“You complete me.” Tom Cruise’s famous line to his girlfriend in the classic romantic comedy Jerry Maguire captures the illusion of romantic love. Married or committed couples should merge into one: share the same interests; agree on everything; spend every moment together — right? Only in Hollywood. It probably comes as no surprise that this joined-at-the-hip approach is not a good recipe for a rewarding long-term relationship. Over time, if you give up on interests or opinions that your spouse doesn’t like, you not only rob the relationship of vitality, but you also lose touch with the parts of yourself that make you unique.
A growing body of evidence suggests that in a successful marriage or committed partnership, both partners maintain a certain amount of separateness. (In psychological terms, we call this separateness “differentiation.”) However, maintaining separateness does not mean focusing on self-reliance to the point of disengagement, where you are so independent from each other that you lose connection.
Differentiated couples find a happy middle ground: a balance between a desire for closeness and a desire for self-fulfillment. Here are a few examples of what this might look like:
- You foster intimacy through bonding rituals, such as weekly date nights or phone calls when one of you is traveling. At the same time, you support each other’s friendships and encourage each other to maintain these ties. (No, you’re not allowed to bring your husband to ‘girls’ night out’ or take your wife along on the guys’ fishing weekend…)
- You celebrate each other’s differences without criticism or blame. Perhaps he needs a few minutes to unwind alone after coming home from work; she understands this is how he recharges his battery, and gives him some space. Or maybe she needs to talk about her feelings when something bothers her; he appreciates how important this is to her and makes an effort to listen.
- You make time to enjoy activities together, but also encourage each other to pursue individual pursuits, dreams or hobbies — anything from going back to graduate school to joining a book club.
I think back to one of the wedding gifts I received when I got married: a framed copy of the quote below from Khalil Gibran. The gift was from a dear friend who has been happily married for over 40 years. I think she’s on to something:
Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together;
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
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