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Conscious Uncoupling: Breaking Up with Our Stuff

You may have heard about Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s break-up, which Paltrow announced on her Goop blog, calling it not a divorce but a “conscious uncoupling.” I can gluten-free/downward dog/paleo diet with the best of them, but this term had me rolling my eyes. Upon further review, however, I’m forced to admit that it is a much better way to go than, “acrimonious heartbreak and devastated kids.” When about half of all marriages end in divorce now, maybe it is time to look at marriage endings as natural and normal, not tragic and shameful.

“Conscious uncoupling” as a term comes from the work of psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas, author of “Calling in the One,” a hugely successful book about finding love. The more I thought about conscious uncoupling, the more I related the idea to the different ways we acquire, hold on to and then let go of the stuff in our lives.

Often during the first flush of a crush, we discount the flaws and differences in the other person in order to fill a relationship “vacancy.” Possessions may be acquired in the same “gotta have it,’ unconscious way. We can get caught up in the spirit of an auction or shopping with girlfriends or panic at needing a dress or suit for a certain occasion and find ourselves overspending on something that within a few days or weeks feels like a mistake.

When I was much younger, my usual method of dealing with buyer’s remorse was to divest myself of the item as quickly as possible, either giving it to charity, consigning it for a fraction of its value or sometimes even throwing it in the trash (as I did with half a cheesecake).

Lately, not only do I consider the items I bring into my environment much more carefully, if I do make a questionable acquisition I try to let it go much more consciously, with respect and appreciation for the item and don’t beat myself up so badly for these occasional lapses in judgment.

If you find yourself remorseful over some of your purchases, spend a little time thinking about what led you to make the purchase or otherwise acquire the item. Did a friend cajole you into raising your paddle at an auction? Did an extra glass of wine make you think that bandage dress was flattering? Did you forget to sleep on it or walk around the block to ponder the purchase? Did you succumb to “one day only” sales pressure?

Taking the time to examine the behaviors behind our acquisition habits is much like examining what draws us over and over again into relationships with certain types of people. Woodward Thomas says that what we learned about our value when we were children and the relationships that were modeled by our parents and other adults when we were young determine what attracts us, and it’s not always what is best for us. Recognizing the trends is half the battle.

In terms of stuff, in my impoverished 20s I was constantly drooling over (and occasionally splurging on) impractical dresses and shoes more suited to a wealthy woman with a bustling social life (not a writer in a San Francisco flat shared with several roommates and a few thousand cockroaches). Somehow I equated being an adult woman with owning fancy clothes even though I was much more likely to be asked to vacuum a red carpet than to walk one.

I remember buying an Armani dress at a sample sale. It hung in the closet for years until I finally consigned it for 20 bucks. It was such a relief to let the dress move on to its next owner.

It is very difficult to consciously uncouple from our things if we are too attached to getting “our money’s worth” back. Don’t’ fall into this trap, which in relationship terms would be like trying to squeeze your ex for everything he/she’s worth. Is it really worth the stress?

Acknowledge what you’ve already received from the item — gratitude is one of the keys of conscious uncoupling. Using the Armani dress example, at that time in my life just owning something by a famous designer, even though I never wore it, was a thrill. Shopping with my friend, trying on the dress and handing over my credit card (dewy with nervous perspiration) was really a lot of fun. It was a mistake, but finally, I could let it go with a light heart.

Other accumulated stuff, like papers from a job you did particularly well or love letters from an old boyfriend, can be parted with consciously. If you need the space in your file cabinet and are ready to let go, review the item, acknowledge that time in your life, and maybe do a little burning ceremony as I did with all my old journals when I turned 40. So liberating.

If something doesn’t align with your values, doesn’t fit, doesn’t bring you joy or is just plain not working for you anymore, consider conscious uncoupling. Acknowledge and appreciate it, take responsibility for your part in why it isn’t working, and let it go with a generous spirit.

Or, you could follow comedian Steve Martin’s suggestion and chant “I break with thee, I break with thee, I break with thee.” And throw dog poop on its shoes.