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Conscious Uncoupling: New Age Divorce or Real Legal Term?

Gwyneth Paltrow in a scene from COUNTRY STRONG
Gwyneth Paltrow in a scene from COUNTRY STRONG

She’s been called the most beautiful woman in the world, but Gwyneth Paltrow made news for another reason recently – her “conscious uncoupling” with her husband, a musician from Coldplay. What exactly is conscious uncoupling and how does it differ from just plain old divorce? To find out we’re speaking with Jeff Anderson, he’s a family law attorney with McCurley, Orsigner, McCurley, Nelson, and Downing in Dallas, Texas.

BYRD: How does ‘conscious uncoupling’ differ from just a regular old divorce – whether it be no-fault or the kind they fight out in the courts and we hear about in the news? What’s the difference here?

ANDERSON: Well, there’s nothing even remotely similar to them. Conscious uncoupling isn’t divorce at all. It’s a pre-divorce, if you will. This is two people deciding how they are going to live their lives before they start a divorce process, before they go through the divorce process, and starting to live those lives that way before they ever hit a courtroom or file a pleading.

BYRD: How does that differ from a legal separation, then?

ANDERSON: It depends on where you are: in Texas, we don’t have anything like a legal separation. Other states you do. With a legal separation you are going to go to court, maybe at least, and the judge is going to make a decision on who is going to live in the house, and who is going to move out, who is going to see the kids and when, and who is going to pay who what. This is a way of taking the power away from the courts and keeping it with the husband and the wife. And hopefully it’s a way of not shocking the kids into a different state of reality, but easing them into a different state of reality. We change our lives every single day. We make small decisions that change what we do. When we make the bigger decisions, they’re life-changing events and they can be shocking. This is just a way of not shocking people.
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BYRD: How does a conscious uncoupling go? What are the steps that a couple has to take?

ANDERSON: Well, there’s no rule book. It’s kind of new, at least in the sense that people are talking about it right now with the new phrase “conscious uncoupling.” Have people been doing something like this for years and years and years? Of course they have; people will separate, they’ll start to live their lives, they’ll get around to taking care of the divorce weeks, months, or even years later. But for rules? There aren’t any rules; make them up as you go. You’re not bound by the courts; you’re not bound by any statute; you do what you think is best for you and your spouse and you and your children.

BYRD: And I would assume that the people who are now dissolving their marriage can come to some agreement about all those different factors?

ANDERSON: Well, if they don’t then we’re going to end up having litigation most likely.

BYRD: Full disclosure: I am the child of divorce and I have been divorced myself. The effect on children is one of the things that concern both the parents and the courts when a marriage ends. How does this help to reduce that trauma to the children?

ANDERSON: If there’s one really good point about conscious uncoupling, it’s the kids. I’m a divorced person myself. I was not the product of a divorce but I did go through a divorce myself and if you think about it from your past, for instance, when your parents told you they were getting a divorce, probably the first thing that went through your mind was ‘what’s going to happen to me?’ Well, if you’re already in the situation that you’re living in, you’ve already changed your normal, your parents are already living in two different places, you already know where you’re going to school, you already know who you’re going to wake up with and when, then the news of your parents getting a divorce doesn’t bring with it this ‘what is going to happen to me’ phrase. All you do is just live now in your normal reality and you ease into it without getting shocked into it. That’s the idea of conscious uncoupling, anyway. Does it happen like that every time? Of course not. As a matter of fact, there can be some really horrible things about conscious uncoupling if you get around to it.

BYRD: And the financial aspect of child support or alimony does that enter into this?

ANDERSON: It has to. Now, in the case of Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband of Coldplay, I don’t know that it needs to enter into that at all. Both of them – I don’t know either one of their finances, but they might be independently wealthy, I suspect that they probably are -- do either of them need child support? Do either of them need child support? Probably not. In a normal case, when you have folks around my area for instance (Texas) is one person going to need some support to help with the kids or to help with themselves to get back on their feet after a divorce? Well, yeah that happens quite often. And they’ll either have to work that out or they’ll have to do something different. The idea of conscious uncoupling is a different concept – when you call it that – than anything that you’ve seen before. But if they can’t make that happen, then they’re going to end up having to have somebody make the decision for them.

BYRD: Anything else people need to know to understand ‘conscious uncoupling’?

ANDERSON: Yeah, there’s a bad purpose to it. If this thing catches on – and it might – then what if you get somebody – let’s say a guy in this case because I am a guy and I can pick on guys – you get somebody who wants to set themselves up for a divorce and wants to buy some time. And they convince their spouse that ‘okay, let’s go through this conscious uncoupling because it does feel pretty good and we’re going to save our kids from doing something else, from being hurt by all this.’ And they use that time – weeks, months, or a year or two – to get themselves set up better for a divorce and to hurt their spouse in the divorce. Now it could be used for that.

DBYRD: In some states you have to be separated at least a year before a divorce can be granted; even a no-fault divorce requires that the parties not live together. Is that the case here too? Or is it like you said: a pre-divorce?

ANDERSON: Well I don’t see why both purposes can’t be used by the same thing. You can use that year, you could be separated, you could certainly claim it in your documents that you haven’t lived together as husband and wife, and you get that year behind you of separation, but you are also using that time to create your new norm and you are using this conscious uncoupling to do it.