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How To Find The Balance Between Independence & Connection In Relationships

One of the core ways that we engage in relationships is by finding a balance between our need for connection and our need for separateness. A relationship where two people are enmeshed and share every aspect of life with each other isn’t a healthy relationship, nor is a relationship with so much distance that people don’t share anything with each other.

Too much closeness results in emotional symbiosis: when a person isn’t able to comprehend another person’s subjectivity and separateness. Emotional symbiosis, engulfment, merging, or fusion are all terms used to describe this relational phenomenon. Too much distance, on the other hand, can result in conflict, estrangement, loneliness, or what’s sometimes known as invisible divorce, a term used to refer to a couple who is still legally married but no longer have romantic feelings for or intimacy with each other. There may be deep feelings of negativity, relationship trauma, and long-standing patterns of disconnection.

Just like with diet, exercise, work, and play, the most sustainable and healthy position in partnership is a balancing point between connection and separateness. However, this balance isn’t an easy task between two people, mainly because partners often need different things when it comes to attachment. Balance requires awareness and intention, and without communication about needs and explicit negotiation of differences, couples often feel unbalanced.

As licensed clinical psychologist and couples therapist David Schnarch, Ph.D., writes in his book The Passionate Marriage, “Giving up your individuality to be together is as defeating in the long run as giving up your relationship to maintain your individuality. Either way, you end up being less of a person with less of a relationship.”

The two central drives for human beings are autonomy (control of our individuality) and attachment (urge for relationship). Healthy maturation means that we are able to achieve both of these and balance them in our lives.

The ability to balance our needs for autonomy and attachment is called differentiation. Differentiation is a biological process that occurs in all species. For humans, it is about becoming more of an individual and a solid person through relationships with others. It is the ability to separate ourselves from others. Differentiation allows us to feel our own subjective reality–bodies, emotions, and thoughts–as separate from another person while being in relationship with another person.

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