When we first enter a relationship, our desire to merge with our beloved can be so enticing that we easily put aside our own individual needs as we begin to blend into a single entity with our partner. As time progresses, however, one or both individuals might discover that they’ve sacrificed too many of their own personal needs to please the other. In doing so, they realize that they’ve lost themselves in the process and may suddenly assert their need for personal space. While this assertion is typically an attempt to re-establish one’s own personal identity, the way in which a request for personal space is made can often leave the other person feeling threatened, rejected, or abandoned.
The fact of the matter is that both components – having the capacity to merge and maintaining one’s own individuality within the relationship – are necessary. So, how do you navigate this delicate dance between being part of a partnership and maintaining your own individuality?
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 yourself, between merging together in a relationship and 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. These kinds of behaviors are evident in relationships where one partner focuses exclusively on fulfilling their own needs and does not consider the needs of their spouse. While it is important to state one’s needs and to maintain one’s own sense of healthy self-expression, it is helpful to the wellbeing of your relationship to do so in a manner that considers the needs of the other person.
In forming a marriage, you become a “We”. This identity as a “We” is a healthy expression of yourselves as a couple. Your identity as a “We” exists separately from the distinctive identity that each of you experiences as an individual “Me”. When you learn how to balance your personal identity with your identity as a couple, you are on your way to forming a strong, long-lasting relationship.
This balance between being one with our partner and maintaining our individuality looks like a Venn Diagram (remember these from Math class?).
In a healthy relationship, each partner works to develop the best Self that they can be. They devote time to their individual hobbies, focus on their own personal growth and goals, and maintain friendships outside of their relationship.
Creating goals for yourself and finding outside activities that bring you joy, and a sense of fulfillment is vital to the health of your relationship. Partners who enjoy personal activities or who are motivated by their personal goals can bring different parts of their world into the relationship in order to expose their partner to new and exciting things. When couples each have a strong sense of Self, and then create the space to come together to share themselves with their partner, they enhance each other. In this case, they create a relationship in which the whole of their relationship is bigger than the individual parts.
The “We” part of the diagram above is equally important. Do you carve out time to be with your partner? Or are you caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life? I can’t emphasize how important it is to make time for your relationship a priority. Relationships are like plants; if we don’t feed and water them, they will wilt and die.
If finding a block of time for the two of you to spend together is a struggle – as it is for many couples – here are some ways that you and your partner can establish your sense of connection daily:
- Create rituals to say goodbye in the morning and to reconnect when you return home after work.
- Make eye contact when you say hello or goodbye. Eye contact provides a more meaningful connection than yelling these things as you run out the door or into the next room.
- Sit together after the kids are in bed or before you go to sleep. Do this without being distracted by a screen. The mere act of sitting together can energize your relationship because you are not just sitting together; you are letting your partner know that you care about them, that they are important to you, and that their presence in your life makes a difference. Holding hands is also a way to be connected even if you don’t speak.
- Try doing some chores together. Even though it may feel mundane, going to the market or taking the kids to a soccer game can become time spent with your partner. Find ways to make it fun, to laugh and relax while taking care of business.
Attend to the health of your relationship. Engage in individual activities that you each enjoy and make time to connect with one another on a daily basis in meaningful ways, however brief. Being mindful of balancing your personal needs with your identity as a couple can go a long way to keeping both of you happy and connected.