Understanding one critical aspect of relationship dynamics can change everything
We have the idea that romantic partnership means dissolving the boundaries that separate two partners to form a solid We.
But maintaining a healthy relationship allows for both separateness and togetherness.
Omar and Idris have been together for 11 years and married for four. They’ve always had a solid relationship founded on friendship and mutual respect. They do just about everything together and are considered by their friends and family to be inseparable. Recently, Idris has started to complain about feeling “smothered” by Omar and has started spending more time out of the house. He often stays out late and is guarded with Idris about the details of who he’s with or where he’s going. Idris worries that Omar is changing; for the first time, he feels scared about the future of the relationship. Roxana and Thomas met during a business networking event two years ago and started dating soon after. Both successful professionals in their late 30s, they had sworn off the traditional life of marriage and kids, determined to make their careers their top priority. But when they met each other, there was an undeniable spark that made them give the relationship a try. At first, everything seemed meant to be; but two years in, things are feeling far less dreamy. Roxana complains that she doesn’t see the point in being with Thomas. Whenever he isn’t working, he’s on his phone checking emails or taking calls. And on the rare occasion when he tries to make plans with her, she’s already committed to a work engagement, yoga class, or happy hour with girlfriends. Being Separate and Together Is Important for a Healthy Relationship The stories of these two couples represent the challenges of modern relationships. Their experiences reflect two sides of one continuum and can be taken as a cautionary tale for anyone seeking to create long-term success and satisfaction in a romantic partnership. What these stories reveal to us is the importance of maintaining a particular relationship balance—one that allows for both separateness and togetherness. Most of us—in the West, at least—were raised to believe that when we find a romantic partner, we’re to become one with that person. This notion, which is deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, suggests that entering a romantic partnership means dissolving the boundaries that separate the you and the me, forming a solid and unbreakable we. It’s a beautiful and romantic idea that compels us to wander the world in search of that one true love who will make us whole, once and for all. But it’s also a set-up. Not only for painful disillusionment and dissatisfaction on a personal level, for those people who have trouble finding a partner, but also for our relationships. The truth: The kind of inseparable oneness we aspire to is fundamentally unsustainable. Interestingly, our individualistic society has evolved away from this idea in many respects. More and more commonly, younger people are veering away from the formulaic framework and opting out of the construct of a relationship that’s been sold to them. But couples whose relationships are predicated on the notion of individuality and separateness for both parties fall into a trap of their own. While each individual—the you and the me—gets plenty of room for personal fulfillment, the relationship—the we—is at risk of deteriorating due to undernourishment. Partners Need to Pursue Their Own Goals and Dreams, and Enjoy Healthy Shared Activities How do we solve this conundrum and crack the code for long-term love and sustainable relationship satisfaction? The answer is pretty simple. The key is to work at maintaining a working and fluid balance between togetherness and separateness. This means giving both individuals in the relationship room to pursue their own interests, goals, and dreams, while at the same time prioritizing the partnership by engaging in shared activities, communicating actively, and constantly co-creating a vision for the future. Couples who understand that the you, the me, and the we all need to be honored not only maintain longer relationships but also experience greater satisfaction along the way. Like anything else that’s worth achieving, the process of striking this relationship balance takes intention, commitment, and sustained action. It relies on the willingness of both parties to know their own needs and communicate them directly and lovingly on an ongoing basis. Most of all, it requires a shared understanding that finding success in a long-term relationship is an ongoing dance along the continuum that connects individuality and togetherness, and that as long as both parties are minding their own steps and working to keep up with the choreography, much will be learned and much will be gained.