Just what is 'consciously uncoupling'?

Unhappy couple

Gwyneth Paltrow has described her separation from Chris Martin as a "conscious uncoupling". But what is that, asks Tom de Castella.

The couple said they had "come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much, we will remain separate". It went on: "We hope that as we consciously uncouple and co-parent, we will be able to continue in the same manner."

It's a new one in the celebrity split lexicon. Seal and Heidi Klum said they'd "grown apart". Dawn French and Lenny Henry, on splitting, said they "fully intend to maintain their close friendship". Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston said: "We happily remain committed and caring friends with great love and admiration for one another."

First use of "uncoupled"

Circa 1330: To release (dogs) from being fastened together in couples; to set free for the chase.

The new formulation comes from an essay, On Conscious Uncoupling, written by Paltrow's spiritual advisers Dr Habib Sadeghi and Dr Sherry Sami. "Although it looks like everything is coming apart; it's actually all coming back together," they conclude. The Oxford English Dictionary has a citation of the use of "uncoupling" to describe the end of relationships from 1942.

Divorce lawyer Sarah Thompson, of Slater and Gordon, says uncoupling reminds her of two railway carriages being separated. The addition of the word "conscious" is there to tell people it's amicable. She says she wouldn't be surprised if Paltrow and Martin use collaborative law - both parties sitting down at a table with a lawyer each and going through everything. "It's often described as the nicest way to get divorced."

Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow

When, as in the Paltrow-Martin case, there are children involved, it's a good idea to use age-appropriate language, says Denise Knowles, a counsellor at Relate. People getting divorced have a lot of "anger, sadness and conflict," she says. But agreeing to split can be a step in the right direction.

These phrases can smack a little of euphemism, says relationship expert Judi James - the uncoupling terminology hints at an attempt to suggest that rather than being a wholly bad thing, this could actually be another step in life's surprising journey.

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