For Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, there will be no clothes thrown out of windows, car tires slashed, and screaming confrontations on the street. No, unsurprisingly for this queen of all things holistic—who once heard rocks talking to her—even the breakdown of her marriage must come, as they say, from a good place. As revealed in a break-up statement on her website Goop, she and Martin have decided to “consciously uncouple.”
Consider yourself in good company if you think this sounds like one of those hippy-dippy expressions new-agers say in the heat of the Los Angeles sun, and in response everyone around them just nods politely while thinking, “Yeah, good luck with whatever that is.”
But “conscious uncoupling” is not, as it may sound, an act of suddenly terminated sexual congress, rather it’s an actual model of breaking up that proposes it can be a healthy and self-empowering thing to do; that instead of howling at the moon or pulling the blankets over your head, or bursting into tears when the guy at the deli wishes you a good evening, that breaking up—big smile, everyone, you’re not breaking up, you’re re-forming—‘can be zesty and self-improving.
Paltrow cites the work of Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami who claim we are divorcing more because we are living longer, and the notion of living longer with just one person is impractical. After a “honeymoon” period of projecting positive things onto our partners, we begin projecting negative things onto them instead. The “armor” that we assume to protect ourselves, they say, becomes a prison.
(Disclosure: This is where things become all about insects, and very metaphorical.)
The doctors argue that insects have an exoskeleton, which is bad because once you step on something small with an exoskeleton it’s dead. However, vertebrates, like us, have endoskeletons—our skeletons are inside us—and this is good because it means somehow we are flexible, physically and emotionally (which is a bit mean to the very open-hearted caterpillars I have known). Inevitably, any anger and resentment we feel is contained within some kind of metaphorical exoskeleton.
In this case, “conscious uncoupling” does not mean the very literal act of saying to someone: “Get out of this house. I never want to see you again. Anything we have to say to each other will be said through lawyers.” It means being more civilized, and treating breaking up as an opportunity for personal growth. Don’t get mad, don’t get even, get zen.
“Conscious uncoupling,” Paltrow and Martin quote the doctors under the announcement of their separation, springs from the idea that instead of thinking of marriage in terms of a “lifetime investment,” we should think of it as “daily renewal.” Our partners are our teachers, helping us “evolve our internal, spiritual support structure.” And so, when that relationship comes to an end, instead of wailing like a banshee and turning to gin, and playing Billie Holiday at 50 decibels, you “have the ability to understand that every irritation and argument was a signal to look inside ourselves and identify a negative internal object that needed healing.”
The doctors say that when a relationship breaks down, it’s not the current situation that needs healing, but "an older, emotional injury.” So, are we just meant to forget the affair or the obsession with work? What about the crass insensitivity or the lying or the fact that the sound of your partner’s voice feels like nails on a chalkboard?
We must construct “internal cathedrals” with an endoskeletal frame for all that flexibility “with spiritual trace elements like self-love, self-acceptance, and self-forgiveness,” say the doctors. Imagine that: Rather than muttering “bastard!” after every swig of Pinot Grigio with a nodding friend, or the idea of sharing a room with your ex that induces a migraine. Instead, done properly, “conscious uncoupling” can ensure families are not broken by divorce.
“If I send a client on a date, I tell them that even one vaguely sarcastic comment about their ex-partner can sound bad. No one wants a partner with a chip on their shoulder.”
These doctors make “conscious uncoupling” sound so groovy that actually being together begins to seem a little dowdy and dull.
There are even courses and seminars for those wanting to practice the method. On her website, Katherine Woodward Thomas is all about key numbers: “A 5-Week Program To Release The Trauma of a Breakup, Reclaim Your Power and Reinvent Your Life,” and “How To Avoid The 3 Breakup Mistakes That Cause Suffering, Steal Joy, & Prevent Future Love.”
At least Woodward Thomas, who oversees an “Art of Conscious Completion” online seminar doesn’t immediately start battering you with platitudinous feathers about relationship breakdown. Unavailable for comment, she writes that she understands that when a friend tells you you’ll get over it, “it makes you want to break something. Or break down crying.” Most of us take five years to recover from breakups, she says, and the trauma stains our personal and professional lives. Woodward Thomas’s program, among many other things, helps us “to release blame and shame in order to reclaim your power.”
Again, there is no mention of the more familiar post-break-up bitching sessions over endless margaritas, slur-singing “How am I Supposed To Live Without You?” in an unfamiliar bar’s karaoke, or crying inconsolably in front of Steel Magnolias. You break up, you grow up.
Amy Laurent, the relationship expert and professional matchmaker, says we shouldn’t dismiss “conscious uncoupling” just because of its hokey-sounding name. “I know it sounds cheesy. It’s a real concept, a real thing, and I’m glad Gwyneth is making more people aware of it.”
Laurent, author of 8 Weeks To Everlasting: A Step-By-Step Guide To Getting (and Keeping!) The Guy You Want, says the approach is especially useful when children are involved, as is the case with Paltrow and Martin. “You’re involved with this person for the rest of your life as a co-parent. If a child sees parents arguing when they grow up they can emulate it. ‘Conscious uncoupling’ is healthier for you and healthier for your future.”
Even without children, “conscious uncoupling” makes sense for the newly single, says Laurent. “If I send a client on a date, I tell them that even one vaguely sarcastic comment about their ex-partner can sound bad. No-one wants a partner with a chip on their shoulder.”
This all sounds great, but what about the anger and bitterness one might feel after the end of a relationship. Isn’t it OK to be angry? Natural? More natural than all this shiny, happy affirmation stuff? “Yes, it’s a normal emotion to be angry, but it’s positive to evaluate yourself and your relationship and not assign blame,” says Laurent.
And so, even as we roll your eyes over the notion of “conscious uncoupling”; even as we feel like crap and rail to our friends, we might have to accept that the much-mocked movie star who hears rocks talking to her might actually be onto something.