When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced that they were ‘consciously uncoupling’ there was a collective snigger from the rest of the world. The phrase was put down as just another celebrity catch-phrase, a passing whim that meant little and would soon pass.
However the process is already established as an intelligent, sensitive way to approach separation and divorce which minimises the hurt to the couple and help them to stay friends – or at least, to stay in reasonably good communication, which is crucial if the children are not to be damaged.
The problem with separation and divorce is that it can be so painful to those involved – all those hopes and dreams dashed – and often the worst, most vindictive behaviour comes out. Actually, it is often a normal part of wanting to separate from someone to be as unpleasant as possible so that the split is made permanent. But the result is that separation, however much each one wants it, can be very difficult and extremely painful. People often become anxious and/or depressed, and find that they experience all the symptoms of grief – which is exactly what they are going through: the death of a relationship and the loss of a best friend and intimate other.
It often gets very messy. Not only are any children badly damaged when the adults start behaving like children, but the ex-couple is also damaging themselves and their chances of a healthy next-relationship.
Fortunately, conscious uncoupling avoids all this, and can allow the separation process to be part of an emotional growing and maturing rather than something highly destructive.
Each couple brings their worst frustrations and issues into the therapy room and in a carefully controlled, expertly managed process, the therapist shows each how to speak so the other will listen and listen so each will hear. They learn to appreciate, understand and acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of the other, and a respectful process is initiated.
They get to express themselves, to air their grievances and to learn how to acknowledge the pain that each is feeling. They bury the hatchet – but not into each other’s backs. They might remember the things that first attracted them to each other, and sometimes a reconciliation takes place although this is not the purpose of the sessions. The couple has decided to split, and the point of conscious uncoupling is to make this as respectful, courteous and healing as possible.
So often the children are the victims of a divorce. The adults can behave incredibly badly, even asking the children to choose between them or using the children as go-betweens. As a therapist, I see many adults who were wounded by this kind of treatment as children – the damage can be extremely deep and long-lasting. A consciously uncoupled couple will have vented all their frustrations in the therapy room and reached a point where respect and affection prevail. The only requirement is that both parties are willing to undertake the process, and are committed to it. It can also be helpful to individuals, and to those whose relationship ended some time ago, but for a couple to benefit they both need to be in the therapy room, willingly.
By coming to a place of respect, they can go on to be good, supportive friends, helping each other into their next relationships. Relationships are places where we find comfort and growth, and as humans we are all driven to find connection with an intimate other. Its just that sometimes we outgrow each other and some relationships are not destined to last for life. When they end it should not mean any sense of failure – we should be able to look back and appreciate the happy times. Unfortunately we are not very good at saying goodbye, however, and sometimes the help of an experienced therapist is necessary.
Separation and divorce are times when emotions run high yet there are practical arrangements to be made and decisions to be taken. Often the lawyers can exacerbate things, and everyone, adults and children, suffer. Without help, it can take years to recover, and some people never get over it. They are filled with anger, hatred and bitterness and of course these feelings prevent them from making a good healthy next relationship.
So Gwyneth and Chris, far from talking about something fanciful and fashionable, have highlighted a process that many other couples have participated in and benefitted from. It is not a fad – it is a sensible, constructive way to reach out for help at a difficult time.