THE BLOG

Conscious Uncoupling

03/27/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014
Kevin Mazur via Getty Images

In a recent blog post by Gwyneth Paltrow, she asked for privacy and understanding while her family adjusts to a separation and "conscious uncoupling" between her and her husband, the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin. They explain that they want to separate with the least amount of emotional damage possible.

Conscious uncoupling or conscious divorce is more common than ever before. The move toward a more intentional uncoupling in marriages, committed partnerships and families is a positive one in a society where 50 to 60 percent of couples still divorce, a statistic that hasn't changed much over the last couple of decades. Depending on who you ask, the plight of marriage in general is bleak. There are less of us than ever who are actually marrying. And in America, 40 percent of those polled think marriage as a concept is basically obsolete.

But we keep trying. Second and even third marriages are common, and because of this trend, we suffer the consequences of sequential marriage, and the break ups in between. Divorce can be emotionally, spiritually and financially devastating to everyone involved. In our culture we have many support systems in place for getting engaged and for the marriage ceremony itself. Our friends rally around us, they stand up with us, they dress up, drink with us, dance with us, toast to our health and longevity. They bless our union. But when we end our relationship they tip toe around us, give us unsolicited advice, leave us to grieve alone, or take us out to get us drunk. There are no rituals to celebrate the relationship that came before, the marriage that has been successful, that bore children, a friendship, and a shared life full of memories. Most couples will re-write the whole history of their marriage to define it as a "failure" when they divorce, instead of focusing on the successful years of their lives together.

A conscious uncoupling begins with the recognition that being in a relationship for any lengthy period of time, and living together, means that you have spent some successful time growing up in a shared partnership. You have shared a developmental stage of your lives building a home and you have grown and changed from having known one another. That growth is a gift. The vision you had of how things would have turned out is different than you imagined, yes. The expectation of living together forever, desiring one another exclusively is a dream that you are grieving now, yes. But the love that came before was real, and should be honored consciously.

Most couples realize that divorce is devastating and they try to avoid it. They know it can be rough on their children and make it difficult to create future relationships. Divorce can drain both partners of financial security. Divorce can also turn what was tender and special about a marriage into bitterness and resentment, a poison well that can last for a lifetime. But for some of us, it seems that there are no other options. Sometimes marriage has an expiration date. When time runs out, we get to the end, and we are done. And we want out.

A conscious divorce, done with intention, can avoid those problems. Traditionally, divorce throws couples to the wolves -- each hires a separate lawyer who pits one against the other. The process can escalate quickly when emotions are raw, and the adversarial nature of the process can create a "last man standing" system of divorce. A divorce can cost anywhere from fifty thousand dollars upwards into six figures or more, depending on the nature of the battle. If custody becomes an issue and children are used as pawns in the divorce, the kids testify and the divorce can drag on, becoming more expensive and more emotionally damaging to all parties.

Today, a divorce can be done differently. We have choices in how we handle divorce, if we choose to do it consciously and with intention. Because a divorce can trigger our brain's neurological response to fear, we get activated and respond in ways we may not be consciously aware of. The survival part of our brain responds to what we perceive as dangerous and we go immediately into fight or flight mode. We will defend ourselves and protect our children when we feel threatened and get reactive -- not acting consciously or like grown adults -- and we may not be able to make the best choices for ourselves even when we want to. Choosing a conscious or intentional divorce or separation means that we choose to do what is best for our children, best for our emotional selves and what will be best for us in the long run. And we choose it now, before we get activated or triggered by fear. We act instead of reacting.

As someone who has been through a divorce, I can tell you that this is not easy. When my ex-husband said or did things during our divorce I found myself acting at my most regressed, my most immature self. I would hear things come out of my mouth that I would regret the moment they left my lips. Still today, many years later, remarried and friendly with my ex, I can feel myself triggered by discussions over money for college for the kids, or changes in the visitation schedule.

It makes sense that a divorce will trigger all of our defenses and that it will be hard to stay conscious in those moments. Understanding that you are committing to being intentional because it is in your best interest and the interests of your children can remind you that there is a better way.

A conscious uncoupling, or a conscious divorce, is a new way of looking at the ending of a marriage or committed partnership. It is a conscious choice to avoid adversarial attorneys, and choosing instead mediation, or a collaborative attorney. A mediator can be an attorney or a counselor or a financial advisor and can meet with both of you at the same time. They will help you work through a parenting plan, a financial agreement and any details that need to be settled before going to court. The mediator is not representing either side, but will help you both.

In a "collaborative divorce" you each hire a separate collaborative divorce attorney. Collaborative divorce attorneys are committed to the process of divorce without escalating the fighting and agree to this in writing. Everyone works together, and focuses on dispute resolution instead of "winning."

I believe that we can end a marriage consciously, and with integrity. We can honor the shared past and create a separate future, without creating chaos and destruction in order to move on. To make this happen, we have to look at the three parts of a marriage that have to be "uncoupled."

One, there is an emotional marriage. Whether you are legally married or living together, when we love and commit to someone for "life" we make an emotional covenant with them. It takes two people to commit to a marriage. It takes only one person to end a marriage. When one partner stops loving the other, it doesn't necessarily mean that both have stopped loving. This emotional severing is many times the most painful, and happens long before the marriage is actually officially over. It takes the person who is being left a while to catch up emotionally to the person who is leaving.

Secondly, monogamy is a legal contract. It simply means being married to one person (versus polygamy, which means being married to more than one person). If one of you had an affair, it doesn't necessarily mean you broke your explicit monogamy agreement, this is a legal contract you signed and filed in town hall after your ceremony. (You may have broken your implicit monogamy agreement, which has to do with your expectations around sexual fidelity. See my book, The New Monogamy.) In order to get divorced legally, you will both have to sign a new contract to void the marriage contract. A collaborative attorney can help with this process, or you can do it yourself, depending on what state you live in.

And lastly marriage is a spiritual contract. Finding your soul mate and committing for life was a serious and binding decision. To you, true love was real and deep and your word was your bond. You felt that your love was somehow bigger, deeper, more special than anyone else's in the entire universe. And it was. For you, it felt like it was "meant to be." There was something magical about it. Maybe you felt like you remembered your partner from a past life or that you had karma to fulfill together. This is a deep story and has special meaning to you. And it can make it hard to uncouple.

Conscious uncoupling means that you will create this separation process as something meaningful in your life as well. A spiritual divorce means that you recognize that uncoupling has growth in it for both of you. This letting go process can be a spiritual process as well; it can be meaningful, but in a new way. Your lesson together is not finished. This is your lesson. Letting go with love, and intention, is a harder spiritual lesson, for sure, but not a lesser one. If it was the spiritual bond that brought you together, you can create a spiritual intention to Trust that this experience may be painful and overwhelming at times but if done consciously it can also be one of the most transformational experiences of your life.

One couple I know decided to create a ritual around the ending of their marriage. Because we have no "Goodbye Rituals" for divorce, they wanted to honor their lives together and say goodbye in a conscious way -- they wanted to uncouple in a way that helped them to feel supported and loved. They wanted to be intentional about the letting go process and see it as a stage in their journey and not have it become a permanent trauma on their psyche.

They invited a few of their closest friends to join them in a hall, and together created a makeshift aisle with two white ribbons stretched parallel across the room. There were two tall pillars at the end of the aisle, surrounded by white flowers. A friend stood behind them. Together, they held hands and took a breath. There was no music, or sound. Their other friends all stood, there were no chairs. Together, this couple, my friends, walked slowly together down the makeshift aisle, following the white ribbons, until they reached the two pillars at the end, on either side of the aisle. Turning, they looked at each other, into each other's eyes, just briefly, gave each other a smile, and let go of one another's hand. It was a small, tender moment. Then he walked to the left around the pillar and she walked to the right around the pillar. They each knelt down and picked up one end of a length of white ribbon. They came slowly back up the aisle, winding up their ribbon, taking their time. At the end their friend stood before them, and said softly, "now you are uncoupled."

Everyone cried. We all drank a single glass of wine. There was no toast, there was no overt celebration. It was a short, tender recognition of their lives together. It was sad but sweet. And then we all left, and went our separate ways, better for having known them.

Dr Tammy Nelson is a licensed relationship therapist and the author of "The New Monogamy" and can be found at www.drtammynelson.com