When I was going through my divorce, I decided to look into Conscious Uncoupling because I wanted to work with my soon-to-be-ex husband to ensure our divorce was as low-conflict as possible. The latest research shows that, for kids, divorce-related trauma is exacerbated when conflict between parents is high. Especially when kids feel like they must choose between their two parents.
Researcher Tamara Afifi, who has spent over 15 years studying the effects of divorce on children, says, “When a child experiences conflict, it creates anxiety and a cognitive dissonance in them, often causing them to align with one parent over another to ease their discomfort. As a result, their relationship with the other parent diminishes. It’s not the child’s fault — it’s their reaction to feeling caught — but that bond with the other parent may be difficult to re-establish.” She goes on to say that children of parents whose intact marriage is high-conflict actually suffer more psychologically in the long-run and in their future relationships.
So, my goal was not only to end my marriage as amicably as possible, but also to maintain a relationship with my kids’ father who, more and more, I was liking less and less.
The problem with this was that my ex was not on board. Not even a little.
Since it was my decision to end the marriage, my ex-husband strongly felt that I should get nothing. He said I could live in a studio apartment down the road and “visit” our kids whenever I wanted to. The state we live in is a no-fault state, which means marital assets are divided equitably in divorce, and yet most of our disagreements consisted of my ex blaming me for ruining his life and insisting I wouldn’t get a dime from him. This was despite the fact that I’d worked our entire marriage and had handled every bit of the childcare and household management — the usual mental load of a mother.
My ex was very, very angry and not in a position to reason. It was clear that my goals of a low-conflict divorce would have to be achieved alone.
The word “uncoupling” has been used to describe divorce since the early 1940s, but the term “Conscious Uncoupling” was coined by Katherine Woodward Thomas in 2009 and made famous — or perhaps infamous — by Goop founder and vagina-steamer extraordinaire Gwyneth Paltrow.
Thomas, a long-time marriage and family therapist, believes that romantic partners are life teachers, that our relationships, even the ones that don’t stand the test of time, can help us evolve and become better versions of ourselves. Her goal with conscious uncoupling is always to keep the emotional needs of any children involved as the primary focus.
Self-reflection is the main feature of conscious uncoupling. It’s about using the current situation to learn about oneself via the partner from whom you’re uncoupling so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes in your next relationship.
Now, that does sound nonsensical, doesn’t it? It sounds like a self-help book I once read about how to fix your marriage, and the advice was basically “Fix yourself, and your marriage will magically be fixed too!” That was some straight-up bullshit that did not work.
And yet, although conscious uncoupling does work best if each partner is on board with it, it can be done solo too. For me, with almost zero (willing) cooperation from my ex, it has given me peace, and, more importantly, it has eased the transition for my children.
Conscious uncoupling, when both partners are committed, is about each partner recognizing that every conflict or annoyance within a relationship is an opportunity to look inside oneself and ask what piece of them needs healing. Present arguments, the theory says, are rarely about what’s happening in the now. They almost always have to do with something that happened in the past — the real issue that needs to be fixed. In this way, rather than having an attacker-victim mentality, the two partners think of each other as both student and teacher, thereby releasing animosity. This also enables the ongoing connections of extended family members on both sides and facilitates the expansion of the family via the addition of new partners, again, always with the best interests of the kids at heart.
Okay, I know that does sound like some woo-woo nonsense, but stay with me. Here’s how it’s helped me deal with my ex when there really was no dealing with him: When his behavior was irrational and infuriating, I grounded myself in the idea that the kids must come first. I chose to take lessons from my ex, to listen to his frustrations when I would rather club him over the head with a heavy tree branch. When I felt he’d gone too far, I calmly informed him I would not be his doormat. Yes, that was really hard, and no, I wasn’t always perfect in my responses.
But standing firm in my determination to protect my kids’ hearts gave me strength. Controlling myself when my ex-husband flew off the rails gave me a surprising boost in confidence. I was the one taking the high road, and we both knew it. At the time, it infuriated him that he couldn’t get a rise out of me, but ultimately, my refusal to respond to his rants often de-escalated a potentially volatile situation. It also prevented the creation of incidents that he could later look back on and accuse me of wrongdoing or cruelty.
Eventually, after months had passed and dust settled and we were able to have a few quiet moments of introspection, my ex admitted that I had been nothing but kind and he had a lot of work to do. He even told his family this.
Every time I have wanted to blow up at my ex, I think, what will the kids think in 20 years when they look back on this? How will they think of me? What about our friends and family? What will they think? How will my loved ones and the extended family on my in-laws’ side view my behavior? How will it affect their opinion of me? How will it affect how they speak of me in front of my children?
I wish very much that my ex had been able to control his anger and hadn’t forced me into doing this alone. I wish it hadn’t been such a white-knuckle experience, constantly having to force myself to take the high road. But now, a year after our divorce, I know I have conducted myself in a way that no one — not the kids, not our extended families, not anyone — could ever look at this period and say I was irrational or hurtful.
I want to be clear here that I know not everyone going through divorce has the ability to do this. My ex truly loves his kids and wants to put them first, so even though he hated me at first, he at least had the decency to listen when I reminded him that the kids were in the house and we need to keep our voices low or to postpone a difficult conversation for a time when the kids weren’t in the house at all. That meant the kids never saw our ugliest arguments. I know not every angry ex-spouse will respond this way.
Of course, there were times my ex wanted to lash out and didn’t care whether the kids were listening or not. In those times, I bit my tongue. I simply refused to yell in front of my children. I had to get to a place where I could accept that I can’t change who my ex is, how he thinks, or how he reacts. I can choose how I react to his behavior though, and I can choose how much I tolerate. That is a lot more power and control than it sounds like.
I have remained calm in moments I’d rather lash out, and I’ve maintained my integrity and empowered myself in choosing every day not to react in anger. My refusal to react has stopped my ex-husband’s anger in its tracks—when I don’t respond in kind, he has no fuel for his fire. When I am nothing but calm and rational, he has no evidence to prove to himself or anyone else what a terrible person I am.
Now, a year after our divorce, much of the anger has dissipated and we have what is starting to feel almost like a friendship. As far as our kids know, their mom and dad have always been and still are friends. We support one another’s parenting, are there for one another in a pinch, and never talk bad about one another. I feel like I carried us through on my own using the techniques of Conscious Uncoupling, and though it was hard as hell, I don’t regret one second. That my kids have thrived through this process is all I need to know it was worth it.