“Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between souls.”
No matter how wonderful your relationship is, there is a delicate balance between closeness and connection in the relationship while maintaining your own autonomy and separate interests.
When couples discover that joy in their relationship doesn’t only come from focusing on the ways they are connected, but equally on the ways we are separate, new possibilities and a new sense of ease and comfort can result.
As stated by Mary Popova, “Our paradoxical longing for intimacy and independence is a conflicting force — it pulls us toward togetherness and simultaneously repels us from it with a mighty magnet, that, if unskillfully handled, can rupture a relationnd break a heart. Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over.“
Differentiation is therefore an important process that helps partners to be connected without being consumed by the other person. Both partners are able to be interdependent while at the same time being emotionally two distinct people. Paradoxically, developing the capacity to be more apart from each other also enables us to come closer to our partner, to be more distinct rather than more distant.
Esther Perel, in “Mating in Captivity” asserts that “love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy” because “our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. But too much merging erases the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with.”
According to Parel, over time, we start to sense that it isn’t possible to remain in the “bubble of each other’s embrace”. We need to move back toward greater engagement with our own self, and with the world at large. It is not that there is sudden disinterest in our partner, it is that we have rediscovered a sense of needing to pay attention to our own interests and our own separate path as well.
Our ability to tolerate our separateness — and the fundamental insecurity it engenders — helps maintain interest and desire in a relationship. Many couples struggle to find the right balance between maintaining their individuality and their emotional dependency on their partner.
Research (Skowron, 2000) has shown that couples who demonstrate a higher level of differentiation are more likely to be satisfied in their relationship. Conversely couples who are more emotionally reactive or cut off tend to report more stress and discord in their relationship.
Couples therapy can help to:
- Understand and address the partners’ internal difficulties with managing intense negative feelings and responses, (such as “Gottman’s four horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling”), in a calm and in a considerate way.
- Look at ways in which the couple can build more capacity to tolerate separateness and develop more intimacy in the relationship.
- Many couples struggle with the idea of being apart. They see their relationship as only a single entity, rather than two unique individuals who have come together to be in a relationship with one another. Spending time apart, however, can actually be useful for the relationship:
Closeness Tips for Successful Relationships:
- Maintaining Your Own Friends – Having your own friendships allows you to have a support system that isn’t just your partner. There is far less negative pressure on the relationship when a person has his or her own friends to turn to irrespective of what happens in the marriage.
- Personal Growth – Some independence in a relationship is useful for developing yourself as an individual. Relationships are made up of two unique people, each with his or her own unique goals and personality. Your independence can actually add to the relationship by making you a stronger individual partner.
- Autonomy – When a couple is too enmeshed, your partner’s behavior and moods affect your functioning in an excessive, almost exponential manner. When you have your own autonomy, interests, friendships, and activities, your happiness is not solely dependent on what your partner does with you and for you.
None of this is to imply that activities should be done in secret, or that you should spend all of your time apart. Indeed, this is not about creating distance between you.
Often couples seeking couples therapy do so because they are stuck in this dynamic of power struggle. Often one partner is the primary guardian of “closeness” in the relationship, and the other is the guardian of the “separateness” in the relationship. One partner advocates for prioritizing the relationship, while the other insists on emphasizing autonomy.
While each partner needs to consciously and strongly advocate for each other’s autonomy in the relationship, they also both need to advocate for connection: advocating for the connection, common goals, and tending to the relationship needs of each. Partners that maintain some independence while in the relationship are able to bring the benefits of those separate experiences back into the relationship. This creates a stronger connection, more interest and helps maintain a feeling of confidence individually and between partners
Couple’s therapy with Lind Butler, M.Ed.,LPC, can help you improve the balance between autonomy and togetherness in your relationship, leading to increased intimacy. For more information about couple’s therapy give me a call.