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Balancing Togetherness and Individuality


Mutuality is one of the most important aspects of marriage success. But how do you become part of a couple while maintaining a strong sense of yourself? How do you manage your need for time together and time apart? And what do you do if you and your partner have different ideas of how much time to spend together? How much time together is enough? Is there such a thing as too much togetherness? Is there a way to maintain closeness even when your work life is especially demanding of your time and attention, perhaps including prolonged separations?


Obviously, these are questions without simple answers, but research on successful marriage indicates that one key is to find the middle ground. According to David Olsen, couples who are neither too separate from one another, nor overly involved with one another are in the best position to succeed. Moderate levels of closeness are optimal. Very low or high levels of autonomy in marriage work less well. By the way, the same model applies to your relationships with your families of origin­-being neither too close, nor overly distant works best.

In fact, we learn our patterns of togetherness and individuality in our families of origin. Different families have different styles. Some families emphasize closeness, while others accentuate individual needs and activities. Your partner will have different expectations shaped by their family experience, so you may have to find a new balance.


Itís common for couples to struggle over finding the "right" balance of time spent together and apart, as well as what level of closeness to maintain with oneís original family. However, your aim should be to find a cooperative rather than adversarial way to engage in this essential process.

Couples may find it challenges them both personally to make changes in style as they both steer for the middle ground by moderating extreme togetherness or autonomy. This is true whether you are both from similar positions on the closeness Ďscaleí or from different ends of the scale. Itís definitely worth the effort to find a path that works for both of you as a couple and for each individually, though. This is part of establishing a new identity as a member of unique partnership that wonít be exactly like your familyís or your partnerís family or that of any previous relationship.


One important aspect of individuality involves relationships outside of your marriage. Women are more inclined to rely on friends or relatives, in addition to their partner, for emotional support. Men, on the other hand, tend to rely more on their partner for most of their support. So women sometimes run the risk that their partner may be upset by their degree of involvement with Ďoutsiders.í Men may not have sufficient outside support during periods when their partner is less emotionally available.

Social patterns that worked well for you previously may shift after marriage to take account of new needs. For example, one person was accustomed to going out on Friday nights out with co-workers to unwind, but their partner wanted to spend Friday evenings together. You may need more time for couples friends in your social schedule after marriage, but will still want to maintain relationships with single friends. Discuss social adjustments with your partner to work out a balance thatís comfortable for both of you.


For most couples these days the challenge is finding ways to stay close enough in the face of work and other demands. Researchers like John Gottman tell us that successful couples spend a minimum of 12 to 15 hours of non-sleep, non-TV time together each week. Daily non-stress communication (even just 10 minutes) to keep in touch with each otherís lives and other daily bonding rituals also promotes your sense of togetherness.

When youíre apart, whether just for a portion of the day or for extended business travel, how you keep in touch and how you get back together can be more important that how much time you are separated. Successful couples touch base with each other at least once or twice a day, even if for just a few minutes.


They also make sure that their reunion receives some attention. Make the time and effort to renew your bond at the end of the day and at the end of the week. Develop familiar rituals that you both enjoy for reconnecting. These can be as simple as trading neck massages or enjoying a cocktail together before the TV comes on.

Couples who use these reconnecting strategies can tolerate more separation while still remaining close to each other. Couples who donít reconnect can feel isolated from each other, even with less separation. In other words, itís not necessarily how much you are separated, but how you manage keeping in touch and renewing your bond.


Decision-making is another realm where the tension between individuality and togetherness can be confusing for couples. If mutuality and teamwork are major factors in marriage success and happiness, how much weight should you give to your own needs and preferences relative to those of your partner?

With couples marrying later, more people than ever spend a good many years living as singles after leaving their family of origin. They become accustomed to living according to their own preferences. The individualism of American life is reinforced by advertising messages, employer expectations, cultural values, etc.


The longer youíve been living on your own, the more you mature and develop. Maturity is obviously a plus for marriage success. But it also tends to increase your differentiation from your partner. It becomes more of a challenge to combine the lives of two highly individual people in your late twenties, than your early twenties; even more so in your thirties; and so on. In any case, few people believe that itís a healthy approach to give up your individuality totally in marriage.

So, how to reconcile this reality of two people with important individual needs and preferences with the imperative to operate as a team in marriage?


First, be clear with yourself and your partner about your own needs and wants (and understand the difference between these), as well as, what you are will to contribute to a solution.

Sometimes itís just a question of getting used to talking with your partner about decisions that affect you both. For example, before marriage people are accustomed to making decisions about home décor independently. You may find, however, that your partner will have an unexpected reaction if a new painting or piece of furniture suddenly appears in your home without prior consultation.


Obviously, being a team doesnít mean that you have to agree about everything. It is important to pick your battles though. You canít get your way about every disagreement and pushing to do so can drive up your relationship negatives.


Experts recommend treating differences, disagreements and individuality as a team matter to be managed together. Agree to allow your partner to be different in the ways that are most important to them. And insist on your own need to be an individual, as well as a partner, when itís really important to you.


Donít be tempted into adversarial positions, just because you are different from each other. Appreciate and nurture the healthy individuality of each other.


Talk together to work out the zones of autonomy and zones of togetherness in your relationship: For example, he loves fishing, but she doesn't share this interest. So he has his fishing outings with friends. She takes advantage of this time to pursue her passion for art, which he doesnít share, by visiting museums and galleries with some of her friends.


Plan to keep your bond strong by learning more about practical strategies to balance togetherness and individuality that fit your relationship style and are comfortable for both genders. Enhance your intimacy, communication and conflict management skills at a Marriage Success Training seminar.


Click here for related reading and references list.


MST helps couples learn more about practical bonding strategies that fit their relationship style and are comfortable for both genders. Click here to learn about the benefits of MST.


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Copyright 2003-2005, Patricia S. & Gregory A. Kuhlman. You may copy this article for non-commercial use provided that no changes are made and this copyright notice, author credit and source citation are included.




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