Resolution, Not Conflict

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Healthy Relationships Breathe In and Out Like An Accordion

7 habits of happy couples for keeping both autonomy and togetherness

(c) duckeesue www.fotosearch.com Stock Photography
Happy couples, married or not, allow their relationship to breathe in and out. Like the two sides of an accordion, partners in a healthy relationship rhythmically alternate between being together and apart.  Breathing in and out like this is vital to a happy, healthy partnership.

Committed couples typically sleep and eat together, raise children, and share finances and leisure activities. Closeness from physical proximity, talking together, smiling, hugging and sexual intimacy also continually refresh their connection, their sense of being two parts of one we unit.

At other times the partners will be physically apart, each at separate work sites, enjoying separate friends or doing independent activities. Apart times strengthen each partner's individual identity.

The thoughtful psychologist Andras Angyal defined a healthy person as someone who sustains both autonomy and belonging. Happy couples with healthy relationships fit this description, and choreograph the proportions and ways to be together and apart that work for their unique personalities.

What is it about alternating time together and apart that nurtures healthy relationships?

Separate experiences enhance your sense of autonomy so you feel like a complete person who stands on his/her own, not a dependent person.  Paradoxically, independence enhances ability to participate in a maturely inter-dependent relationship. 

Separate experiences also give you new perspectives to contribute when you return to your partnership. 

Together time keeps relationships feeling emotionally bonded.

Still ,there are risks from both excessive autonomy and from too much togetherness. Too much together time can feel suffocating. Too much distance can make the emotional bond between you too frail.

Here’s seven guidelines to keep in mind as your partnership accordions in and out. They are conclusions I've drawn from the problems and successes that I see in my couples therapy practice.

1. Keep the other in your heart when you are apart.

When couples are apart, they need to sustain awareness of each other, remembering that they have already chosen a partner.  Becoming overly friendly or flirtatious with someone else, or doing anything that the partner would regard as out of bounds for their partnership, can wreak havoc on the couple bond.

2. Keep your individual identity alive when you are together.

If you love cycling and your partner is a gardener, giving up on the interests and activities that define you can leave you feeling less than your original self rather than augmented by your partnership. 

Speaking up about your preferences therefore is vital. Expecting your partner to read your mind is a losing strategy. If you don’t advocate for yourself, who will? At the same time, listening to your partner’s concerns and preferences is equally vital. 

As the ancient philosopher Hillel once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am for myself alone, what good am I?”

3.  Allocate enough of each kind of time, together and apart.

Too much togetherness can make a partnership begin to feel stale, boring, or stifling. Too much separate independent time makes the partners wonder “Wasn’t there someone I used to feel connected to?”

One rule of healthy coupling is to aim for at least some time together, and some apart, everyday, with more of each on the weekends. 

A hard challenge for couples with children is carving out couples time without the kids. Late bedtimes for young children especially can block couples from time to cozy up to just each other. Remember therefore what they say in an airplane: put on your oxygen mask before you help your children. Your couplehood is critically important to your children's survival.

4.  Keep within your boundaries when you are together.  No trespassing or criticizing.

Be careful to avoid what I call “crossovers,” that is, crossing the boundaries between you and your loved one by saying what you think s/he thinks, feels or should do. "You think it's crazy to..." or
"You should just...."

Do not enter your partner's head without permission by guessing or assumig you know your partner's thoughts or feelings. Your job is to verbalize your own thoughts and feelings. Your partner is in charge of the same on the other side of the invisible and yet essential boundary between you.

Instead of guessing or assuming, ask: "What are  your thoughts on that?" or "How do you feel about ...?" 

Also, hold the criticism.  As I have explained in a prior blogpost, instead of criticism, give feedback.

5.  Reach out to each other when you are apart.

We live in times where technology lets us phone, text, and skype our loved ones whenever and from wherever. Daily contact when one of you is away for more than a day is especially vital to keep your connection refreshed.

At the same time, too many phone calls and texts during the day when you are each at work can become annoying interruptions. Pace these contacts thoughtfully.  Speak up if the rate feels to you like too often or too seldom.

6. Initiate necessary in-out directional changes. Do not depend on drift.

You and your partner are likely at times to feel too distant, either from too much time physically apart or from insufficiently interacting with talking, hugging, smiling and more when you are together. Pay attention. And do something to reconnect. This is an accordion that needs you at the controls, especially for re-connecting sexually if you’ve been too long sexually separate.

Similarly, if you are beginning to experience too much togetherness, develop kindly ways of changing direction. “I’d like some alone time to read,”  is obviously more tactful than “Stop talking so much. You never leave me alone…”

The most complex directional changes are when one of you wants together time and the other wants to "cave" that is, to be alone.  There's a risk that the loner will be reluctant to speak up, acting grumpy instead.  And there's a risk that the social being will interpret her partner's alone-time desire as a personal rejection, "He doesn't like me!" rather than understand that some folks periodically need to clear their head with alone time.  

The cure: learn to communicate openly and safely about your concerns and preferences. 

7.  Entrances and exits are vulnerable times. Handle them with care.

There’s a saying in family therapy that folks need to come together to come apart. Hello and goodbye rituals before one of you heads out the door for work serve that purpose. A tender moment of hugs, eye contact and fond words before one of you departs invites you both to remember the importance of your relationship while you are apart.

Re-entry when you return home also merits sensitive choreography. Make these moments special.  It’s no surprise that all cultures seem to have words and rituals for hello and goodbye! 

In closing, I’m hearing in my mind’s ear the words of a song by the Incredible String Band.“What is it that I am?  And what is it that I am a part of?” 

Sustaining both autonomy and belonging, as I said at the outset of this posting, is vital to assuring a that a loving relationship will be long-lasting.  Couples who can accordion in and out, sometimes enjoying independent individual mode and at other times enjoying being a closely bonded twosome, increase their odds of staying a happy couple with a healthy relationship.

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treating and writing about couple relationships.  Her current major project is an interactive website that teaches couples the skills for relationship succes: PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is the author of many books, including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York University.

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