Just like The Carpenters tune, breaking up is hard to do—especially when we entered into that romantic relationship with great love, hope, and excitement for the future. Divorce or separation can evoke a deep bitterness, anger, and shame in the best of us, so how do we heal our hearts and move on without repeating the destructive cycle? Enter “conscious uncoupling.”
The term went viral last year when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin revealed their amicable split via the new concept. What is it all about, and where did it all begin? Marriage and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas devised the "no drama approach to separation" after she split from her own husband after 10 years. The pair had a young daughter and knew that ending their relationship with mutual respect, kindness, and deep caring would reduce the negative impact on her—and heal their own hearts. In her new book, Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After, Thomas outlines the valuable skills, tools, and steps toward a peaceful separation, away from a bitter end and toward a new life that’s empowered and flourishing. We tapped Thomas to explain the process of moving on from the "blame and shame" game, and to tell us why "breakups are just as hard as heroin withdrawal; sometimes harder." Scroll down to read our chat.
MYDOMAINE: How did you come up with the concept of "unconscious coupling”?
KATHERINE WOODWARD THOMAS: As a marriage and family therapist, I have had the privilege of teaching tens of thousands of people in virtual learning communities about how to create great relationships. The primary thing I kept seeing was how people struggled with badly navigated breakups in their past. These left them tenderhearted and reluctant to trust themselves, trust others, and trust love itself. So when my own husband and I decided to “unmarry” after 10 years, we did so in a way that was so gracious, hopeful, and generous. It created a tremendous amount of cohesion for our daughter, and that is what motivated us. We were committed to helping her have a happy childhood. We all know the statistics of divorce; the recognition is not divorce itself, it’s how you change that alienation from each other.
MD: Why does breaking up hurt so much?
KWT: When you really start to do the research on the neurobiology of human beings, you discover we were born to bond. We are hardwired for relatedness. In a relationship, our bodies start to regulate; our body temperature, our heart rate, our breath begins to regulate with our partner, and our emotions will begin to regulate, too: Our brains start to sync up with the brains we are closest to. When we break up, our bodies enter the “fight-or-flight response,” and it actually feels like we are going to die; we still have those feelings. So what happens now—and I have never heard any other expert say this, but this is my thought—is that nature would rather us form a negative bond then go into the angst of being alone, so it goes from soulmate to soul hate. When we are rejected by a lover, it activates the same chemicals in our brain as when we first fall in love; it will release chemicals that make us long for that person even more. So it's nature's way of trying to keep us together: We experience the longing, hatred, and obsession. Breakups are just as hard as heroin withdrawal; sometimes harder.
MD: How do we separate without the "blame and shame" into an experience of healing and peace?
KWT: Start seeing yourself as the source. Where you want your attention is on yourself, because somehow, that horrible person will end up in your bed, and you have to figure out how that happened and transform that. When people figure that out, they transfer blame from themselves onto the other person. When they try and understand themselves as the source of the experience, they almost can’t help but ask themselves shamed-based questions that will never lead to growth and development. Learn to ask questions to help you grow from that: "How did I give my power away?" "How was I treating myself poorly, which he or she mirrored back to me?" "What do I get from being alone?" "What part of me wants to be out of a relationship?" Ask yourself interesting questions you can sink your teeth into, and make some headway; make some changes. A breakup is a great time to grow, because you have nowhere to go.
MD: Why do we continue to choose partners and marriages that aren't built to last the distance (or a lifetime)?
KWT: You have to wake up out of the trance. A lot of us are learning, making slow and steady progress, noticing the patterns, trying to do it differently, but you can’t outsmart where your center is. If you are being run by the “I am not good enough" story, you almost can’t help but duplicate it. Breakups are pretty amazing, because you can transform that story at its core; you are literally able to create something outside of it. Wherever our identity is, that is where we are generating life from.
I say to people, "Look at the things you are really good at, things that come easily and naturally to you." Then look to your childhood, and you’ll remember that people reinforced those things in you, and you had early wins. But if you look at the things you haven’t been able to manifest, it is probably outside of your identity to have that thing. My work is about transformation of identity, how get out of the repetition and to awaken out of these beliefs we formed about who we were. Change the script at the very core.
MD: Is there anything else you'd like to share for couples entering the stage of separation or for couples looking to find "the one"?
KWT: A lot of people think time will heal a broken heart, but a broken heart is like a broken leg: We would never let a broken leg heal on its own. Unless you want you heart to feel defeated and bruised, you have to be proactive in your own healing, or you will have the heart equivalent of walking with a limp your whole life. “Conscious uncoupling” is about how to set that break. Just like a broken leg, you need physical therapy before the bone will get stronger; it’s the same with our hearts.
It's time to break out of the relationship blues and start healing from within—shop Katherine's book below.
Would you try "conscious uncoupling" instead of the traditional divorce? What advice do you have for couples, post-breakup, for moving on? Share below.