Tools for Couples Happiness — 29 May 2010
How to be both autonomous and connected to your partner

Maintaining personal autonomy within a love relationship has been a concern for many people prior to their nuptials and throughout their marriage. Balancing one’s individuality with attentiveness to the partner’s needs is a delicate task. It must be handled well or it may become a source of chagrin for both mates and a less than happy union.

Many marriage ceremonies include the theme of two people uniting into one. A common saying about well-connected pairs is “two peas in a pod”. Some people admire couples who complete each other sentences, think alike and rarely have a divergent point of view. Though this mode may reduce disharmony, it can also come at the expense of loss of individuality and growth producing exchanges.

David Schulz in “Marriage, the Family and Personal Fulfillment,” states, “a loss of self in a relationship follows naturally from trying to live up to the ideal of two people ‘becoming one.’ In order to succeed in this aim, either both partners must surrender a part of themselves or one of them.” In today’s standards, this formula is very risky to the viability of a healthy marriage. Schulz summarizes, “Without a significant degree of personal autonomy, it makes no sense to talk about freedom or personal growth. In order for two people to ‘come together’ there first have to be two people.”

A partner’s effort at being his own person may either be perceived as self-centered and non-partner-like preoccupation, or as a healthy state of self-expression. Being viewed as “selfish” feels demeaning, hurtful and distances the mates from each other. Being supported in pursuing one’s passions is freeing the individual to be him/herself and bonds the pair in gratitude and joy.

Each person needs to be seen, heard, considered, validated, respected and cherished by the mate to feel secure in his/her connection to the partner. When these needs are not met, partners are inclined to feel devalued, develop ill feelings, engage in fighting, and create emotional distance.

Mitch Albom in “have a little faith” quotes Rabbi Albert Lewis telling young couples, “Remember, the only difference between ‘marital’ and ‘martial’ is where you put the ‘i’.”
The distinction between cooperating (marital) and warring (martial) conduct is determined by whether the focus is on the “We” or on the “I”.

So what can you do when your needs are in conflict with your partner’s? Attempt to maximize pleasing your mate first. Self- centered preoccupation excludes the spouse’s preferences and splinters the couple’s union. In a healthy relationship, the ‘other centered’ approach best serves both mates. When each spouse considers the other first- both people’s autonomy and intimacy flourish.

Selfish or self-centered behavior does not necessarily confirm the existence of a personality disorder. It may be an outcome of early deprivation and the need to fend for oneself- or the opposite, be the bi-product of early parental indulgence that erroneously conditioned the child to believe that the world revolves around his/her every whim. Both early conditioning are changeable with kind input and new insights.

• Accept that marriage does offer you freedom and individuality within contractual bounds and considerate conduct.
• Realize that in a love relationship, one plus one does not make one – it makes two with an infinite horizon.
• Adopt the ‘other-centered’ approach. Accept, respect, support and facilitate your partner’s individuality and personal endeavors.
• Abstain from perceiving your mate’s interests as a rejection or abandonment of you.
• Listen to your internal self-talk. If it usually begins with “I need, want, have to have it,” rephrase it to “ If it works out with my partner, I would like to….”
• Abandon being “right” in an argument- it only distances your from your mate.
• Use your “I” best by lovingly asking, “How can I please you more?” Willingly accommodate the request and your relationship will thrive.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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