Conscious Uncoupling (2015) is a guide to moving gracefully beyond a dysfunctional relationship and into the next phase of life. It offers a mindful method for navigating separation in five simple steps.
Sex, Relationships, Self-Help, Psychology, Family Law, Divorce, Love, Marriage, Personal Development, Spirituality, Health
Introduction: Don’t let your breakup leave you broken.
When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin shared that they were “consciously uncoupling,” the announcement was met with some eye-rolling. It seemed they couldn’t even divorce like mere mortals. But was the collective cynicism really warranted?
Conscious uncoupling isn’t just another celebrity trend like juice cleanses and jade eggs. It’s an accredited therapeutic method that offers couples a pathway toward a rewarding separation.
That’s right, a rewarding separation. Breakups don’t need to be acrimonious, unsatisfying, or downright toxic. They can be kind, respectful, and fulfilling. With conscious uncoupling, you and your former partner can honor the love you shared, even as you sever your bonds.
The way we love is rapidly changing. Not long ago, society banned same-sex marriage, interracial relationships, and even living together before marriage. Today, we’re far more flexible and better off for it. Isn’t it high time we brought the way we separate up-to-date, too?
In these summaries, you’ll find
- why happily ever after isn’t the fairy tale it seems;
- how you can alchemize your hate into joy; and
- what common breakup mistakes might be holding you back from closure.
You need to stop playing the shame game.
Society is wedded to the idea that coupledom equals success. Coupledom means financial security, social cachet, loved-up Instagram posts, and an end to nosy relatives asking why you haven’t paired off. What’s not to love?
Well, if coupledom equals success, separation equals failure. And, while breakups are hard, the stigma surrounding separations is often just as hard to bear. Or harder.
The key message here is: You need to stop playing the shame game.
Losing love is tough enough. With the added social shame that’s often piled on separated couples, the pain can feel unbearable.
Imagine there was no social stigma associated with separation. Imagine you could leave a flawed relationship without experiencing the shame that many of us feel when we fail at “till death do us part”?
Here’s the thing: “till death do us part,” nice as it sounds, isn’t a realistic goal for many contemporary couples.
Sure, traditionally, marriage is forever.
But we’ve abandoned many matrimonial traditions that have ceased to serve us. It’s no longer legal to force an Indian widow to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. And Chinese brides aren’t required to have their feet bound so they can’t run away from their husbands.
One tradition we haven’t kicked, though, is the conventional promise between bride and groom to stay together “till death do us part.” English-speaking couples have been making that fairly extreme promise to each other since the fourteenth century.
Let’s break that promise down. In the fourteenth century, the average life expectancy was closer to 40 than 80 years. And marriage was considered an economic proposition more than an expression of romantic love.
It’s no coincidence that fairy tales endorsing a “happily ever after” were first told around that same time. “Happily ever after” is easier to achieve when “happily” describes security rather than romance, and when “ever after” might amount to little more than a decade or two.
Our society may view separation as a source of shame, but it shouldn’t. And neither should you. The real shame lies in clinging to an outdated ideal of coupledom that prevents you, and your partner, from living a meaningful, joy-filled life.
Don’t be a hater.
If you’ve been through a separation, you’ve probably noticed that the way breakups are portrayed in movies is, to say the least, unrealistic. Women eat ice cream in their pajamas with their friends. Men are taken out by their bros for a night on the town. Then – poof! – they’re ready to move on.
Real-life breakups, on the other hand, are rarely so simple. They can involve bitter arguments. You can experience rage and grief on a scale you’ve never experienced before. You and your partner can stoop to new lows as you each go out of your way to hurt the other.
Actual breakups may never be as picture-perfect as they are in the movies. But they don’t have to be raw and filled with rage, either.
The key message here is: Don’t be a hater.
When people are hurt, they hurt people. And there are few things in life that hurt as much as a serious breakup. In fact, we’re primally coded to hurt when separating from someone we’ve loved. See, when we lose a primary attachment figure, like a partner, we feel abandoned and unsafe. And our brain’s evolutionary instinct kicks in. We enter fight or flight mode. Our adrenaline amps up, and our thinking brain takes a back seat. First, we fight to keep our primary attachment figure. Then, when it becomes clear that we’ve failed, we release our adrenaline in the form of rage. That’s not a good thing.
To achieve closure after a separation, we need to break free from the primal bond we once shared with our partner. All too often, though, we simply replace a positive bond – love – with a negative one, hate. That powerful negative bond can drive people to act in crazy ways during a breakup. Otherwise sensible people find themselves stalking their ex online, destroying their ex’s possessions, saying hurtful things they don’t truly mean – and worse.
Unchecked, a negative bond can persist forever. And keeping a negative bond alive prevents you from moving on.
So, what’s the alternative to a fraught, rage-filled breakup? Conscious uncoupling. The next chapter explains exactly what that is.
A conscious uncoupling is a respectful, generous, and loving separation.
You’ve probably heard of conscious uncoupling. In fact, ever since a breakup announcement was posted online by a certain well-known actress and her musician husband – yes, that would be Gwyneth Paltrow and Chirs Martin – the words conscious uncoupling have entered the mainstream lexicon. But do you know what conscious uncoupling actually entails?
The key message here is: A conscious uncoupling is a respectful, generous, and loving separation.
Imagine an openhearted breakup, characterized by kindness, generosity, and forgiveness. A process for separation that avoids those primal urges to diminish, badmouth, or lash out at your partner. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?
But it’s not new-age nonsense. In fact, conscious uncoupling is rooted in the ancient Buddhist notion of karma. Karma teaches that your actions toward others are seeds that, when planted, blossom in your life.
Conscious uncoupling applies this principle in the context of your breakup. If your intention is to punish your partner, extract justice, and exact revenge, then you’ll only succeed in planting the seeds of animosity and bitterness. Acting toward your partner with generosity, kindness, and forgiveness will invite generosity, kindness, and forgiveness into your life – as well as theirs.
Essentially, conscious uncoupling asks you to consider how your actions during your breakup will bear fruit in your life. Are you salting the earth, or are you creating a fertile compost from which a new life, new loves, and new passions can grow?
The latter option sounds like the perfect way to move on from your partner. But conscious uncoupling might not be perfect for everyone. Please note that the method isn’t suitable for anyone trapped in an abusive relationship.
So, would conscious uncoupling work for you? To answer that question, ask yourself the following: Do you have an authentic desire to end your relationship – and to end it well? Is all hope lost for lasting future happiness in your relationship? Have you talked through your feelings about your relationship with your partner? Have you taken concrete steps to address fundamental problems in your relationship, without success?
If you answered yes to all four of these questions, you’re probably a great candidate for conscious uncoupling. And it can all be done in five simple steps. In the next chapter, we’ll explain what the first step is.
You need to own those breakup emotions in order to move on.
“There are plenty of fish in the sea.” “You’re better off without them.” “It’s not the end of the world.”
Why do these platitudes, which are meant to ease your pain, feel so hurtful in the throes of a breakup? Simple – because they diminish your emotional reality. It might not be the end of the world, yet it feels like your world is ending.
The key message here is: You need to own those breakup emotions in order to move on.
The first step toward conscious uncoupling is to release yourself from negative emotions and find emotional freedom.
Start by acknowledging your feelings. It sounds simple, but during a separation, it can be hard to step back from the mixed-up emotional whirlpool you’re going through. Try this: find a quiet place and sit there in stillness. Imagine stepping back from your feelings and observing them with compassion and understanding. Then, name each feeling one by one. Say to yourself, “I see that you’re feeling abandoned, humiliated, rejected.”
Breakups generate all kinds of negative emotions. It’s not enough to acknowledge them. You need to release them. But you don’t need to unleash them on your relationship. There are plenty of ways to express what you’re feeling without causing harm. Dancing, singing, drawing, walking, or exercising – find a way that works for you.
Above all, don’t be ashamed of your feelings or of their intensity. Your deep grief, rage, or despair is a fitting tribute to the love you are leaving behind.
Once you’ve sorted through your feelings, use them as a foundation to name your needs. If you’re feeling rejected, say to yourself, “I can see that you need to feel acceptance.” Don’t rush to fulfill those needs just yet. Give yourself some time to absorb what you feel and what your needs are. Then move on to addressing them.
Perhaps, in the past, you’ve turned to your partner to meet those needs. Perhaps your relationship hid those needs from you. In your new life, you’ll adopt the sustainable and self-loving practice of meeting your own needs. If you need reassurance, think of how you can offer reassurance to yourself.
Take responsibility for your part in the breakup – it’s empowering!
Sita’s partner left her without warning. She felt blindsided, hurt, and abandoned. Sita told herself – and her family and friends – how she had been betrayed.
Another woman, Samantha, left her partner. She also told herself – and anyone who asked – a story about her separation. In that story, her partner’s poor behavior gave her no choice but to leave.
Both Sita and Samantha pinned the blame on their partner and victimized themselves. But here’s the thing: Sita and Samantha were in the same relationship.
The key message here is: Take responsibility for your part in the breakup – it’s empowering!
Playing the victim is an easy way to avoid being blamed for what went wrong in your relationship. No one likes to be blamed, but consider this: claiming victimhood is claiming a position of powerlessness. Do you want to live your life as if you are powerless? Or do you want to take the second step toward conscious uncoupling, and step into your power and reclaim your life?
To start, you need to be honest with yourself about the ways that you’ve emotionally controlled, coerced, or manipulated your partner. Try writing down a list of your power abuses, using neutral, nonjudgmental language. Be as honest as you possibly can.
That’s tough enough, but next comes the really hard part. All those times that you felt victimized? You might not have been completely innocent. It’s time to dismantle your story and understand how you could have colluded in your own victimhood.
Ask yourself these questions:
Question one. Who do I resent, and for what? For example: I resent my partner. I did everything for them, and they gave me nothing in return.
Question two. What can I take responsibility for? For example: I went out of my way to do things for my partner, despite their thanklessness. This helped me claim my place as a victim.
Question three. How has this cost me in life? For example: Failing to set clear boundaries has given others the impression they can take advantage of me.
Question four. How can I make amends to myself? For example: I can set clear, firm boundaries in my life going forward.
Take this opportunity to learn from the ways you’ve allowed yourself to be victimized. And remember the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning.”
Only one person can break your problematic relationship patterns – you!
Do you consider yourself unlucky in love? Perhaps your relationships always sputter out around the three-month mark. Perhaps you always wind up falling in love with chronic commitment-phobes. Perhaps you’ve been cheated on in one relationship after another.
Here’s the ugly truth. Your love life isn’t randomly plagued by bad luck. You’re experiencing the same relationship patterns over and over again – and you’re the one who’s responsible.
The key message here is: Only one person can break your problematic relationship patterns – you!
Upending those bad patterns is exactly what the third step in the conscious uncoupling process teaches you to do – break the pattern, heal your heart.
So how do you break harmful patterns? Let’s use the story of Marisol and Brett to explain.
Marisol was five when her father left, the first of many men who would abandon her. Her high-school boyfriend dropped her the day after graduation. Her college boyfriend came on strong but later stopped returning her calls.
Then she met Brett. They were instantly attracted to each other. Their first date was amazing. Over the next month, the pair saw each other frequently and texted every day. Marisol felt their connection was growing deeper. And then Brett stopped texting.
Marisol had been through this before. She decided to preempt the pain of being abandoned and sent Brett a curt text, cutting things off. What she didn’t know was that Brett had simply paused contact while he considered how he could take their relationship to the next level. In the end, Marisol realized Brett hadn’t abandoned her: she pushed him into leaving.
How did Marisol break that pattern of abandonment? She identified her source fracture, the origin story of her toxic relationship pattern. Marisol’s source fracture was being abandoned by her father. From here stemmed her belief that partners always left her because she wasn’t worthy of their love. Understanding this belief helped Marisol recognize that she would often create the conditions that compelled her partners to leave.
Why don’t you try it? Work backward from the patterns you see in your love life. What beliefs underpin those patterns? What is the source fracture that those beliefs stem from?
You and your partner can set an intention that transforms conflict into love.
In medieval times, it was common for noblemen to employ alchemists. These scholarly men were charged with the seemingly impossible task of trying to turn base metals into infinitely more valuable gold.
What exactly does that have to do with your separation? Well, the next step on your journey to conscious uncoupling is to alchemize your animosity into boundless love.
The key message here is: You and your partner can set an intention that transforms conflict into love.
The fourth step in the conscious uncoupling process is to become a love alchemist.
Now, those medieval alchemists never did manage to turn base metals like lead into gold. Do you know why? They were always looking for an ingredient to add. As scientist Dr. Glenn Seaborg discovered in 1980, there is a way to turn base metal into gold, but it involves subtraction, not addition. When Seaborg released three key protons from the base metal bismuth, he was able to alchemize it into sparkling gold.
So, on your journey to transform your pain into love and joy, think about what you can subtract from your relationship. What hurts can you forgive? What suffering can you release? What tensions can you let go?
Your partnership may be dulled and tarnished with years of disagreements and difficulties, but subtract these and you’ll end up with a golden nugget – the love that you shared to begin with. It likely won’t be enough love to rekindle your relationship, but it can spark your shared future as kind and respectful former partners.
Before you set out on this next phase of your relationship, establish some intentions with your partner. Ask each other the following:
What gifts has this relationship given us that we’re thankful for? For example: We learned how to cooperate and compromise as we parented our children.
What do we want to carry from this relationship into our future lives? For example: We would like to continue to co-parent with warmth and respect for each other.
How can we manifest this? For example: We will communicate clearly and openly about our children’s needs.
All of a sudden, your post-relationship future is looking golden!
It’s time to move on, and move into your new, liberated life.
It seems like all fairy tales end in the same way, with the prince and princess married off and those six little words: And they lived happily ever after.
Now that you’re nearing the end of your conscious uncoupling, you know how unproductive it is to cling to the idea of ever after. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create your own fairy-tale ending. Welcome to your happily even after.
The key message here is: It’s time to move on, and move into your new, liberated life.
The fifth and final step in your conscious uncoupling is to create your happily even after life.
Inside a relationship, no matter how dysfunctional, the prospect of separation can feel like the end of the world. But the worst thing you could have imagined might just be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. You’re liberated. Liberated to reconnect with yourself, to reimagine your life, to reset your course. You’re liberated – if you can let yourself admit it.
There are all kinds of factors that can hinder your happily even after. But, with care and consciousness, you can overcome them all. Here are some of the most common obstacles on your path to freedom and happiness:
First, you might have decided to “stay friends” with your ex. Trying to force the friendship too soon can leave you attached to your ex, stopping you both from moving on. Now is the time to give each other some space. Once you’ve healed, you can find your way back to each other to forge a new and fulfilling platonic connection.
Second, you might be thinking of your kids. For parents, creating a sense of normalcy for their children is a top priority. But there’s no normalcy in the aftermath of a separation. Pretending that Mom and Dad are just the same as before – only in different houses – keeps you unhealthily bonded to your ex. And it stops your children from processing their own grief and anger.
Finally, you might be stuck in the painful process of dividing assets. Remember, just because you can get something doesn’t mean you should. Consider the mental cost of fighting with your ex over every last scrap. Sometimes, the most spiritually profitable tactic is to let go gracefully and get started on your new life.
The key message in these summaries:
We need to divorce ourselves from the idea that romantic relationships are meant to last forever. A relationship that ends in a loving, respectful separation isn’t a failure. In fact, a separation is a precious opportunity to grow: to practice kindness to your partner and yourself; to take stock of your life’s hopes and dreams; and to travel down a more rewarding path.
Actionable advice: Learn the new lingo!
Break-up. Divorce. Ex-partner. A lot of the language around separation can feel inescapably negative. Some therapists encourage using updated, more positive terms. You’re not getting a divorce; you’re getting a wevorce. They’re not your ex; they’re your wasband or your werewife. Your former brother-in-law is now your brother-out-law. And if these strike you as too silly to say out loud, just say them to yourself. You might find they make a big difference!
About the author
KATHERINE WOODWARD THOMAS, MA, MFT, is the author of the national bestseller Calling in “The One”: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life and is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, co-creator of the Calling in “The One” and Feminine Power online courses and certified coaches trainings, and creator of the Conscious Uncoupling five-step process, online course, and certified coaches training.