We enter relationships and either feel that we are supposed to merge into one entity with our partner or struggle with how to maintain a sense of Self and identity. This is an issue that couples often speak about in their sessions with me. How, they wonder, do they navigate this delicate dance between being part of a partnership and maintaining their individuality? The fact of the matter is that it is not an either-or issue. We need to do both, become part of a marriage (become a We) and maintain the Me (one’s distinctiveness).
We live in a society that is often seen as very self-centered. We are quick to call people selfish if they focus on themselves. But there is a difference between being selfish and taking care of oneself. There is a difference between merging together in a relationship and being together while maintaining your unique qualities.
Selfishness is generally defined as being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself. Selfish people concentrate on their own advantage, pleasure, or well being without regard for others. We certainly see this in some relationships where one partner is only focused on what they want and do not take the time to see what their partner might like.
In a healthy relationship, however, this balance between being one with our partner and being an individual looks like a Venn Diagram (remember these from Math class?). Each partner works to develop the best Self that they can be, with individual hobbies, focus and friendships. Creating goals for yourself and finding outside activities that bring joy and a sense of fulfillment is vital to the health of a relationship. Partners can bring different parts of the world into the relationship and expose their partner to new and exciting things. When couples have a strong sense of Self and create the space to come together to share themselves with their partner, they are enhancing each of the individuals. In this case the whole is bigger than the individual parts.
The “We” part of the diagram is equally important in a relationship. Do you carve out the time to be with your partner or are you caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life? I can’t stress the importance of this too much. Relationships are like plants; if we don’t feed and water them, they wilt and die. Finding time to be together is often a struggle, but it doesn’t have to be. While getting a babysitter and going out on a date night is wonderful, it is just as important (maybe even more so) to find a few minutes each day to connect. Create rituals to say goodbye in the morning and to reconnect when you come home from work. Making eye contact when you say hello or goodbye is much more of a connection than yelling these things as you run out the door or into the next room. Taking some time to sit together after the kids are in bed or before going to sleep can really energize a relationship. It is the function of letting your partner know that you care about them, that they are important in your life that makes the difference.
Attending to the health of a relationship and being mindful of the various parts that are present in a marriage can go a long way to keeping both of you happy and connected. Work on the Me, Thee and We and you will both feel a great deal of satisfaction and well-being.