Breathing Room: Balancing Connection and Space In Relationships

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness…”

You’ve heard this, right? It’s from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and was a popular wedding reading choice some years back when I was researching such things. With a brief directive he promotes the importance of connection while preserving each partner’s individuality in relationship. He expands on this idea in the rest of the passage:

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Gibran was not only a writer but a philosopher and artist, as well, and his imagery here is quite lovely. When I read it, I can almost feel the easy flow of connection and separateness. It’s so clear that both are vital for the health of a relationship and the individuals involved. I read this and I can breathe.

Balancing healthy togetherness with important separateness in ways that are good for both partners and helpful (or at least not harmful) for the whole is what most people hope for, I think, but how can we accomplish this outside the lines of a philosopher’s poetry/prose? It’s not always easy, but staying mindful of this balance is extremely important in relationships.

First let’s talk systems and boundaries…

In certain models of psychotherapy, relationships are seen as a two-person system made up of the partners, and other variables: their personalities, histories, behaviors, emotions, beliefs, communication styles and roles played. These are coupled with the interpersonal boundaries held by each person that determine the degree of openness in how they interact around these variables both inside and outside the relationship. In my experience, the status of boundaries is an important factor in determining relationship health.

We hear a lot of talk about people who don’t have good boundaries, so what does that really mean when it comes to a relationship? What is a boundary in the interpersonal sense?  It’s certainly a lot more complex than this, but simply stated, a boundary is the limit a person sets that separates her physically, emotionally, and cognitively from other people, i.e., the space she creates to protect or maintain her sense of personal identity. Interpersonal boundaries are relationship gate-keepers and the beginning and ending point of couple interaction.  Within every relationship, each partner’s boundary has a greater or lesser degree of flexibility or rigidity, and, ideally, most hover somewhere in and around the middle on the spectrum between the two. Moving too far to either end can create some serious problems for a couple.

If boundaries are too permeable, one or both partners may over-identify with the other. They may define themselves more by the relationship, than by their individual identities.  These loose boundaries can lead to enmeshment for a couple. Imagine a web of entangled personalities, desires, needs, beliefs, physical sensations, and emotions without a clear sense of the unique selves of each partner. What I’m describing may seem like an extreme to illustrate a point, but enmeshment can happen in relationships to varying degrees and contributes to a number of problems:

  • rescuing or trying to fix partner’s emotional distress or problems
  • ignoring other important friendships or connections to focus on relationship
  • self-concept and mental/emotional well-being dependent on partner’s actions and emotions
  • extreme anxiety or mood shifts when there is unrest in the relationship and frantic efforts to resolve
  • passivity and dependence or over-responsibility and control
  • emotionally difficult when not with the other partner
  • absorbing the other person’s emotions and beliefs and uncertain of one’s own
  • dominant partner emerges and sets the tone or expectation for how the relationship will function

On the other hand, if boundaries are too rigid in one or both partners, an emotional and physical cut-off can occur, leading to disconnection in the relationship and a decline or cessation of intimacy. The greater the rigidity of boundaries, the more the energetic flow of variables mentioned above slows or stops in the relationship. This can lead to increasing boredom, emotional detachment, isolation, and potentially the dissolution of the system, i.e., living parallel lives or even break-up and/or divorce.

So how do we keep to the middle ground where we can maintain a healthy relationship that allows room for the choreography of movement between space and connection?

Here are a few ideas. You probably have some excellent ones of your own.

Connection:

  1. Take time to remember what brought you together in the first place. Why did you like this person? What was cool enough that you decided to throw your lot in together and join forces or even get hitched? Can you still appreciate these aspects? If you can’t remember, can you find new things you like?
  2. Talk to each other about more than the weather or (if kids are in the picture) the kids. Talk about what gets you jazzed: politics, music, art, sex, religion/spirituality, science, your pets, feminism, a shared love of coffee, the environment. Talk about how you’re feeling. Let your partner know you’ve heard the feeling content of what they are saying. Remember those late night discussions that could go on for hours? Find those again. The biggest thing here…talk to each other about more than family and social pleasantries.
  3. Invite your partner to become interested in your hobbies or your work. Talk to her or him about them and show genuine interest in your partner’s hobbies and work.
  4. Do intentionally thoughtful things for each other…a hug, a kiss, leaving notes, a text, a flower, or arrange a date. Do something that lets your partner know you’ve held space for him or her in your mind during the day.
  5. Encourage each other’s strengths and goals. If your partner wants to accomplish something, believe it’s possible and communicate this to her or him.
  6. Be willing to give and take on issues. Find the points you can’t compromise on and then acknowledge any areas of flexibility where you would be willing to give. This shows respect for both partner’s needs and wants.
  7. Make time for each other, whether it be an in-house date of dinner, a movie, or sex or a night out. Whatever you’re doing, stay present and try not to hop on the train of the next task in your mind.

Space:

  1. Talk about who you are, how you feel, and what you need with your partner even if it creates disagreement. Respectful disagreement can help you learn about each other. It fosters growth and sometimes healthy compromise.
  2. Spend time with family and friends away from your partner. If you have a loved one, friend, or a group you enjoy, spend time talking to them or go out with them without your partner and encourage your partner to do the same. This helps widen your network of social and emotional support.
  3. Find a hobby or an activity you enjoy for just you and allow yourself to dive in. Notice the awesome things it does for you.
  4. Be thoughtful in examining your own beliefs and values. Evaluate what is deeply meaningful to you. Where do you and your partner intersect and where do you differ? Respect and celebrate those differences.
  5. Carve out time to do something by yourself: read, exercise, go to a movie, eat, meditate…and support your partner in doing the same.
  6. Periodically discuss power, roles, and responsibilities and how they impact your relationship. If things seem out of balance, work together on some fine-tuning, so the relationship feels more balanced and you both have some breathing room.
  7. Trust your partner and yourself to protect your relationship and encourage each other to have your own identities. If you are struggling with trust or other personal issues or questions, seek support.

In your own relationships, how do you keep this movement flowing?

As you read through this, if you become aware of imbalances in your relationship that are more problematic than you believe you have the personal resources to manage, couples and/or individual counseling may be helpful. Neither you nor your partner have to sort things out on your own. Becoming aware of what’s going on is a huge step!

Wishing you the joy of a loving connection full of comfortable spaces. Take care of yourself…

Abbie

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