Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

Is "Conscious Uncoupling" Better than Breaking Up?

In the spotlight: A more positive alternative to a bitter celebrity split.

Breaking up is not just hard to do, it’s incredibly painful. People grieve after romantic relationships dissolve, suffering from self-blame and other negative thoughts. Breaking up predicts real psychological distress and a reduced sense of life satisfaction, an effect magnified for serious, highly committed relationships (Rhoades, Kamp Dush, Atkins, Stanley, & Markman, 2011). 

Maybe, instead of breaking up, people should engage in conscious uncoupling.

Recently, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, announced that they are now in the process of "consciously uncoupling," to the great sadness of people like me who had rooted for this largely private couple and thought that surely songs like "Fix You" suggested marital bliss. This revelation was met by the public with some surprise, some snickers, and some questions about what conscious uncoupling is, and whether it's in any way different from typical separations.

The term "conscious uncoupling" seems to have been popularized by psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, whose five-week program is designed to ease individuals through detachment from a relationship and readjustment to singlehood. The program challenges the traditional view of a break-up as a traumatic experience, conceptualizing it instead as a growth opportunity and offering a “smooth and painless transition into your new, magnificent life.”

As far as I am aware, there is no empirical research to confirm the effectiveness of this program. Still, the idea is persuasive. Can couples really bypass pain and heartache and gently separate from each other?

On Paltrow's website, Goop.com, Dr. Habib Sadeghi and his wife, Dr. Sherry Sami, describe conscious uncoupling. They begin with the argument that monogamy doesn’t make sense in today’s age of long life expectancies. They then lay out a relationship story in which illusions give way to an unhappy dynamic, characterized by negative thoughts about the self and interpersonal attacks. They contend that people need to find love and support from within themselves and recognize that the painful moments of today reflect wounds from the past. Instead of enemies, divorcing individuals can be partners in this journey, and even teachers to each other. Individuals can pursue a sense of wholeness as they transition to the next stage in their lives. 

Is there research to support this view, that conscious uncoupling can ease a couple’s separation and that a breakup can be an opportunity for personal growth?

The idea that people can grow through ending relationships is not new. Tashiro and Frasier (2003) found that individuals experience a variety of different positive growth responses to navigating a romantic break-up, including personal positives (I am more self-confident), general positives (I now know what I want in a woman), relational positives (I learned many relationship skills), and environmental positives (I believe my friend’s and family’s opinions count). The end of love may feel like the end of the world, but life keeps going and people often emerge from a breakup with new knowledge and insights about themselves and the people in their lives.

Perhaps conscious uncoupling is distinct from traditional breakups because of its emphasis on mindfulness and self-compassion. Research supports the idea that mindfulness might help people traverse the landscape of separation and divorce. For example, individuals high in mindfulness tend to do a better job at navigating relationship stress (Barnes, Brown, Krusemark, Campbell, & Rogge, 2007). In the heat of a conflict, people who can keep perspective and composure, facets of mindfulness, also tend to communicate more effectively.

Further, after experiencing a divorce, people who are kind to themselves, who recognize their common humanity, and who adopt habits of mindfulness tend to experience less divorce-related emotional distress (Sbarra, Smith, & Mehl, 2012). These individuals also report more optimism about the future, plus have higher self-esteem and fewer depressive symptoms. The mindfulness and self-compassion that seems to underlie the idea of conscious uncoupling may in fact serve as a buffer against the trauma of relationship dissolution.

In the end, conscious uncoupling may describe a pattern of growth, self-compassion, and mindfulness that does in fact help individuals cope with the hardship of disentangling their life from another’s. Given that all individuals experiencing a separation must find some manner of coping, an approach emphasizing aspects of positive psychology, like conscious uncoupling, may be a healthy alternative to self-blame, hurtful words, and guilt.

However, individuals adopting this model would do well to recognize that conscious uncoupling does not eliminate negative emotions, pain, or heartache. But at best, it helps individuals better reflect on who they are; to engage in self-compassion; to be grateful for what the relationship offered for them; and to look forward to new opportunities in the future.

 

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When Being Single is Not an Option

Couples who Sweat Together, Stay Together

Pulled Apart, then Coming Back Together

References

Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K. and Rogge, R. D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33, 482–500.

Boelen, P. A., & Reijntjes, A. (2009). Negative cognitions in emotional problems following romantic relationship break‐ups. Stress and Health, 25(1), 11-19.

Rhoades, G. K., Kamp Dush, C. M., Atkins, D. C., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Breaking up is hard to do: The impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 25, 366-374.

Sbarra, D. A., Smith, H. L., & Mehl, M. R. (2012). When leaving your ex, love yourself observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. Psychological science, 23, 261-269.

Tashiro, T. Y., & Frazier, P. (2003). “I’ll never be in a relationship like that again”: Personal growth following romantic relationship breakups. Personal Relationships, 10, 113-128.

 

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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