Is Family Law Ready for the Concept of ‘Conscious Uncoupling’?

After Gwyneth Paltrow announced her split from Chris Martin, the actress called the separation “conscious uncoupling.” This introduced couples to a more amicable way of divorcing. But are family lawyers ready for this concept?

We enter a marriage with great home and excitement. Love is over-powering and intoxicating. We plan and pull off beautiful weddings, and build homes, families, and careers. We believe we have found our soul mate and that this is forever. For a host of reasons, many who divorce never come to fully understand why the relationship fell apart. Depending upon who initiates the breakup, or how the marriage comes undone, it may feel like “the end.” Even today, when the divorce rate is close to 50%, divorce may feel shameful or like a personal failure.

There is no denying that going through divorce is one of the most difficult things that one may do in a lifetime. Personal resilience, family dynamics, friendships, finances, and community are challenged and tested. Depression is common. The sense of exposure, the ringless finger, and the fear of being poor or being single again is common. Like all things, however, the closing of one door allows another to open. While not easily visible—especially if the parting is not mutual—opportunity is there.

Viewing opportunity begins with the dissolution process. It is important to find someone who encourages moving forward in a conscious way. Bitter breakups and nasty endings sometimes cannot be avoided. There is psychological literature to support the feelings of hate and anger that a spurned lover feels. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., an anthropologist who studies the nature and chemistry of romantic love, says that the same parts of our brains that became activated when we fell in love are even more activated when we are spurned. Thus, these brains, which are on crazy overload anyway, now are driven to acts of harm and hate. She calls this the “rage of rejection.” Too often, this rage carries over into the divorce process.

Normally, rational and good parents now fight over custody of children. Few things are more ugly than a custody battleground. Formerly generous spouses feud over finances, and money becomes a weapon. A client may go to a legal office and ask for a “bulldog,” and some lawyers oblige. In doing so, these divorce lawyers, unfortunately, feed the rejection and irrational love withdrawal that clients may be experiencing. This increases costs, lengthens the process, and lessens the likelihood of positive interactions in the future. The lawyers can smooth the transition or fuel the fire. There is/was good in every marriage. It can be remembered in a divorce—or obliterated.

When Gwyneth Paltrow announced in 2014 that she was splitting from her husband Chris Martin of Coldplay, she said they were going to have a “conscious uncoupling.” They let the world know their focus would be on acting kindly to each other and focusing on co-parenting the two children they had together. The term quickly was picked up by media outlets and gained some short traction. While marriage is generally about love, divorce is about money, and it may be easier for someone with lots of it like Gwyneth Paltrow to be magnanimous in her uncoupling. Could this work for others?

In her book, Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After, Katherine Woodward Thomas sets out a plan for all couples to be mindful in their uncoupling. Quite persuasively, she makes the case that it is healthier for couples to disengage with less blame and more self-awareness of what each one contributed to the breakdown. Thomas provides a recipe for the opportunity to learn from mistakes and hopes to move forward with emotional freedom. The author, a marriage and family therapist, provides a blueprint for gracious separations, filled with acts of kindness, acceptance of responsibility, and doing the right thing for the right reasons.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “I’ve been married three times and each marriage was successful.” An interesting aspiration….