Conscious uncoupling - fad or fact?

11th April 2018
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So I have read my way through the ‘conscious uncoupling’ bible- ‘Conscious Uncoupling- 5 steps to living happily even after’ by Katherine Woodward Thomas. Having entered the world of family law I thought it only right to delve a little deeper into the hype that’s come to surround the term. I was curious to discover what it really meant-  not least after reading that Gwyneth Paltrow had wished her ex-Chris Martin, a happy birthday this year by referring to him as ‘my brother’- I mean, how do you make that transition?

It’s the first time I’ve read any kind of self-help book. But the fact is, it is a thought provoking and humbling read for anyone who has ever been in and then gone out of a relationship- whether you have been left or been the one leaving. I can see why it has become such a ‘hit’. At the heart of it all I suppose we all have a wish for a ‘happy ever after’ even when it comes to our ex-relationships, but the reality is often far from it. Often the ‘happy even after’ gets shattered in the process of break-up and divorce.  Things get difficult when people are hurting, and thoughts of revenge, be it emotional or financial have a tendency to dominate. 

‘This is ideally how we want to love each other at the end of love’, Woodward Thomas writes, ‘Not consumed with bitterness and hostility but enlarged by the depth and breadth of the care both given and received.’

What the conscious uncoupling process advocates is a kinder process in which the good of the last relationship is not automatically devalued when it comes to an end. 

‘One or both of you may have made mistakes that exposed fatal flaws you failed to notice or minimize before now, but that doesn’t mean what you had was untrue or held no value. Longevity is not the only measure of love,’ Woodward Thomas writes.

She advocates ‘post-traumatic growth’- rather than personal decline- using a split as a new beginning, an experience to learn from, but whilst holding dear what has been. The way we rationalise and digest a past relationship, the story we tell ourselves about it ‘becomes the legacy of this love affair’. As a result, the way we tell that story is important because it actually comes to define who we are and how we see ourselves as well as our new relationships moving forward. 

‘By looking to discover yourself as the source of your experience’, Woodward Thomas writes, ‘you are becoming a seeker of truth. Not just your own personal truth, which is important, of course, but also truth from an objective, rather than subjective perspective, even if that means seeing things about yourself that are less than flattering. The rule of thumb: you want to be more interested in developing yourself than you are in defending yourself, more interested in being rigorously honest, than being right.’

She also speaks of our ‘source-fracture story’: ‘..the meaning you gave to the original hurt in your heart that became your underlying narrative about yourself and the possibilities you hold for happy, healthy love.’ 

The conscious uncoupling process is a recipe for self-therapy. You are asked to look at yourself honestly, and rather than blame the other side, assess where you were also to blame, where you could have behaved differently to break the cycle of behaviour, or the pattern that in the end led to the breakdown of your relationship. Often your ‘fault’ lies in your source- fracture story, which has come to define you and the relationships in your life. ‘Beliefs’, Woodward Thomas writes, ‘are relational, meaning, we created them in relationship with those we loved and depended on the most.’

‘Given that, as a kid, your main developmental task was to form a sense of who you are and where you fit into this world, it’s understandable that you would make whatever was happening mean something about you. It’s only when you revisit the conclusions you came to with the rationality of an adult who has an enhanced capacity to hold complexity and nuance that a more sophisticated and accurate picture can emerge. You must go back and rescue the younger you from that wacky and distorted hall of mirrors’. 

In our attempts to move on we often end up ‘devaluing the love you once shared in order to create distance’. That combined with our source fracture story, means that our analysis of a relationship, the way we tell the story of a past relationship is bound to be told  ‘through the interpretive lens of our pre-existing world view.’ As a result, Woodward Thomas argues, we should wear our conclusions lightly. 

To me, one of the most interesting points made in the book, was on the subject of generosity- something that tends to be a scarce resource in family law. 

‘Odd as it may sounds’, writes Woodward Thomas, ‘it’s possible to feel even more loved at the end of a relationship than at the beginning. For in the first blush of romance, we often project we’re going to get all we want and need from our partner, making it easy to give of ourselves. It’s at the end of love, when we know better, when we’re wrestling with the disappointments and very real limitations of the relationship, that we have the opportunity to give and receive authentic care- care that has no motivation other than to do the right thing for the right reasons. These generous gestures of fairness and goodwill go a long way toward building new bridges at a time when the old ones are being torn down. Every gesture of generosity you can authentically offer has the potential to create ripples of goodness than can be felt for many years to come.’

Even more importantly perhaps: ‘When children grow up in such a family, they grow up whole, whether or not their parents are married or unmarried’. 

In the book Woodward Thomas give several examples of families who have gone from being one to ‘binuclear’- where children live in a seamless transition between their parents, now living separate but highly interconnected lives. The idea is that it is the parents who learn to bridge the distance in the relationship rather than the children. It sounds great.

The conscious uncoupling ‘creed’ sums it up nicely: ‘ Most of all, in the midst of our pain, we strive to do the right thing for the right reasons, allowing our ethics to triumph over our emotions.’

But the overwhelming feeling I am left with, as much as it all makes rational sense, is that the reality of a conscious uncoupling, is easier said than done. Making the transition from ‘lover’ to ‘brother’ will not work for everyone. 

Having said that, there are lessons for us all in the unconscious uncoupling approach-even though we may not be able to realise it in its entirety. 

The red thread running through it is the respect for the relationship that is ending, and the parties to it- and ending the relationship respectfully. The fact that a relationship has come to an end, for whatever reason, doesn’t mean the relationship per se was a failure. It is this recognition, which it is hoped will attune the parties to the ideals of forgiveness and generosity over hatred and punishment. 

This, in my mind, is the true value of the approach- and therefore as a general guide to separation and divorce, an idealistic undercurrent if you like, it should not be underestimated.

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