Creating separation to find our individual vitality
by Sydney McCall Patel, Marriage and Family Therapist, Marin County, California
Somehow my husband and I had fallen into being like each other’s pet dogs; waiting for the other in the car outside of the grocery store, driving each other to doctor’s appointments, attending practically all social events together. We basically said yes to doing everything together. We enjoyed each other and thought why not spend every moment together. But we had forgotten to examine whether or not what we were doing was something we really wanted for ourselves.
If one of us was feeling down then the other would feel it too. Space between us was not something we knew how to value or sustain. This had been our default to some degree off and on since the beginning of our relationship almost a decade ago. And I had grown up in a family where there was really no such thing as being too close so it didn’t cross my mind that some distance could be of value. We didn’t know we felt cramped until we changed our dynamic and began to feel something different.
Enmeshment, which was our particular entrenched dynamic, is an easy thing to not recognize as a problem because it can look a lot like an intimate bond, the kind of relationship we often idealize. But it also means we are over involved in each other’s worlds and our own sense of autonomy is pretty inaccessible. It is a concept that was introduced by family therapist Salvador Minuchin to describe family systems where an individual struggles to understand their deeper needs and drives because of these diffused boundaries.
At the opposite end of our experience are couples with rigid boundaries where they are disengaged and not emotionally involved in each others’ lives. This rigidity leaves so much distance between members that they are essentially psychically alone. In order to find real balance what we can aim for are clear relationships to facilitate greater intimacy as well as self direction and individual growth for both members. In a clear relationship the couple has its own identity, and each member also has a distinct identity. So my work and our work as a couple has been untangling ourselves from this web so we can each find a fuller expression of our individual selves that we can bring back to our coupledom.
In my own relationship and in my psychotherapy practice in Marin county, I frequently see how we can stop really looking to view our partners as separate. Instead they become our security blankets to keep us comfortable. Nevertheless, confinement can enter the relationship when we are held too tight, we need enough distance to also feed each other’s individuality. And something about this “until death due us part” thing can create a false security where we take the other for granted. Life is filled with risk, it is precious and vulnerable just like our relationship, and the more we feel into that preciousness then the more aliveness and gratitude we experience for one another.
Too often I see how we can fall into protecting ourselves and each other, in not wanting to hurt one another we can push these deeper yearnings for autonomy and aliveness down. Sometimes we need a therapist to help us secure the foundation of safety to have the open conversations to build a clearer relationship. Couples therapy (especially Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy EFT) can help us to really hear one another so we can see ourselves separately enough to know who we really are together. Whereas if we remain only blended it’s harder to recognize what ingredients we are made of.
My husband and I are working to speak courageously to one another to uncover what’s underneath the other’s icebergs. Sometimes this process is intense, pushing us to the edges of our comfort zones. Yet the intensity is necessary to actually change our enmeshed relationship pattern. It is both energizing and deeply relieving to find this new ground together. And building this foundation of honest dialogue gives us the ability to come back to discussing our inner truths whatever they may be. From this exposed place of inviting our deeper feelings forward, perhaps we can see ourselves and the other more clearly and nourish what’s living underneath each other’s icebergs.