When actress Gwyneth Paltrow described her split from Coldplay singer Chris Martin as ‘conscious uncoupling’ she was widely mocked. Critics joked that gluten-free, carb-free Gwyneth was above using messy, complicated words like ‘divorce’ and ‘break-up’ and was sealing herself in an ivory tower of wealth, privilege and soft words.   In a magazine interview recently, she appeared to distance herself from the term, doubtless aware of the negative attention it had generated.

The reality, of course, is that parting from the parent of your children is incredibly hard, whichever words you use to clothe the decision. And as Gwyneth pointed out earlier this month, the original phrase was never hers. It had previously been used by psychotherapists to describe a way of parting from your partner that is ‘amicable, keeps mutual respect and remembers the needs of the children’. Conscious Uncoupling is also promoted as a way towards ‘loving co-parenting’.

These are admirable goals to aim for while you are enduring the inevitable loss and sadness which comes with separation. And even though most of us would fall well below the standards of such ideals, there is something powerful about the impact of positive intent and the desire to do the right thing on human behaviour.

There is also a sense that the phrase – with its emphasis on the word ‘couple’ – could be helpful to older children. Every child whose parents split up will wonder at some point, even if only momentarily, if they had any impact, either by word or deed, on that decision. One of the main tasks of parents who are about to communicate an imminent break-up is to emphasise that the cause of the split is a matter purely between grownups and them alone. And that their role as parents, and the love they feel for their children, will never change. So the use of the word ‘uncoupling’ could play a helpful role.

What else do children need to hear from parents who are about to part?

  • Talk to your children together, without blaming each other or giving the impression that one of you is resistant to the split. Children’s loyalties do not need to be divided between their parents.
  • Give age appropriate information, which may mean several conversations, rather than one.
  • Children need to know what is going to happen in their daily lives: will they go to the same school? When will they see the parent who is leaving? Who will walk the dog now that Dad is going?
  • Accept that they may not have questions immediately, but give them the opportunity to do so later. ‘It’s fine that you don’t have much to say right now, but you can talk to us about this anytime’.
  • Finally, don’t make promises that you can’t keep eg ‘we will never sell this house’. It’s OK to respond with ‘I don’t know about this yet, but as soon as I do, I’ll get back to you.’