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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 9:20 EDT

Individuality Good for Couples

November 27, 2004

It seems a contradiction to say that in order to have a closer relationship we need to be more ourselves.

TRADITIONAL wisdom has suggested in contrast that giving up individual will and developing a collective will is essential for a marriage or long-term relationship to survive.

It’s certainly the case that two people have to learn to be able to work together to maintain closeness long term.

That alliance does not have to mean losing individuality; in fact quite the opposite applies. To lose a sense of self as an individual may mean the death-knell for the relationship and particularly your sex life.

There is, however, a big difference between the immature self- centredness that is an inevitable developmental stage for children or adolescents and mature individuality.

The latter involves delving deep into yourself again and again over time to find your unique full self, thinking for yourself with consideration for your partner, acting with self-respect and integrity, and bringing the fullest, most caring, passionate you into relationship with your partner.

This is clearly a two-person process, but even if your partner refuses to act in this way, one of you doing it can lead the way to a better relationship.

Every relationship problem offers an opportunity to develop these skills. Rather than becoming embattled with each of you digging in your toes and defending your stance at all costs, consider the possibility of sitting side by side as you each express your perspective on the matter.

There’s no judging who is right and who is wrong as you’re both clear that as two unique individuals, of course you’ll have two different views.

In fact, each of you is interested in this ongoing learning opportunity involving someone you love who sees the world through different eyes than you.

Once you have the two perspectives laid out clearly in front of you then together you can begin generating possible joint solutions to the problem.

Each of you needs to be connecting to your love for your partner and your generosity while maintaining and communicating a clear sense of what is important to you.

You also need to be doing a good job of soothing your own anxiety as there’s no doubt this is a challenging process. There may be a need for professional help here in developing the required skills.

David Schnarch (Resurrecting Sex) suggests that it is in working our way through these emotional knots that we have the opportunity to discover the most we can be.

Couples coming to sex therapists often have a clear and detailed understanding of what is wrong with their partner and have spent insufficient time examining their own contribution to the problem. In fact as no one is perfect, joining together in close relationship with your partner requires being willing to rub all the rough edges off yourself.

Of course when a relationship begins this involves a delightful sense of closeness for most people. High levels of lust, dizzying excitement, the joyful state of feeling in love, loved and wanted. For some people this stage lasts only days, for others it continues pleasurably for some years.

It is important to realise this state is partly based on the illusions you have about each other. You can’t possibly know each other well, so into that gap goes all your hopes and dreams about the ways in which the right loving partner will make you and your life whole and worthwhile.

Once this stage is passed through, unless both partners are very mature, couples tend to either move into a state of fusion where the relationship is the new identity or a state of merger where individual boundaries are ignored and the identity of one partner is subsumed by the other. Both share the responsibility for getting into either of these states: for every person who dominates there’s one who submits.

There’s likely to be more conflict with merger as in this situation couples share all activities and physical space and tend to be of one mind.

One danger here is that if you freeze in your individual development then this chill is likely to extend to your sex life.

So there’s a need to move on, and this is where some important progress toward becoming an individual can come in.

Couples need to confront the reality of their differences, their aloneness.

Some drift apart back to separate identities or in search of someone else who will make them whole, fulfil their fusion fantasies.

Others work hard on themselves to achieve the task of becoming an individual (Schnarch calls this differentiation) in relationship.

This task involves integrating individuality with compassion, empathy and honour for your partner’s differences.

To get to this ultimate stage requires the passion of the early relationship, the struggle out of merger or fusion, the pain of differentiation (including grieving lost fantasies) and the establishment of connections that honour differences, rather than just tolerating them.

For the many people who are perplexed at how exactly to connect given these differences, working with a skilled sex therapist can help to transform long-term commitment into a bridge over which passions can travel.

* Robyn Salisbury is a clinical psychologist and director of Sex Therapy New Zealand, a referral network. To seek professional help with any sexual relationship problem phone 354-2449 or visit www.sextherapy.co.nz.