I vs. We In A Healthy Relationship

Marriage Counseling Insights brought to you by California Psychotherapeutic Resources, Inc.

Most people have (or should have) a pretty well-developed sense of self before they enter a romantic relationship. A strong sense of identity and a balanced ego are foundations of personal mental health and well-being. After you enter a relationship, though, your sense of self evolves, whether you often stop to reflect on the change or not.

A happy smiling couple

After a divorce or the death of a partner, people are often struck by the effect of the loss on their personal identity. This often happens because people had not realized just how much their sense of self had evolved. For example, therapists illustrate the point by asking someone to imagine their identity before entering a romantic relationship as a circle — and their partner’s identity as a similar, separate circle. As their relationship develops, the circles begin to overlap one another. This is the development of a sense of identity as a couple. After a divorce or death of a partner, the now lone partner is often struck by another loss: the loss of their identity as a couple.

How much the circles should overlap, so to speak, is a matter that deserves reflection. If you think of the extremes, it’s fair to say that two people in a healthy relationship should not retain two completely separate individual identities without creating a shared identity as a couple. Likewise, it’s fair to say that people should not completely lose their individual identities as individuals.

Which brings up a vital, related question: What’s a healthy balance between independence and interdependence in a relationship? That’s exactly the topic that Leon F. Seltzer, PhD, explores in an article for Psychology Today. Seltzer begins by citing Stephen Covey: “[he] writes about relational dependence (which has also been labeled co-dependence) as one-sided. On the contrary, he discusses interdependence as shared, and this carefully qualified dependency is what he believes two people, especially in the context of an intimate relationship, should aim for. Here each party focuses not only on realizing the full potential of the relationship but, individually, on actualizing their (singular) life purpose.”

“Co-dependence” as a concept is almost intuitively negative. Seltzer articulates that intuitive impression by saying, “When you’re too dependent on your partner, you’re all too willing to change yourself to suit their preferences.  I’ve worked with people who, to avoid antagonizing a partner, literally lost their identity. At times, it does make sense to defer to or accommodate your significant other. But when you end up disowning that which is intrinsic to your personality out of fear that asserting yourself will endanger the relationship, this trade-off will likely hurt you — not to mention leaving you angry, anxious, or depressed.”

On the flip side, completely retaining your independence has its own drawbacks. That’s especially true if the partners are out of sync — if one person is overly dependent while the other is overly independent. “If the dependent person is with someone who’s unhealthily independent,” writes Seltzer, “that individual may be so intent on doing everything for themself that it throws the relationship off-balance. For one thing, it seriously undermines the possibilities for a giving, heartfelt connection between the two.”

One way to reflect on your own relationship is by considering what a healthy balance of dependency and independence might look like. “Healthy dependency” say Seltzer, “in a relational context can be comprehended as allowing yourself — or daring — to be vulnerable with your significant other. That means opening up to them to reveal your most private misgivings, sorrows, doubts, and fears.” And that just might require more courage than many people might imagine.

To complement that dependency, people need to retain a strong sense of self. “[People] also need to stand on their own two feet,” says Seltzer. “This is where safeguarding a substantial part of your pre-commitment independence is crucial if you’re to hold on to yourself, even as you give yourself permission to depend on your partner to address your fundamental dependency needs.”

Obviously, it’s a tough balancing act. But if you reflect long and hard on your own sense of self in a relationship, and invite your partner in on your reflections, you may be delighted with the reward.

Read Seltzer’s full article here.