One thing I notice in a lot of couples who come through my door is a lack of balance in their relationship.
What do I mean by this?
When two people come together there are now three parts to this system; “you,” “me,” and “we.” Imagine if you draw two overlapping circles. There are three parts – the individual pieces on the sides and the overlapping piece in the middle. The outer parts represent each person and the middle is where they join in relationship. Every relationship will look slightly different on paper in where the emphasis is.
On one end of the continuum will be the couple where each person essentially lives a separate life with different friends, few mutual decisions and little time spent together. I once had a couple who literally never sat down to eat with one another and had separate bedrooms. On paper, this couple would be drawn as two separate circles next to each other with no overlap. Essentially, they are extremely “you” and “me” focused with no “we.” In this scenario, one partner often desires more togetherness with the other but their mate possibly fears intimacy and a perceived loss of their independence.
On the other side, there’s the couple who spends as much time as humanly possible together, with no outside friendships or interests. They are totally enmeshed in one another. They live “as one.” The circles would be almost totally overlapping each other, with most of the focus on “we” and very little, if any “you” and “me.” Sometimes, this can be the dynamic in a controlling relationship where one person pulls the other one in very close to maintain control.
The previous examples are extreme and the reality is that most people fall somewhere in the middle. It’s important to mention that these balance styles may work for some people and if it does, that’s wonderful.
However, in my experience, I find that the most content couples are those whose circles overlap in the middle, where there is equal attention paid to “you,” “me” and “we.” Each partner is able to maintain their own identity, friends, hobbies and outside interests while nurturing the relationship. A personally fulfilled person can be more open, giving and loving to their partner than one who has lost their identity. The relationship is where they come together to share their friendship, intimacy, struggles, mutual friends, hopes dreams, meals and bills.
When I work with couples, I always assess their relationship balance and whether it’s working for them both. If it’s not, it first must be understood why they operate that way. There are many reasons that motivate people towards the various styles including family of origin experience (what did their parents do?), fear of engulfment or the opposite, fear of abandonment. The next step is figuring out what they can do differently to create more balance. Often it involves increased awareness, better communication and behavioral change. Ideally, the end result is the two overlapping circles that validate all three parts – the “you,” the “me” and the “we.”
Lisa Brookes Kift is a Marriage & Family Therapist Registered Intern practicing in San Diego, California. She does individual, couples and premarital counseling. For more information see her website at www.lisakifttherapy.com.