Interview on her Signature Method,
We expect many of you are already familiar with the work of Katherine Woodward Thomas. Between her two New York Times Bestsellers, the renowned psychotherapist, teacher and author has helped hundreds of thousands of people find love and move on from heartbreak.
Famously, Katherine’s most recent book Conscious Uncoupling launched into the pop culture lexicon when Gwyneth Paltrow announced she was using it to guide her divorce with Chris Martin. Providing an alternative path to the typically destructive process of separation and divorce, Conscious Uncoupling opens us up to moving forward stronger, healthier and more confident than ever.
The lessons of Katherine’s book are transformative for anyone in any stage of a relationship. With Valentine’s Day commanding so much attention right now, I thought it was important to look beyond the early rush of romance and talk about the deeper love that takes you through even the most painful of circumstances with kindness and respect.
I’ve known Katherine for years now, and have personally been a client so I know the true power of her work. We were thrilled to find a moment to interview her on the Conscious Uncoupling process. Read our conversation below as she walks us through all five steps and shares the story behind her creation.
Let’s start with your story. How did you find your calling as a therapist and specifically in the arena of love?
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be a teacher of love and relationships, because it was the one area that I had the most trouble in. I found my way to it from creating a miracle in my own life. For many years I had struggled greatly in love. Even though I’d been a spiritual speaker since the age of 14 and I had done a lot of therapy and a lot of transformational work, I still was plagued with destructive and unfulfilling patterns that came out of my childhood. We now call it “insecure attachment patterns.” A lot of break-ups, longing, drama and confusion characterized my love life.
Eventually I became a marriage and family therapist and I was helping other people have great relationships because I had learned so much, and yet I was still coming home to an empty apartment with my little cat Clover night after night. I felt very sad about that. Then in my early 40s, I discovered the power of setting an intention. I was working with a group at the time, an informal group of friends, and we were supporting each other in setting intentions and beginning to define our lives according to the future we were standing for creating. One person bought a house for the first time, another doubled their income in a few months. Meanwhile, I had another disappointment in love. I had a pattern of attracting unavailable men and with a heavy heart, I determined that this pattern must stop. I called a friend from the group and I said, “I’m going to set an outrageous intention to be engaged by my forty-second birthday.” My birthday was eight months out and I had no prospects for a husband let alone a great husband. But I started living into that future.
I started every day on my meditation cushion and I would ask the universe, “Who would I need to be in order to fulfill this intention? What would I need to give up in my life, and what would I need to cultivate?” I find that the moment we ask the universe for instructions and say, “I actually want to see this clearly,” a ton of information will come through. Even with having done personal development work for so many years, those three questions opened up a lot of clarity. I saw myself as the source of the drama, realizing that what looked like it had been happening to me was actually happening through me.
I saw agreements I had made along the way to former loves, for example: “I’ll never love anyone like I love you.” I saw the misplaced loyalty I had towards my mother, where I didn’t want to be happier in love than she was. And I saw the way I was protecting my heart form being hurt in the way that my father hurt me when I was a child. I had internalized a belief that I wasn’t worthy of love. And I started to see how I was showing up in ways that covertly communicated that unworthiness. As I was seeing things one by one, I began to show up differently and lean into that future and try on a new identity of a person who was happy in love. What was really true about the idea that I wasn’t worthy of love? I challenged it, and I stood in the deeper truth of my worthiness. I started to walk through life from that center and within a few short weeks, through a series of very magical and synchronistic events, I was reconnected to a man that I had dated six years earlier who I always thought was the one who got away. We were engaged in a very short period of time, married the next year and the year after that, I gave birth to our daughter at the age of 43. So that process is what I published in my first book, Calling in the One, and it’s gone on to help hundreds of thousands of people.
So how did you go from Calling in the One to Conscious Uncoupling?
Ten years into my marriage, my husband and I decided to divorce, which was quite shocking. When we pledge lifelong devotion to someone, none of us think we’re going to wind up on the wrong side of the 50% divorce rate. But it was particularly shocking to me because I’m a believer in love, in commitment, in magic, and I was a believer in happily ever after. So I expected that love to last forever.
But once we went through the shock, the one thing that we really agreed on was that we wanted our daughter to have a happy childhood. Both of us had divorce in our family, and in many ways our parents’ bad divorces defined our childhoods. So we made that decision and it became a north star for us. The saving grace of our uncoupling was the deeply cohesive, kind, ethical, honorable, generous and respectful way that our marriage ended. I actually had the experience of feeling even more love than when I was in the marriage. When someone is in fear, broken-hearted, or disappointed, for them to be kind and generous in that moment is really authentic love. So, we had a very unique break-up experience. The people who were around us watching as we uncoupled were mirroring back to us that they’d never seen anyone do that as well as we did. It was not what I expected either because as I said before, I had been through many dramatic break-ups where I’d lose half the hair on my head because of anxiety, and I would pick up smoking again, and lose 10 pounds because I couldn’t eat, and I’d be unable to sleep because I was so overwhelmed with negative emotions. So I was anticipating that, but that’s not at all what happened. Once my “wasband” and I got through that experience and I reconfigured our family to what I call our “happy-even-after” family, I looked back to see what we had done, and I saw there were five simple steps that allowed us to part ways with such graciousness and out of that insight, I created the Conscious Uncoupling process.
What is Conscious Uncoupling?
It’s a break-up or a divorce where one or both people strive to navigate the transition with respect, dignity and honor, in a way that minimizes the damage to themselves, to each other and to the children (if there are children involved). Also, in a way that sets everyone up to win moving forward. Break-ups are such a crossroads. What I find is that we either move forward with a diminished capacity to love and be loved, or we allow that break-up to be the catalyst for a whole new level of happiness and health in relationships moving forward.
What kind of action does it take to consciously uncouple?
The process is characterized by gestures of goodwill, generosity and kindness. Whether a person is going to stay involved with their former partner because they have children, or because they share a community or simply because they want to be friends, there are actions taken in opportunistic moments that begin to weave a new culture of care that shepherds the relationship from its old form to its new one. So for example, when Mark and I were at the mediator sorting through our assets, Mark surprised us both when it came time to talk about the royalties from my first book. He was entitled to a percentage of those royalties, because I was married to him when I wrote it. But as soon as the mediator brought up those royalties, Mark said, “No no no, Katherine wrote that book. She worked very hard and it came from her heart, so she deserves to have all of those royalties. I don’t want them.”
That was the beginning of this very deep generosity that happened between us where we were really looking for those moments to give to each other in ways that were going to make a difference. A few months later when Mark was living in his new apartment, he called me up to tell me he had lost his job and my first thought was “Oh no is he going to be able to pay his rent?” And then my second thought was “Oh my gosh is he going to be able to pay child support?” I managed to get off the phone with some encouraging words, but I wrestled with it all day because a part of me wanted to say, “Look, you need to figure out how to keep up your support payments.” But on some level, I felt like this was an opportunity to weave this new culture which is that, we’re still a family, we’re still in this together.
Ultimately I realized that as an entrepreneur, there were a thousand ways that money could come to me—it was simply a matter of my creativity, my intention, my willingness and my commitment. But my daughter was only going to have one father. And he was having a hard time. So I called him back about six hours later and said “You don’t have to pay me anything while you’re going through this period of unemployment.” Now I was fortunate that I could do that at that moment, and not everyone can. So I’m not suggesting that’s a policy, but just illustrating that there are moments that happen in all families, even in a post-divorce family, where we can really show up for each other. And when we take those opportunities, it begins to set up a new form of family that creates cohesion for our daughter. Now we have a very easygoing culture between us where we’re constantly working together as co-parents. We have each other’s backs and help each other out. Ultimately it’s great for our kid. She has issues like anyone else, but few if any are related to our divorce. We even live in the same apartment building!
It sounds like you and your ex-husband went into the process with a lot of maturity, decency and goodwill. Can it work for those who are still coping with a lot of anger, frustration and bad behavior?
I think actually they’re the ones who need it most. Sometimes people come to me because they’re thorough and decent. They really want to have healthy kids and make sure they’re leaving nothing to chance. But the majority of people who come and do the Conscious Uncoupling work are those who are being treated poorly, who are left with a broken heart and a sense of unfairness, who are deeply traumatized by the loss, being abused in the process of getting divorced, and tolerating a tremendous amount of ill-will from their former spouse.
They’re good, decent people who believe in the goodness of life, but find themselves ruminating and obsessing about how to get revenge and wanting to hurt their former partner because they don’t understand the biology of what’s happening in their bodies when there’s a rupture of attachment, which is that our bodies go into fight or flight mode and the part of the brain that goes to war wants to take over. It’s very important to learn to contain all of these feelings rather than act them out because the actions we take in these moments will define our lives and our children’s lives for many years to come. So the first step in Conscious Uncoupling is to find emotional freedom for the person who is in a state of shock, overwhelm, rage, or loss, who can’t get out of bed, eat a meal or stop obsessing about their former partner.
Take us through step one. How do you get out of that state of shock and despair?
It’s about coming back into balance so you can breathe again. You might still have these emotions, but they don’t have you. You can harness the healthy impulse underneath the anger. When you have anger, it’s usually because something needs to change that’s good. At the very core of anger is, “How dare you? I deserve to be treated with respect and to be honored. I deserve the truth.”
We want to sponsor that healthy impulse. We want to harness that destructive desire to hurt someone and point those energies in the direction of positive change. So in step one I invite people to set an intention along the lines of, “From this moment forward, my relationships will reflect my value back to me. My relationships will only be with people who treat me with respect. I will only be with people who love me as much as I love them or more, who will give to me in the way that I give to them.”
Okay so now you’re back in the driver’s seat. Where do you go from here?
Step two is about reclaiming your power and your life. There’s two reasons we get stuck in obsessive thinking and can’t let things go. How psychologists define trauma is as an event that’s bigger than your psyche can integrate. So the way that we’ll respond to trauma is by going over and over and over every little detail surrounding it—that’s our psyche’s way of trying to understand and integrate what just happened. Particularly if someone had an affair and you were being lied to, then all of a sudden your whole life starts to make sense in a whole new way. So you’re going to go over that story again and again because you’re trying to integrate it and face the truth. The second reason we do it is because other people do behave badly and we human beings are hard-wired for fairness. So when something happens that’s unfair it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around it and make peace with it. That’s where the revenge fantasies come in, because we’re trying to level the playing field. The problem is, however, that when we’re telling that story over and over again in our minds, we’re usually telling it from a place of victimization. We’re focused on what he did that he shouldn’t have done or what she didn’t do that she should have done. So we’re solidifying this powerless story about how we were wronged by this other person. Yet, even if that’s true—and usually it is, we want to look at our side in what happened. Even if it was 97% the other person’s fault, we want to be really interested in our 3%. We want to take responsibility for how we covertly colluded in our own abuse—often this is passive, such as “I turned away from the red flags. I dismissed my deeper knowing. I didn’t ask the right questions, I gave my power away.” When we see that clearly, we can make amends with ourselves and say, “I will never let this happen to me again. I will never dismiss my knowing. I will always engage conflict right on. I will never not ask what I need to ask because I’m afraid of being thought of as high-maintenance.” Until we make a commitment to ourselves that from this point forward we will show up differently, we won’t ever be able to trust ourselves in love again.
That’s where life can get diminished. I’ve met people who’ve been out of a relationship after a bad breakup for 10-20 years and haven’t even dated in all that time because they were stuck in their victim story. They didn’t look at their 3% and so they could never really trust themselves again. It might appear like they don’t trust love or men or women—but the truth is that when we’re avoiding love, it’s usually because we don’t trust ourselves. So step two is about repairing our relationship with ourselves and plugging up the holes that allowed us to be abused so that we can go forward and create a happier, healthier experience of love in our future.
We know the next step is about breaking patterns—which you mentioned you had long been trapped in. How does that work?
Definitely, I myself had very difficult patterns in love—basically the pattern was unavailability. Some of us have patterns of chronic aloneness, or being with very self-involved, narcissistic people so that we’re the invisible one. We have patterns of never being the one who’s chosen, or of being with people who abuse us in some way. These patterns are very painful. There’s one way of relating to these patterns where we say, “Oh, we’re duplicating the patterns to heal ourselves.”
Which I think on some level is true and yet on the other hand, I also notice that very few of these repetitions heal us—what they do instead is re-wound us, which is a terrible betray. Because the one person who was supposed to fix our childhood hurts, ends up perpetrating them all over again.
Usually what happens to us in a break-up is that we will interpret what just happened in a way that reaffirms an old familiar story of disappointment in love that began long, long ago. By connecting what happened with your former partner to what happened to you back in your childhood, you can identify what I call your “source factor wound”—the original break in your heart—and see how you’ve been unconsciously duplicating the pattern ever since. The value of seeing this so clearly is that you can finally evolve beyond that story once and for all and be free to generate a completely different experience of greater happiness and wellbeing in love moving forward. So if you’ve had a lifelong pattern of being abused, you could actually graduate from that pattern so that you can feel confident in your ability to create deep safety and happiness in love moving forward.
Some of those wounds can be so deep. How do we release the built up fear and resentment?
Step four is about awakening to your power to generate a positive future no matter what has happened in your past. It allows us to forgive ourselves as well as those who’ve hurt us. Not in a way that is condoning of bad behavior, but where you’ve taken your life lesson from what happened, and make an amends moving forward so you can be more at peace with the past and let it go. For some, they may choose to finish unfinished business directly with their former partner which, if you have children, is going to be particularly important.
You don’t want the kids walking through a minefield every time they go from one house to the other. Yet, there’s a way we have of trying to clear the air that doesn’t tend to work, which is where we’re trying to over-explain why we did what we did. “My mother did it to me so I do it to others,” or “I do this because of my astrological sign.” Or maybe we will try to apologize by saying, “Well, I’m sorry that you feel that way,” which doesn’t really complete anything because we’re not taking responsibility for our part. Or maybe we’ll try to clear the air by saying “Well, I’m sorry, but,” which then negates the apology and renders it useless. Usually when we try to rid ourselves of the toxic emotional residue left festering between ourselves and our former partners, we’ll try to get the other person to understand us, rather than seek to understand them and that rarely works to really bring completion to the resentments you’re left with.
There’s a technique that I teach where you put yourself and your need to be understood aside and actually get into the world of your former partner and apologize on their terms. Even if you don’t agree with their perspective, or if you think they were overly sensitive and shouldn’t feel that way, you put your opinion aside, you lean in to try to have empathy for how things landed for them. If you can let your heart be touched by their experience, and then say “I’m sorry” from there and even, “I will be much more aware of this in the future and not do this again to you,” that’s what really begins to de-escalate the situation and clear the air. It’s in the amends that things actually get repaired.
Now a lot of times in break-ups we don’t have the opportunity to go back and have that conversation—maybe your former partner doesn’t want to talk to you. They might be using their anger to help them separate and they’re not ready to forgive you. So if you have to do this alone, you want to get the lesson of the consequences of behaving the ways you behaved, and say to yourself, “I really understand the cost of treating people like this and I’m going to treat people differently from now on.” This hard-won wisdom is what allows you to freely move forward with an open and fully healed heart.
Beautiful. So now we’ve come back into balance, taken responsibility, become conscious of our patterns and made amends—what’s the final step?
The last step of Conscious Uncoupling is to create your happily-even-after life. It’s about setting up new agreements and releasing old ones. We make all of these agreements in a primary love relationship like, “You will always be the one I turn to when I’m in trouble. You will be the only one I’ll ever love,” and these agreements now need to be completed consciously. The new agreements that will take their place might be, “I will always honor you as the father of my daughter. I will always think of you as a beloved teacher. I will always be grateful for the gifts you gave me.”
You might not want to have anything to do with this person in the future, but your new agreement will be about determining how you will relate to them in your own mind and heart. Doing this process brings greater completion and the ability to move forward unencumbered by prolonged grief. At this stage, you may even choose to do a Conscious Uncoupling ritual. Sometimes these rituals are done together and sometimes alone. For example, you can do what I call a soul-to-soul meditation where you call in the soul of your former partner to have a completion conversation. And finally, you want to set everyone up to win moving forward. You can creates structures like my former husband and I have now where we’re living in the same building and our daughter goes freely between our two homes so that we each get to see her every day. When you’ve done the work to actively heal your heart rather than just hoping that in time things will work out, you have the luxury of creating life-affirming structures and situations like the ones that we’re enjoying. This is what is helping us fulfill upon our decision to give our daughter a happy childhood.
Why is this process so needed and so essential?
Many of us think that time alone will heal a broken heart. But I like to compare a broken heart to a broken leg. We would never just let our broken leg heal on its own, unless we didn’t mind if it healed a bit crooked so that we’d walk with a limp for the rest of our lives. And yet that’s what we allow to happen to our hearts. Because unless we tend to the break in our hearts and provide ourselves with the support we need during this difficult time, our hearts are likely to heal a little too closed, a whole lot defensive, a tad too sensitive to rejection and afraid to take the risk of love moving forward.
None of us are ever happy to uncouple, but there is a way to do it that will leave everyone healthy, whole and free on the other side. The typical antagonistic divorces that most of us are familiar with happen because we don’t know how to manage those big emotions. Nature has not designed us to separate, so our hormones and our brains go a little crazy. Thousands of years ago if someone wandered away from the tribe they probably would die, and though we will not die from a break-up, we still feel like we will. So we need to learn to harness these big emotions so we can break-up in a way that will be life-affirming instead of destructive. I like to remind people that the “happily ever after” myth was created about 400 years ago when the life span was less than 40 years of age. Yet in a world where more people will divorce this year than buy a new car or eat grapefruit for breakfast, it’s time we learned how to do this better.
Does it take two to be engaged in the Conscious Uncoupling process? What if your partner is unwilling to participate, can you go it alone?
I’m very grateful that Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin popped Conscious Uncoupling into the lexicon, but the one thing I do regret is that what they modeled is just one possibility for a conscious uncoupling. In fact, the majority of people do not go through this with their partner—they go through it alone. I’d say over 90% of people go through it without a partner. Conscious Uncoupling is about helping anyone who is going through a break-up, whether that be now, or if they are still struggling with unresolved grief from their past, or even if they are simply contemplating a potential break-up in their future, to help empower them to navigate this time with clarity, wisdom, power, respect and love so that they can discover a new kind of happy ending and be free to move forward in life with a healthy, happy, whole and fully healed heart.
Wonderful, thank you Katherine. Before you go, we’d love to hear what’s next for you. What can our readers look out for?
One of the things that’s next is continuing to share the Conscious Uncoupling process with people. If people go to my website ConsciousUncoupling.com, they can register for a live free call I have happening later this month where I will be coaching people through some of the distinctions of Conscious Uncoupling.
At the same time, now that I’ve written books about both getting into relationships and getting out of relationships, I’m pretty fascinated with what happens in between! And in particular, what creates happy, healthy love. So I have a new offering called the “Love Out Loud Daily”—which are daily inspirations and instructions on how we can all grow our relational wealth, health and happiness so we can have better, more vibrant, co-creative and joyful relationships with each other.