Conscious Uncoupling: What It Is And How To Do It

This approach can help partners reframe ending a relationship as a healthy, intentional choice — not a failure.

Conscious Uncoupling: What It Is And How To Do It

Conscious Uncoupling: What It Is And How To Do It

Conscious Uncoupling: What It Is And How To Do It

Published
October 1, 2021
— Updated
Medically Reviewed by
5 minutes

Oftentimes, break ups can be difficult and leave partners feeling wronged or in pain. But ending a relationship doesn’t always have to be this way. If you’re seeking a mindful, respectful, and loving approach to parting ways, you may consider a conscious uncoupling.

Conscious uncoupling, defined

This term was coined by breakup and divorce coach Katherine Woodward Thomas, and shot to popularity in 2014 when Gwenyth Paltrow used it to describe her split from Chris Martin. Therapist Erin Dierickx, PLLC tells O.school that you can think of conscious uncoupling simply as “internationally and respectfully deciding on a future path for your relationship when it comes to a close.”

“It offers a space to speak in a more structured way that’s helpful for all involved. Conscious uncoupling ends up looking however [the couple] decides through that conversation, as opposed to a break up that’s more reactive. You want to avoid the ‘Oh, we’re just not getting along.’ ‘We just don’t fit.’ The throwing of the hands in the air. Conscious uncoupling involves more language around, ‘There are things I appreciate about this partner, and we can have a cordial conversation about moving forward.’ “

This approach can help alleviate fears and anxiety surrounding a split since the benefits of consciously uncoupling in comparison to a traditional break up are numerous. Deciding to frame a breakup around transparency, respect, and appreciation for your partner creates a safe space to discuss, in depth, what your relationship will look like beyond a romantic union.

Conscious uncoupling helps change negative narratives around break ups 

Openness to doing things differently may be a much-needed cultural shift in a society that otherwise views break up or divorce as a failure, when this isn’t the case at all. 

“Conscious uncoupling reframes the way that we view break ups,” Dierickx tells O.school. “It provides us with new language to use when we think about uncoupling and allows partners to say, ‘We are no longer going to be together the way that we have been, and that’s okay.’ ”

Dierickx, a firm believer in the power of language, thinks that conscious uncoupling may begin to turn the tide on the stigma around breaking up. “The environment of a break up can be made or broken by the language you use, so being really intentional about what we say is important,” she says. “In fact, it’s pretty dangerous to associate that word ‘failure’ with any relationship, to be honest.”

5 steps to have a conscious uncoupling

If you and a partner are ready to start the process of consciously uncoupling, there are five steps to doing so outlined in Woodward Thomas’ book. You can communicate through these steps with a partner at home, with a therapist, or even by creating a ritualized ceremony. 

1. Find emotional freedom. 

During the first phase, you and your partner will identify feelings about the impending end of the relationship. Something has been broken, and it might be more than just your heart. Maybe your sense of space or purpose is threatened by the romantic partnership ending. Maybe you don’t feel connected to yourself without them. It’s important to keep in mind that while these feelings are dark, you (and your children, if you have them) will be living with the consequences of things that are said and done during the transition from lovers to otherwise. Therefore, the practices you’ll take during this step will work towards making peace with your emotions and de-escalate the intensity of any pain you’re feeling. 

“Having that perspective on what it means to break up should be part of the discussion at the start,” explains Dierickx. ‘What’s the meaning that we’ve attached to being together, to dating, or to breaking up?’ With these things, it’s easy to assume we all have the same definition when we don’t. So this step offers a great opportunity to further define what the relationship was and looks like, and what it will continue to look like.”

2. Reclaim your power and your life. 

Once your relationship has started to crumble, you may find yourself unable to let go of small details, or kept awake at night trying to piece together who was at fault. Maybe you relive memories or moments that you feel, if lived differently, might have saved the relationship. You may find yourself placing blame on your partner, or trying to create a narrative that justifies your hurt. 

This second phase of conscious uncoupling helps you transform any resentment into appreciation for the relationship for what it was. This can help you move forward into the next phase of your relationship without looking back on it negatively. 

3. Break the pattern, heal your heart.

In step three, you’ll work to identify patterns playing out in your relationship that may have made things rocky or difficult along the way. Often, these will stem from childhood traumas or fears. Recognizing patterns can help you realize the root of toxic habits you haven’t yet been able to shed and free yourself of these habits to move forward with your partner in love, eliminating the risk that these patterns will make a new kind of relationship impossible. 

4. Become a love alchemist.

Next, you and your partner will make new agreements to each other, and to yourself. You will make a commitment to letting go of marriage vows or promises you made in your relationship, and instead, you’ll replace these with commitments to yourself: healthy boundaries, and a focus on healthy life.

5. Create your happy-ever-after.

At the end of your conscious uncoupling experience, you’ll symbolically “release” your partner from the promises they made during the relationship. The focus is creating a new future together that can include friends, children, and family, without emphasizing the break up or unhappy memories about the past. 

“Coming to your last therapy session or meet-up with appreciations or gifts can be a great way to ritualize the relationship, and celebrate what’s to come,” says Dierickx. “Whether it be a letter or a physical gift, it’s a gesture of: ‘Here’s something I want to give you, so you’ll always remember what we have.” 

Consider if conscious uncoupling is right for you 

For the most part, the decision to terminate a relationship in a conscious uncoupling should be mutual, but it can take both parties time to get on the same page. Dierickx believes couples therapy can be a great space to align on what your priorities are when parting ways.

“Some people might not realize they want to break up until they’re really in it, having difficult conversations about things that have been swept under the rug, or hashing things out through pretty hostile fights. Ultimately, through facilitated conversation, they may find that while they have a lot of love and respect for each other, the relationship may not be working in a romantic capacity. Then, a therapist might suggest a conscious uncoupling.”

If therapy isn’t on the table for your relationship, a conscious uncoupling is still possible with the power of bibliotherapy, and by doing your own research. No matter the setting where you and your partner decide to take this next step, knowing your options can be very empowering in a situation that’s often scary and uncertain.

“If one or both partners are leaning out of the relationship, that could be the time to consider conscious uncoupling, or just research it further,” Diericks says. “There is power in knowledge, and knowing there are more choices than just a fire and brimstone parting or divroce can be very affirming.” 

The Bottom Line

While many depictions of break up and divorce in the media are ugly, there are models that have a foundation in support, love, and accountability. Conscious uncoupling creates room for an autopsy of what happened in the relationship, a closer look at unhealthy patterns that may have derailed it, and a path forward into friendship or effective co-parenting without hidden grudges. The process won’t necessarily be easy. If you and your partner have been in a difficult spot for a while, it may sound ridiculous to celebrate or commemorate joy that neither party fully remembers. But with the help of a good couples therapist or the myriad of resources online, you have the power to navigate your breakup with courtesy and support.

Reviewed for Medical Accuracy

Elizabeth is a graduate student from New York, New York. She writes personal essays about identity, womanhood, and love.

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