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Don't be too quick to scoff at uncoupling

PEOPLE do rotten things to each other when they split up.

For most of us, the break-up of a big relationship seems like something that might have been better experienced while unconscious or mildly sedated, a descent into hell that leaves one dazed and stumbling. Not so for Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, who have announced their separation on Paltrow's lifestyle website Goop, not as a divorce but a "conscious uncoupling". It all looked rather nice, in a slightly smug and surreal way, accompanied by a sweet photo of the two of them sitting in the grass, looking perfectly conscious, if a bit dazzled by the sun. Who wouldn't want one of those? Particularly since, at the time of the announcement, the family was reportedly holidaying in the Bahamas. "Honestly, it made me want to get divorced," wrote one bemused commentator. "And I'm not even married."

Few of us had heard of conscious uncoupling before Paltrow's "hearts full of sadness" announcement, but helpfully, her site now offers an educational essay by doctors Habia Sadeghi and Sherry Sami. Their point is that soaring divorce rates are an indication that human beings haven't been able to "fully adapt to our skyrocketing life expectancy". These days we might conceivably have three relationships in our lifetime. Their ideal is that couples should recognise each other as a teacher, and see every argument as just a lesson that helps them grow. Hence, divorce is really an opportunity for personal growth.

Easy to laugh. And many people did. Paltrow is one of those people we like to mock, principally because she opens herself up to it by ­advertising her impossibly perfect lifestyle, which includes feeding her children a carb-free diet and declaring that "I would rather die than let my kid eat a Cup a Soup". When you're rich, beautiful and born to Hollywood establishment, yet still try to present yourself as some kind of guru, that's what happens.

But, actually, I can't help thinking this latest Goop announcement might be Paltrow's one great gift to us all. We might not want to buy one of the $1995 peacoats the website sells, but what's not to like about a gentler method of breaking up - particularly when there are kids around? Frankly, if money were no object, it should be prescribed on the NHS along with a few packets of painkillers (because surely there's still going to be pain, even if you're Gwyneth).

Of course, there is the problem of its psychobabble name, the "uncoupling" that sounds like something Thomas The Tank Engine might attempt if he went loco in Hollywood. Although even that phrase could be a pretty worthwhile contribution to our culture. Give it a few more days and we won't be able to stop using it. A week ago it was gobbledegook and now it's part of the lexicon, useful in all kinds of situations from breaking up a ­business to, perhaps, separating from a political Union.

And, actually, the amicable ­break-up isn't new. People have been doing it for some time. I've seen them, those super-mortals who divorce while still managing to behave decently to each other and avoid messing up their kids too much.

I suspect there would be more of that decency if we treated ­breaking up with dignity as something to be proud of (which is not to say that a long marriage isn't also that). But the whole reaction to the Goop announcement is an illustration of just how fond we are of break-ups that are tragic and destructive. It is perhaps no surprise that there has been plenty of speculation, across the media, about possible affairs. There has also been plenty of Gwyneth-blaming. We like to pick a baddie and a victim, and overall, Martin got the sympathy vote, partly because the claws are always out when a woman appears even remotely controlling.

Meanwhile, the main problem with conscious uncoupling is that it sounds like it's not for everyone. It comes across as a cranky indulgence, only for the rich, famous and spoiled, when it shouldn't be - any more than the idea of creating a great marriage. Of course, we don't know if it really works. There is not a lot of research out there and its creators have backed their theories with some extraordinarily tosh-like pseudoscience.

But that doesn't mean the process itself isn't valid. Research suggests that mindfulness, which is at the heart of it, can help people navigate such tricky times. And surely this method is preferable to letting the bomb go off in your relationship and watching as the debris - including bits of yourself, and your children - settles.

When I look at Gwyneth's Goop announcement, I don't think "I want one of them", any more than I want a carb-free diet or a two-hour daily workout regime. But I like knowing it's there. Relationships are hard, and none of us can ever be entirely sure that it won't be us one day, uncoupling with our "hearts full of sadness". Though I, for one, am sure I will never be doing it on an island in the Bahamas.

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