I can sum up what I view as the most pervasive and pernicious relationship myth: Two become one.
Yes, a healthy, successful, and sustainable relationship must involve the creation, nurturance, and maintenance of a shared life together. Common purpose, common values, shared goals, and shared interests are necessary and vital to a healthy, sustainable, loving relationship—but they are not the only necessary and vital elements.
The two most vital elements are the individuals that enter into the shared relationship, and their own identity, purpose, passion, and expression.
Unfortunately, common relationship lore tells us that to nurture ourselves and take time away from the relationship to do so is selfish and downright harmful.
Let’s say I want time to myself to pursue an interest, a hobby, a business, or take a class. Common lore tells me I should not only strive to do those things with my partner, spouse, or companion, but that if my relationship is healthy I should want to do those things with him/her. If I don’t, I’m selfish. If I don’t, there’s something wrong with my relationship. If I don’t, I must be up to no good. And perhaps because I’ve bought into the myth, I don’t know how to set a boundary and either ask for or disclose what I need. Instead, I start to encourage my significant other to himself pursue hobbies, friendships, etc. on his own hoping that will leave me some ‘me’ time. But because he loves me and believes in the myth as well, he might say, “No baby, I want us to do things together.” Maybe he really feels this way, maybe he thinks it’s what you want to hear, or maybe he too doesn’t know how to ask for or disclose what he needs.
This behavior has several potential troubling results:
Frustration with oneself and our partner. Over time, I may get angry and down on myself for not pursuing my interests. I may feel a sense of dissatisfaction and disgruntlement, the source of which I can’t quite place or articulate. I might also start to be frustrated with my partner (as in my example above) for not having friends, hobbies, and interests outside the relationship—never mind that I don’t have them either.
A slow loss of self. How often have you heard someone in a long term relationship say one of the following?
~ “I’ve lost myself.”
~ “I don’t know where I went.”
~ “I don’t know what I enjoy anymore.”
~ “I don’t know who I am.”
I’ve heard it all too often. I’ve even said it myself in past relationships.
When we don’t continue to develop ourselves as individuals within our relationship, we run the risk of losing our identity at best and becoming people pleasers at worst. If this strikes a chord with you, Berni Sewell wrote openly and eloquently on tinybudda.com about her own habit of people pleasing, the results, her lessons learned, and helpful guidance on how to set boundaries.
Decreased enjoyment, appreciation, and wonder of one another. People are often attracted to each other for their independence, their joie de vivre, their passions, interests, and confidence, the nuanced details that make them distinctly who they are and why we love them. But as we become familiar with each other, as we build a shared life, as we lose sight of our individual identity, we forget the very things we first loved. After a while, we might even make our partners feel bad if they want to continue to express that individuality. Our solo pursuits and our passion for one another often die away in the sole pursuit and creation of a shared life based on the two become one myth. Esther Perel has written about this in her book Mating in Captivity, in which she “takes on tough questions, grappling with the obstacles and anxieties that arise when our quest for secure love conflicts with our pursuit of passion.” She has a captivating TedTalk as well.
Transference of expectations. In other words, we begin to expect another to do for us what we should rightly do for ourselves. For example, because I don’t take steps to build my own confidence, I increasingly rely on my partner to build it up. Because I don’t set boundaries or take action on my own development and fulfillment, I increasingly rely on my partner to fill up my empty spots. I made this mistake in my first marriage; I’ve watched friends, acquaintances, and clients head down the same road – it’s bumpy…and a dead end – straight to NoResponsiblityforMyself town.
Common lore tells us we’re supposed to spend all our free time together doing together things with loads of togetherness. Notice, this model is the hallmark of early relationships. The question I propose to you is this: Is that model desirable or even sustainable for relationships as they mature? I think you know my answer.
What is the alternative model then?
A life with three paths.
~ We create, nurture, and commit to a shared life together.
~ I nurture and develop myself on a separate but complementary and parallel path.
~ You nurture and develop yourself on a separate but complementary and parallel
When we continue to nurture and develop ourselves as individuals within a relationship, we are in fact nurturing and developing the relationship. When what we pursue and do is a genuine expression of our purpose and our passion, the pursuit allows us to be more fully expressed within our relationship. In turn, our relationships become more fully expressed, more fulfilling, more appreciated, and more passionate.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
What are your thoughts?