Skip to Content Top

Consciously Uncoupling: The New Divorce?


Breaking up.

Splitting up.

Dissolving the marriage.

Each phrase exudes destruction, the death of a marriage.

Perhaps a change in perception can change the course of the divorce for a couple who does not wish to spiral into the chaos of litigation.

Consciously uncoupling was a term associated with the divorce of the famous couple, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin last year. While they may have brought a certain notoriety to the term used to describe their amicable break-up, the concept of undoing the “I do” with dignity and respect is not a new one. It’s been around since the seventies when sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the “uncoupling theory”. A divorced mechanic inspired the concept by describing the end of a relationship like a locomotive uncoupling from a car by one letting go, the other letting go, or both letting go at the same time. In 2009, Katherine Woodward Thomas and filmmaker, Kit Thomas, resurrected the phrase when they were empathizing with each other over their respective divorces.

There is a certain psychobabble element to conscious uncoupling. According to Berger and Kellner (1964), when a couple meets and decides to marry, they redefine their self as they reconstruct their new identity as part of a couple. Uncoupling is this process in reverse. Imagine vines entangled together so intricately that there is no way to determine where the beginning of each individual plant begins. Uncoupling slowly and methodically disentangles these vines so they once again become separate and solo organisms from which they initially started. The process is gentle and the untangling is deliberate. No one is jerking the roots to free himself from the other.

Often the adversarial process is the legal venue in which the parties fight an emotional battle. The adversarial system often fails to meet the psychological needs of a divorcing couple and redesigned family. The successful adjustment of divorcing couples depends on both parties accepting the divorce as their new reality. The non-initiating spouse must come to terms with the divorce and the intense emotions that accompany the process. Sometimes the emotional process and legal process are not running on the same course.

Uncoupling is more than just playing nice with each other. Uncoupling requires individuals to recognize that the marital undoing is a result of a dynamic between two people who individually are not perfect people.

As I was writing this piece, I speculated that if anyone could actually go through their divorce this way then their marriage is probably salvageable; however, uncoupling can apply to the couple that grew apart or it can even apply to the couple in which infidelity infiltrated their marriage. The partners are choosing to acknowledge and accept their spouse for all of their shortcomings. But how can one do that when they have been so wronged in their marriage? Would anger and resentment catapult the couple from uncoupling amiably to divorcing disastrously?

As a matrimonial attorney, uncoupling a couple requires acceptance on our behalf that a couple may not want litigation to define their dissolution. Though legal interests are still being protected in the traditional sense of representation, so too are emotional interests being considered.

Attorneys can provide support, sympathy, and encouragement to their clients or they can escalate the confrontation and heighten the discord and drama the couple is already experiencing. Mutual respect between parties and counsel helps pave the way to a resolution that is emotionally fulfilling. An emotionally fulfilling divorce sounds a bit like a contradiction for a time in one’s life when they may feel despair, anxiety, and uncertainty about the future. However, when children are left in the wake of a dissolution, the parties’ efforts to move forward amicably is unequivocally in the children’s best interest.

What type of fulfillment can a divorcing couple take from this process? They can walk away knowing that their children will not be victims to conflict. They can walk away knowing that their children do not feel that they ever need to choose one side over another. They can walk away knowing that just because they will no longer be so intricately entwined with their spouse, they still have enough respect for that person that they can move forward and co-parent in a healthy manner.

Is conscious uncoupling easy work? Most certainly not, especially when uncoupling involves one spouse being forced into the undoing of their former marital life.

Can it be done without assistance? Probably not. In conjunction with supportive counsel, some couples may need some additional therapy to assist with communication and co-parenting.

Conscious uncoupling is emotional work. It won’t obliterate the sadness and guilt one may feel but then again, it isn’t meant to. Instead it allows that person to acknowledge their emotional state and then consciously work through their feelings so they can make a decision that is best for the family, no matter what that unit looks like now.

Is conscious uncoupling a bit over idealistic? Perhaps. But there are couples that do it. It doesn’t mean they didn’t experience pain or grief over the loss of their marriage but it does mean they chose something different for their family. It also doesn’t mean that conflict never arises following the divorce. Uncoupling does mean that as each new challenge arises, the couple figures out how to work through it and unravel the vines. Arguably, a conscious uncoupling can lead to a more peaceful and supportive re-coupling of blended families.

I’ve seen couples embrace their uncoupling in this way through mediation, through the collaborative process, and through the traditional adversarial process. It’s not the method that matters but rather the players involved. Litigation begets litigation. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” If the couple decides to untangle their vines cautiously, they will attain the result that is best for the family.

Perhaps the Summons form should be revised to include a case type code for conscious uncoupling. Just a thought…

Share To: