I first heard the term “conscious uncoupling” at the same time the rest of the world did, in March 2014 when Gwyneth Paltrow posted an update on Goop, announcing her separation from Chris Martin. (Earlier this week, GP recalled how this post “broke the f-cking internet.”) At the time I found the term a bit much, a PR-esque term to make her seem like she could even do breakups better than the rest of us. And yet here I am a year and a half later, using it to describe my split from my partner of two years, who I still live with—even though we’ve been broken up for four months. Oh, the irony.
The actual process of “conscious uncoupling” was created by psychotherapist Katherine Woodword Thomas, author of the newly released New York Times bestseller Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After, (Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony, $34), a guide on how to get through a breakup with someone you still love and respect and want to maintain a relationship with. (She speaks from experience: Woodward Thomas and her husband amicably ended their ten-year-long marriage; she now refers to him as her “was-band”)
In the book, Woodword Thomas outlines the five steps that her and her husband took to get through their breakup in a civil and healthy way, which shake down as follows:
1/ Harness your negative feelings as fuel for positive change
2/ Take stock of the role you played in your relationship’s demise
3/ Identify and break any behaviours that perpetually lead to heartbreak
4/ Clear the air of any festering resentment (a process Woodward Thomas refers to as the relatively woo-woo “becoming a love alchemist”)
5/ Create your happily ever after
I recently talked to Woodword Thomas and filled her in on my situation. At the time of our conversation, I was living with my ex, while dating a new guy who had just gone through a divorce. I ended things with my ex at the beginning of the summer based on a gut instinct that he may not be The One. He took the break up well, agreeing that we’re better off as friends. It was an easy split, his only response was that he wanted me to be happy. And I wanted the same for him.
His reaction to the split was evidence of our mutual respect and the strength of our friendship. We weren’t hurling insults or hurts but instead, talking about how we could help one another move forward with our best interests at heart.
So it was an easy decision to remain friends and continue being roommates until our lease was up in October, with him sleeping on the couch and me taking over the bed. Most of our friends thought it was silly for us to still live together; that we should have a clean break and both move forward ASAP, but for us it made sense. (Plus, rent in Toronto is hella expensive.) We continued to be completely honest with one another. When I met someone else, I immediately told my ex. Instead of being hurt, he respected he heard it from me first and give me his blessing (along with some privacy.)
The new guy I started dating was still friends with his ex, too. The two of them were constantly texting each other—they continued to share a business— when he and I were together. And I truly didn’t mind, because I was going through something similar. Also, the new guy was in town on a month-long trip when we met, and his ex was on the west coast, so I completely understood their want and need to stay in contact. I never worried or had any feelings of jealousy, because he always made me feel admired, desired and tended to. We had something special.
My new guy and I were both open with each other about our interactions with our exes, and it weirdly brought us closer together. We bonded over the shared experience of moving on and dealing with loss. So much so, he texted his ex-wife a blog post I had written about why I decided to stay friends with my ex, and she totally related.
People who know my story continue to be both dumbfounded and impressed that I was unfazed by the new guy’s constant communication with his ex, and that my ex was unfazed by me meeting and dating someone new while we were still living together. For me—especially being a relationship expert—I was able to see the situation with clear eyes and to be authentic with everyone involved. There were no secrets. Just acceptance that this is how things have played out in our lives and somehow these circumstances had led us together. Heck, my ex even met my new guy, when he was over at our place one evening, and gave me his approval. How modern day of him, #amiright? (That said, the new guy didn’t love that awkward, unplanned run-in. My bad.)
I was interested to hear what Thomas thought about the way my ex and I were handling our breakup. Were we the new Gwyneth and Chris?
“That you and your new guy value the well-being of your former partners in addition to yourselves is admirable,” she told me. “I appreciate how deeply you grapple with issues of integrity, fairness and honour in the aftermath of a breakup.”
I then asked her if she had any advice for me and the new guy, so that our former relationships didn’t interfere with this potential one.
“Very often you’re breaking up with your best friend, so that’s the person you use to regulate your emotions, to talk about your day, the intimacies in your life. Find a new confidant. Take a more formal view of each other, [with] less emotional intimacy,” she says. “Many people see friendship as demotion. But I think friendship is a really high state.”
Her advice wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. For the past four months, a few of my closest girlfriends have become my closest confidants (a role previously played by my ex). There were days where I was overwhelmed by strong feelings for the new guy, and it was powerful to have a neutral sounding board.
The ex finally moved out last week, and I must admit, it was harder than expected. Our place, now mine alone, seemed somehow bigger and emptier—I missed his energy. Reality sunk in for the first time since the split.
The next day, we got together for drinks. We chatted about our breakup, and, despite the numerous bevvies consumed, kept ourselves in check and went home in separate Ubers. Back at my place, I opened a text from another guy and smiled to myself. I’ve got this.