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conscious uncoupling also consciously uncoupling

noun [uncountable]

the act of ending a marriage or romantic relationship in a way which shows that the two people will remain friends and believe that this is a positive thing for their future lives

consciously uncouple

verb [intransitive]

'I define conscious uncoupling as recognizing that not all marriages are meant to last forever and both parties deserve to leave whole and intact.'

Huffington Post 27th March 2014

'Now that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin have consciously uncoupled, how might other celebrities avoid the dreaded d-word?'

The Independent 26th March 2014

You're having an intimate chat with a friend and he suddenly pipes up with the unexpected news that 'Maria and I have decided to consciously uncouple'. Looking quizzically at him you ponder as to whether he and Maria are going to stop holding hands in public, or perhaps they're just fed up of living in a semi-detached house? But one look at the headlines in March 2014 and you'd know that he was telling you something rather more serious about their relationship …

the expression … was popularized by Katherine Woodward Thomas, a US marriage therapist and author who posits a method of dealing with breakups in a positive way by focusing on the idea of 'completing' (rather than ending) a relationship

Conscious uncoupling refers to the act of ending a marriage or relationship, but in a way that is viewed as a very positive step by both parties, who believe that their lives will be better for doing so, and that they can continue to remain friends, co-parent if they have children, and possibly not even fall out of love with each other. The expression was hurled into the media spotlight in March 2014 by actress Gwyneth Paltrow and singer Chris Martin, who announced the breakup of their marriage online by saying that they intended to 'consciously uncouple'. The use of such flowery terminology, essentially a euphemism for amicable separation, splitting up, or plain old divorce, has been viewed rather disparagingly by the media as celebrity-fuelled nonsense, though its ridicule by journalists has brought it into the public radar and may, ironically, help to embed the expression further.

Background – conscious uncoupling

Though it might sound like something from the sublanguage of frothy celebrity culture, the expression conscious uncoupling is in fact the creation of a professional psychotherapist. It was popularized by Katherine Woodward Thomas, a US marriage therapist and author who posits a method of dealing with breakups in a positive way by focusing on the idea of 'completing' (rather than ending) a relationship and, through lessons learned along the way, being empowered to move on with life as a better person equipped to succeed in any further relationships.

The verb uncouple dates back to the thirteenth century and though it can be used both transitively and intransitively with the general meaning 'disconnect', it's almost always associated with railway carriages (which, when they're connected, are, conversely, said to be coupled). The figurative use of uncoupling in the description of relationships may therefore sound rather bizarre to native speaker ears, but isn't in fact brand-new, evidence of it being used in this way dating as far back as the 1940s.

Since romantic relationships are such a fundamental part of life, it's no surprise that our need to identify, describe and discuss them proves a fertile breeding ground for new words and expressions. Since BuzzWord's inception in 2003 we've witnessed the whole range, from expressions which turn out to be a flash in the pan (marriage lite) through to those which have been enshrined in law (civil partnership, same-sex marriage). It seems we've had a persistent penchant for inventing new kinds of relationship (locationship, bromance, showmance) and we've often experimented with innovative methods of finding romance (speed dating, smirting, pheromone party). And in a world of digital communication, we've even needed to find new ways to refer to our nearest and dearest (OH, SWMBO).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord article. Gamification.

This article was first published on 9th April 2014.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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