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Commitment and Freedom: Can Couples Have It Both Ways?

Too much independence can undermine connection.

Key points

  • To experience life as rich and fulfilling, you need to engender a proper mix of independence and attachment.
  • You can’t feel free with your partner if you worry how your words and deeds will affect their regard for you.
  • Partners need to make their individual and relationship ideals complementary and commensurate.
Couple Working Through Conflict
Source: pegasustudio/123rf

Do you feel you have to sacrifice your cherished freedom if you’re to make a committed love relationship work? That you can safeguard it only if you remain single? Or, if you so dominate your partner that they give up their own freedom to accommodate yours?

To experience life as rich and fulfilling, we all need a proper mix of independence and affiliation. Lacking this balance, in a close relationship we’ll feel trapped and constrained. Or, if we’re insufficiently attached to anything outside ourselves, we’ll feel, well, trapped and constrained—deep within our too-insulated self. In neither instance are we likely to feel complete or happy.

That is, many of the downsides of being single are similar to those in a committed relationship. If as a single you have too much alone time, you’ll also feel lonely, depressed, and cut off from others—without the connection needed to feel whole. If as a married individual (an oxymoron?) you forfeit too much of your independence, you’ll lose sight of the goals that earlier felt essential to you. Projects you’d determined to pursue will be relegated to secondary status, or forgotten.

What it comes down to is that excessive independence can undermine crucial connections to another. Yet focusing exclusively on your relationship, and meeting the wants and needs of your significant other, can correspondingly deprive you from actualizing what, as an individual, would most satisfy you.

In the end, without locating what constitutes your middle ground, you’ll feel frustrated and unfulfilled. The question then is whether, generally speaking, to feel free and independent it may be preferable to remain single. A second, related question is whether, in order not to lose yourself in a relationship, you may need to somehow “isolate” yourself in it.

Nonetheless, at what point might your push for relational independence detract from the comfort and support available only by unreservedly committing to your partner? After all, while you may choose to make your personal needs less important once you green light a long-term relationship, they don’t go away either. So it’s hardly wise to neglect or renounce them.

Redefining Autonomy and Freedom in the Expanded Context of “We”

Have you struggled to find the right balance between maintaining intimate connection with your partner and maintaining personal autonomy? Ideally, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice either for the sake of the other. But you may yet need to redefine autonomy to make it compatible with your relationship.

Similar to autonomy, the term freedom implies feeling safe, secure, and self-determining. You can’t be spontaneous and open with your partner (i.e., “free”) if you’re worried about how your words and actions will affect their regard for you. It’s only when you feel free to disclose your authentic self that you can feel the freedom singles enjoy— assuming, that is, they fully accept themselves.

To have it both ways, these two supposedly disparate aspects of freedom must somehow coalesce into one. And that requires some creativity: conceiving things differently—as being one part of a twosome, or team.

Despite upholding your commitment to your partner, you need to negotiate the space that will protect your private time and assist you in pursuing your (non-shared) hobbies and interests—as well as your individual friendships, undertakings, and goals.

Too many people anxiously imagine it’s not possible to achieve a fulfilling relationship without forfeiting what, individually, might be equally fulfilling: That there’s a sort of zero sum gain in this—perhaps almost as much a lose/lose as a win/win. However, establishing a secure sense of “we” need not carry such a high cost.

That is, empathizing and administering unto your partner’s wants and needs doesn’t have to limit your freedom of choice. If doing things for them can fulfill a desire to express your love, caring, and devotion, you’ll actually be activating your own endorphins—and possibly just as many as, singly, pleasing yourself.

Finally, it’s all a matter of mindset. In fact, once you, and your committed partner, diligently apply yourselves to maximizing your mutual gratification, it doesn’t have to feel forced or unnatural. Think about it: it didn’t during courtship, did it?

The ability to grasp what facilitates relational happiness can inspire both of you to contribute to each other’s contentment. And this is when common distinctions between self-fulfillment and relational fulfillment start to fade.

Striving toward this overriding goal doesn’t necessitate self-denial but augmenting what, willingly, you offer your partner. For enlightened “give and take” can be every bit as gratifying as focusing totally on your individual needs.

As one writer affiliated with The Gottman Institute notes: "We are social animals. We need community. To achieve long-term happiness and self-actualization, we may need to reconsider our notion of “freedom.” Most of us need to feel “a part of something” in order to feel fulfilled." (Lisitsa, 2014)

Communication Is Key

Inasmuch as, particularly in our society, we place such a high value on independence, refocusing our attention on the needs of a committed relationship is challenging, if not daunting. But if we’re unyielding about protecting our right to be ourselves in a relationship, we may impede the very fulfillment we seek.

Still, co-creating an optimal balance between independence and affiliation doesn’t—and can’t—happen by itself. It requires both partners to get crystal clear about what, individually, is essential to preserve and how to accomplish this without compromising the relationship. And, as the expression goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Being receptive to your partner’s possibly contrary opinions and ideas may be tough. But if both of you can make your individual and relationship ideals complementary and commensurate, and talk to one another non-judgmentally—with tact, diplomacy, respect, and compassion—you’ll be well on your way to engendering a conjointly fulfilling union.

For example, immersing yourself in a novel might be part of your alone time and taking a dance class part of your together time. In contrast, taking an ambitiously long walk could be either, depending on your energy level and state of mind.

Yet whatever decision promotes an equilibrium between self-nurturing and couplehood nurturing will affirm that these two objectives can be successfully blended.

But you can’t do this without candidly communicating your needs and desires, while encouraging your partner to share their own. And you need to compromise without feeling compromised. Plus, you need to connect to one another without feeling disconnected from yourself. And this endeavor involves a readiness to experiment and take risks.

Moreover, viewpoints, attitudes, and goals change over time, so relationship dialogues shouldn’t be viewed as a one-off. As the two of you evolve, you may periodically need to revise your relationship objectives.

You’ll know you’re beginning to master the difficult challenges of an intimate relationship when its relational “we” fosters the individual “I”—and vice versa.

To be happy in singlehood, an individual must come to understand, love, honor, and respect themselves. And to be relationally happy these same elements must be present—though here the focus is on how each of you treats the other.

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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