04/02/2014 06:48 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

What the Hell IS 'Conscious Uncoupling,' Anyway?

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By Sonya Rhodes, PhD., and Susan Schneider, authors of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling, William Morrow, April 2014.

"Conscious uncoupling." The term sounds so ridiculous: New Age-y, pretentious, righteous -- I could go on and on. Although I've worked as a couples therapist for eons, I have to admit that I never heard of "conscious uncoupling" before Gwyneth Paltrow used it to describe what she and Chris Martin have been up to lately. As I see it, the term means that couples confront their irreconcilable differences by looking into themselves instead of blaming their partners. Each partner takes a reflective, conscious stance toward what role he or she has played in the dissolution of the couple. This is actually a pretty radical point of view when you consider that when nearly all people talk about their divorces, there's always some element of blaming their partner.

Now, consider this: New research from the Minnesota Population Center has found that even though the divorce rate is lower among people in their twenties, it's soaring among older couples. So, since an awful lot of people do end up divorcing, there is something very appealing about the notion of doing the deed minus the rancor and ill will.

The concept originates in what psychologists call "object relations theory," which was developed by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein and later applied to couples by family therapists. Object relations family therapists believe that we choose our partners based on the unconscious process of projective identification. This is just a fancy way of saying that if you don't feel comfortable with parts of yourself, you "disown" this part and pick a partner who represents that part of you. For instance, if you are shy and self-conscious you will be drawn to someone outgoing. If you are overly responsible, you will pick someone who is laid-back and mellow. If you tend to fret over spending money, you will pick someone who is self-indulgent. If you are afraid of your aggression, you will be attracted to someone who has no problem being assertive. Finding a partner who represents and expresses the part of yourself you feel uncomfortable about protects you from having to deal with it.

The messy part of this process is that the very traits that attract you have the potential to irritate you. The partner that initially looked confident can appear brash and smug. The assertive person turns out to be a bully. The laid-back partner eventually strikes you as impulsive and irresponsible. Suddenly, the very qualities you admired have become the source of relationship conflict. Each partner points to the other person's behavior as the cause of conflict, creating a pattern of friction and blame. The fact is, we chose each other for complicated reasons and without realizing it, create patterns in our relationships that are embedded in our individual problems. However painful a break-up is, both partners need to untangle themselves from each other and look inward instead of pointing the finger at each other. It takes a sincere effort at self-reflection to own our part in a troubled and unfulfilling relationship.

I find it admirable that Paltrow and Martin have chosen this path. Blaming is easy. Self-examination is difficult. So pretentious and silly as the term may sound, let's not throw out the baby (the term's true meaning) with the bathwater (annoying celebrities). Paltrow and Martin have made a public promise to side-step blame and spare their two children and themselves an ugly parting of ways. I think there may be a useful takeaway for the rest of us. We shall see. In the meantime, I wish them well.

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