My Favourite Break-up: On Conscious Uncoupling

We’re terrible at break-ups as a society. Why were we so quick to dismiss the advice of conscious uncoupling advocates?

Feature by Kate Pasola | 27 Mar 2017

This time a few months ago I would have been able to look you in the eye and confidently tell you that Gwyneth Paltrow had little-to-no impact on my everyday life. Sure, every so often I recall her involvement in regrettable VHS flick Shallow Hal; or ponder the thought that should I ever give birth, epidural drugs might cause me to also name my newborn Apple. Or Nectarine. Or, like, Radish? And I did read that she’s allergic to oats and subsequently panic-Google ‘food intolerance quiz online free’.

But apart from that, my opinion was neutral. I didn’t even take notice when she ‘consciously uncoupled’ with husband Chris Martin, or when she published an article about it in her goop newsletter, starting a game of thinkpiece badminton. I hastily decided it was a nugget of L.A. pseudo-therapy bullshit that’d die in an Innocent Smoothie label blurb.

Then everything changed. I experienced my own goop-style enlightenment: I consciously uncoupled. Except, kind of accidentally. I'll explain.

I’d been dating a stellar guy for a fair few months; he was kind, bewilderingly fit and bought me alcohol for Christmas – a winning trifecta. He also, annoyingly, lived over 400 miles away. After half a year of frustratingly infrequent dates made difficult by distance, and oxytocin overdrives diluted into a WhatsApp saga, he became distant and I got bored of pretending to be a Super Chill Girl Who’s Totally Fine With This Dynamic.

In an unprecedented move I asked him, straight up, what the deal was. After an honest and compassionate conversation it transpired that we had incompatible requirements; I was cool with seeing someone infrequently yet continuing to invest in a relationship, and he, er, wasn’t. And that was it. We took the inevitable narrative of miscommunication > resentment > break-up venom and cut it short, because we didn’t want to hate each other.

Obviously a break-up’s a break-up, and it still felt like a shitstain on the toilet bowl of January 2017 (it happened the night before Trump’s inauguration, for christ’s sake). But something felt different. The faith he’d restored in me when it came to dating men remained. My self esteem was uncompromised, and I wasn’t left with that toxic ol’ burden of break-up anger. Then it hit me. I’d followed in Gwyneth’s size 5 Birkenstock footsteps. I’d consciously uncoupled. 

If you’ve been politely reading this article without the foggiest idea of what conscious uncoupling means, here’s a whistle-stop tour as provided by Dr. Habib Sadeghi & Dr. Sherry Sami, authors of the Paltrow-platformed article which sent the term viral:

“The idea of uncoupling as an alternative to a nasty divorce has been around since the 1970s. In 1990, author Diane Vaughan further defined the concept while psychotherapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas would popularise it a few years later. In these previous theories, uncoupling is rooted in how to part amicably, keeping mutual respect as part of the process and remembering the needs of any children involved.”

Obviously there weren’t children or divorce papers to consider for my particular situation. We weren’t even really a couple. We just wanted to be. Nevertheless, I continued my research, sure that my experience counted for something.

I came across Rosie Wilby, a writer, comedian and broadcaster whose work is rivetingly rooted in dating, relationships, sex and monogamy, and how all of the above interact with neuroscience and psychology. Her new show is entitled The Conscious Uncoupling, and tells the tale of when she too found herself surprisingly inspired by the gospel according to goop.

She points out that, historically speaking, lesbians could be credited with the genesis of conscious uncoupling: “It was a small community, and so to some extent you couldn’t really necessarily get away from your ex. If you broke up, you had to find a way to navigate it amicably and stay friends.”

We spend the next half hour figuring out the reason why, despite its rich sociological history and demonstrable benefits, society won’t take the idea conscious uncoupling more seriously. Satisfyingly, we establish three.

Reason 1: Nobody can fucking agree what it means

Rosie points out that conscious uncoupling is an evolving concept, not bound to a single, essential definition. She compared it to society’s ever-changing concept of ‘monogamy’: “We assume it’s this universal thing, y’know, but it’s really not. And if it’s so personal, how can we, sort of, ‘sign up’ to it?”.

She also clarifies that the process of healthily ending a relationship shouldn’t be restricted to romantic couplings. “I think there’s a broader philosophy about having conscious dealings with people you have worked with professionally. I used to play in some bands and it’d be heartbreaking if my drummer or my bass player left. There’s obviously friend break-ups too. I think particularly women tend to be particularly heartbroken about friend break-ups.”

Reason 2: Like death, talking about break-ups is taboo

It’s taboo to mourn for an ex, and seems even more ridiculous to plan ahead for a break-up. “It’s almost like the mourning and the grief is not really acknowledged enough. The message is ‘move on’ – if your relationship ends you’re told just go out and get a new one, like getting a new iPhone. It’s this idea of commodity, that things are just replaceable.”

This could be part of the reason we’re obsessed with words and phrases like ‘ghosting’, ‘friend-zoning’ and ‘winning’ the break-up. They might be reductive terms, but they’re all we have in our linguistic banks. We think and talk too little about ending relationships, so the prospect of a new piece of vocabulary which could wrench open our idea of conventional break-ups is possibly a little intimidating. Rosie agrees. "That’s why it’s good that the principle of conscious uncoupling is out there in the ether, as an antidote to less conscious acts like ghosting."

Reason 3: It needs a rebrand, ASAP

Even if you’ve established a definition for the term, disregarded taboos and convinced yourself to be proactive and realistic about a relationship ending, let’s face it. Conscious uncoupling is a really stupid name. Who’s going to invest energy in a concept that sounds like a Scientologist dating show?

Rosie wonders whether a rebrand could help. “I think, in the tradition of inventing language, we could reclaim it and say, ‘it’s not about Gwyneth Paltrow, it’s about something else’, or even invent a similar term that is the same thing, but maybe a different wording.”

As for the alternative terminology, a plain old ‘break-up’? She's unkeen. “The tricky thing is that a lot of the language around break-ups is that it feels there’s a certain violence about ‘breaking’ up. I prefer to think of it like a sculpture that you’re reshaping. It’s still beautiful, you’re not smashing it to pieces. You’re changing it into another form.”

I ask her whether it'd be realistic to teach these concepts to younger people experiencing their first serious relationships. "I think there’s no hypothetical information that will ever replicate having been through a break-up", she tells me, "so you might really only learn by doing. But certainly, if people work to communicate well during the relationship, you’d imagine that they’d communicate during the process of it coming to an end."

And for the far distant future of break-ups? Qazi Rahman of King's College London will be in attendence at the show to discuss the prospect of an Eternal Sunshine-style break-up drug. "Your brain would rewire those memories and so on," Rosie continues. "There’s obviously huge questions about the ethics of things like that, but there is sort of an interesting debate to be had about what role science might play in how we break up with somebody." We look forward to goop's take on that one.

Rosie Wilby's show The Conscious Uncoupling takes place this month as part of Edinburgh Science Festival at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Sat 1 Apr, 8pm, £6.50-8