The Reality of Conscious Uncoupling

conscious uncoupling
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According to the, “consciously uncoupling” refers to “the act of ending a marriage or relationship, but in a way that is viewed as a very positive step by both parties, who mutually believe their lives will be better for doing so.”  The couple makes a serious attempt to remain friends and co-parent if they have children. It is a very respectful way of terminating a long-term relationship.

The expression was thrust into the media in 2014 after being used by actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her spouse, rocker Chris Martin, who announced the breakup of their marriage online while writing that they intended to. The use of such embellished terminology is just a euphemism for an amicable separation or amicable divorce. The term has been viewed critically in the media as typical celebrity-invented nonsense. Its mockery by journalists, however, has brought further attention to it, only popularizing the phrase.

Katherine Woodward Thomas is the one to credit with the term after she penned a self-help book with the same title. Her intentions are, of course, to help couples split up peacefully.  Regardless of what people might think of the term, the concept is an ideal that all couples should aim for if they are at such a point in their lives. Science, however, tells us that this rarely happens.

The Reality of Breaking Up

Researcher Diane Vaughan discusses in her book, Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (1990), how couples really split up. Several conclusions can be drawn from her extensive work with couples ending their relationship. First and foremost, all uncoupling begins with a secret. One partner (the “initiator”) usually feels unsatisfied with the relationship or believes that it was a mistake. The initiator stays quiet and processes their feelings on their own. Uncoupling most often begins way before someone actually initiates a break-up.

Instead of directly communicating thoughts and feelings with their spouse or partner, initiators engage in these types of behaviors:

  • The initiator makes direct and indirect attempts to "fix" their partner who is frequently clueless about the thoughts the other one is having. 
  • The initiator begins to find satisfaction outside the relationship. Energy gets channeled into hobbies, friendships, the kids, or an affair.
  • The initiator makes important changes unilaterally. There is no more discussion and negotiation. There is a shift from “we-ness” to “me-ness.”
  • The initiator starts to re-define their partner and the relationship in negative terms.  History gets re-written…good times are forgotten.  Attempts are made to justify the thoughts and feelings around wishing to end the relationship. 
  • The initiator finds ways to create distance from the partner. This may be in their body language, mood, spending time away, becoming overly critical, complaining or acting passive-aggressive.
  • The initiator operates out of fear and is plagued with uncertainty. He or she confuses known problems vs. unknown problems.  It is very difficult to face the truth when making a drastic life decision.  
  • The initiator finds a “transitional person.” The initiator begins to confide in someone who will instrumental in bridging the gap between the old life and new life.  This may be a lover, friend, divorce lawyer, or a therapist.  It may be someone who has gone through the divorce process who can serve as a role-model of sorts.

Daily routine of life makes it easier for the unhappy partner to slowly and gradually slip away, at first only psychologically, and eventually physically. Initiators have the benefit of time to gather the resources necessary to uncouple when they are good and ready. Lack of such resources may create major barriers to separation.

The uncoupling process usually starts in this covert and rather “unconscious” way.  Or, at least only consciously to the unhappy partner. The initiator fails to communicate their intense dissatisfaction with the relationship. As a result, when the initiator makes a bold move to end things, it’s frequently too late for the other partner to do anything to change the decision.

The Facts

This is not a condemnation of the initiator or a judgment of the reasons why people choose to leave their marriage or long-term relationship.  It is strictly based on the collection of data on how people go about it. Understanding this may help couples take a braver and more open approach and take corrective action sooner rather than later if one or both are unhappy in their relationship. A result of early action and discussion may be that couples actually end up staying together for the long-haul.