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10 years of conscious uncoupling: Gwyneth Paltrow was ridiculed for using my break-up method. Everything is different now.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin ripped photo collage in half with small star graphics on the upper left and lower right corners.
Emma McIntyre/Getty, JMEnternational/Getty, Tyler Le/BI

When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin named their separation a "conscious uncoupling" 10 years ago, I was in Costa Rica on a writing retreat. Sitting in a cafe drinking a cup of coffee with my laptop open on a picnic table, I read an email from a friend reporting she'd just heard that Gwyneth used my term to announce her divorce. I was delighted, and totally unaware of the avalanche of attention soon to follow.

It was surreal — within 24 hours, I was fielding phone calls from press all over the world. The yoga center where I was staying didn't know what to make of me as I parked on a bench in the one public area where there was an actual landline, and spoke with one major news outlet after the other for hours, all of them wanting to know the answer to the one question on everyone's mind. What the heck is a "conscious uncoupling"? I was conscious, in the midst of all this, that there was also a media circus of skepticism and ridicule directed at Gwyneth for being so... well, Gwyneth.

Within one day, conscious uncoupling was listed in an online dictionary as "redefining divorce in the 21st century." I felt teary-eyed when I read it. I mean, who doesn't want to leave the world better than we found it? This was one of those moments where I was aware that I'd somehow managed to transform one of the biggest hurts of my life into something meaningful for the world. I could see then what is so obvious now, a decade later: that I wasn't the only one who wanted a more wholesome and decent kind of break-up that does minimal damage to all involved.

The idea of parting ways with an effort towards goodwill and respect was borne out of my own divorce after 11 years of marriage, and was reinforced in conversations with friends who were also going through a separation and wanted something similar. While most of us aspire to an amicable, decent ending, few can actually do it, and we were grappling with how to deal with the messiness and hurt of a breakup without doing harm to each other and our kids.

Many critics misunderstood conscious uncoupling

When Gwyneth cited my program in goop in 2014, the backlash was fierce. People assumed that conscious uncoupling was the new fad of the Hollywood elite; a sort of super-charged amicable divorce that only beautiful couples who already get along well, do together. In reality, the steps of conscious uncoupling are for any individual whose heart is hurting due to the loss of an intimate relationship. All relationships have their complexities and separating isn't easy for anyone; not even the rich and famous.

As I was dissolving my union with Mark, my first husband (or, my "wasband" as I now affectionately call him), I learned how hard it can be to live in alignment with our highest values during a time when our big emotions are predictably all over the map. Even the most advanced of us will sometimes catch ourselves uncharacteristically contemplating how we can hurt the one who's hurting us. How could we deal with these difficult feelings when people do behave in selfish and unconscious ways at the end of love? Frankly, breakups are a litmus test of character, and can tempt even the best of us to react in negative ways.

Katherine Woodward Thomas
Katherine Woodward Thomas, the founder of Conscious UncouplingLaura Reoch

Yet Mark and I were determined to protect our daughter and resolved to not put her in the middle. We'd both been the products of bad divorces in our childhoods, and had suffered the consequence of parental alienation that was so common back then. The negative impact of those losses, and the many messy incompletions that accompanied them, followed us well into our adult years. We set a shared intention early on in our separation that our daughter would have a happy childhood — a kind of North Star that helped us to navigate our transition to what we now call our "happy even after" family. We managed to find an uncommon generosity and graciousness that neither of us had witnessed before in others transitioning out of a marriage.

Determined to find our way, I discovered several keys to making sure this goes well. One of them is taking responsibility for your part. It's so normal to get stuck in the blame and shame game, where you you can't get beyond the shock, resentments, ruminations or the crushing blow of losing a relationship with someone you still love, but now sometimes may hate too. We don't just want to come out of this with a fair share of custody and finances. We want to be free to move forward with a light and happy heart and be unencumbered by the "complicated or prolonged grief" that is so common at the end of a relationship. Where the unresolved hurt and anger can hold you hostage, sometimes for months and even years. We all want to be able to come to a place of peace, where we are no longer ruminating over every little detail trying to figure out what went wrong, or who did what to who.

After my own break-up, I wanted to know that I'd become a better person who was more capable of healthy love on the other side of this. Psychologists call this "post traumatic growth," where you can feel confident that you've grown in your ability to love and be loved in a healthy way. I wanted to know that I could trust myself to do it differently next time. I came up with five steps that helped me and my friends, and in 2009 I started teaching people how they could work through a breakup in a way that allowed them to learn from their mistakes, and trust themselves to open up to love again in the future. Soon after, I also began training and certifying coaches who now help both individuals and couples who are separating to do so in healthy ways.

Today, we have a softer understanding of break-ups

Our world is evolving quickly. Back in 2014, when conscious uncoupling was first introduced, we were still inside the story that if a relationship ended before one or both people died, that that relationship was a failure. Ten years later, Gwyneth Paltrow has proved her critics wrong.

In recent years, a flood of helpful books and teachings have come on the market offering new ways to end a relationship that leave all involved healthy, well and whole. Which is great because in spite of the "happily ever after" myth that most of us were raised with, the truth is that serial monogamy is actually the norm. If you have two to three significant partners in your lifetime, that means at least one to two significant breakups as well.

The happily ever after myth was first introduced about 400 years ago in Venice, Italy. It was initially a literary offering that gave those whose lives were hard an escapist fantasy, long before Disney arrived on the scene. The myth of finding your one true love (that always seemed to come with upward mobility!) was created when the lifespan was less than 40, and people had few options in life. That's a far cry from the world we live in today, where for the first time in recorded history, more people over 50 are divorced than widowed.

Just as we might up-level our workout routines, our child rearing practices or our study habits, so too should we up-level how we end a romantic union. In a world where more people will divorce this year than buy new cars or eat grapefruit for breakfast, it's time we learned how to do this better.

Today, in spite of its rocky start, "conscious uncoupling" stands for the possibility of a healthy, fair and respectful ending and offers a step-by-step program for how to actually do it.

While many still like to poke a little fun at Gwyneth, I for one will always be grateful to her for popularizing my term and making the world just a bit more beautiful in the process.

Katherine Woodward Thomas, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is the New York Times bestselling author of "Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After."

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