on identifying and accepting negative emotions, with each partner owning their responsibility in the breakdown of the relationship – no matter how lopsided that ratio of responsibility may be. The next phase involves identifying and breaking patterns that act to reinforce beliefs about the breakup – for example, I will now be lonely and face economic insecurity. Once those fears are addressed, the next step is about creating a different relationship with the person you are separating from, in a new and healthier way. Achieving what is such an incomprehensible goal to many, involves learning how to forgive each other, and move from old agreements to planning new ones that will form the basis of a new future relationship where both parties will continue to be involved in each other’s lives.

Needless to say – it’s not for everyone.

Conscious uncoupling is not for everyone, is it?

When there is violence or physical or emotional abuse involved, conscious uncoupling is unlikely to be a practical approach and, in these scenarios, separation and divorce with or without children is a very different, complex and sometimes, dangerous road. However, if there is generally a low level of conflict, and the relationship demise is more about that initial positive projection of self and other, (the honeymoon period) somehow ending up in sustained negative territory, then perhaps you are conscious enough to uncouple.

The merits of this approach to separation is particularly valid and worth exploring when there are children involved. The benefits of having a respectful and healthy relationship with your ex will definitely shape your child’s view of the world, as nobody wants to steal happiness and wellbeing from kids in their critically formative childhood years. The negative impact on children can last into adulthood and detrimentally impact their own ability to engage in healthy relationships throughout life in a myriad of ways.

But conscious uncoupling can also work for couples without children. If parties are open to evolving – seeing each relationship as an emotional education necessary to live a better life, then receiving feedback that helps in the healing and regeneration process can be a powerfully positive thing. And if it comes from a person whose knowledge of us goes deeper and well beyond the image of self we try to project into the world – then the process of conscious uncoupling may deliver something of true value.

How does conscious uncoupling factor into mediation?

If all goes according to plan, and the messiness of life doesn’t overrule what’s trying to be achieved, the idea of approaching mediation with a conscious uncoupling mindset can be hugely beneficial. Let’s be clear though – it’s mediation you are entering into, not counselling. Some of that work would already need to be done by both parties so that each person brings a certain type of willingness and curiosity to becoming whole rather than broken by the ending of the relationship. Our job is to help parties reach an amicable and workable resolution and settlement of issues between them and if both parties have attempted to process their negative emotions and are not governed by them in mediation, then that is encouraging news.

Celebrity endorsement aside, the idea of conscious uncoupling is worth exploring

The Gwyneth effect may have unfairly put the concept of conscious uncoupling into the celebrity wellness bucket, which is not entirely where it belongs. There is no getting around the feelings of shame, loss and failure of a relationship breakdown. But there is something to be said for approaching the grief of separation as a milestone in your ongoing personal journey.

Being in a constant state of conflict is simply exhausting. By thinking about and researching a different approach to conflict with the goal of resolution, growth as a means of balancing out some of the powerful negative feelings could be an empowering outcome. It’s certainly one that may help you get the most out of mediation and what follows as you recover and move on with your life.

To help you prepare for mediation, we have created a library of helpful information including checklists, tips and added detail around the process of mediation. For useful and relevant information you can download for free, we encourage you to visit our resources page.

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