Mind Matters — The I and the We

“Let there be spaces between your togetherness,” said Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet, long ago. Meanwhile, before even his words, the German poet, R.M. Rilke reminds us, “Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”

The poets speak the wisdom of family and couples therapists. I often describe to my clients how relationships need both an “I” and a “we.” Whether couples are straight or gay makes no matter: the dynamics are the same. Every long term relationship—marriage—to be healthy, necessitates a continual balance between being two individuals and being a unit of “one.”

Without a balance between these two opposites—separateness and togetherness—relationships can flounder. I have seen couples who have grown apart because their individual paths were so dominant that their lives stopped intersecting: these couples literally grew apart. Living in parallel universes, they no longer shared any interests, did not initiate pursuits that would bring them together again.

The other end of the spectrum involves couples who display such togetherness that there is no breathing room. What often happens in such cases is that one person will feel smothered by the “fusion” and attempts to break free. Unfortunately, the break may not just be a plea for space in the relationship but may be a cry instead to sever the relationship entirely.

Another version of “we-ness” gone awry occurs when one person in the relationship “de-selfs” him or herself in deference to the other. In “de-selfing” there is an imbalance of “power” in the relationship. Instead of being peers, seeing “eye to eye,” one partner maybe more dominant while the other may be more submissive. This can be blatant: as in physically abusive relationships where one partner, usually the male, controls the other, usually the woman, by violence. Yet this power play can be subtle as well—for example, when one partner controls the purse strings or when job moves are made unilaterally without consideration of the effects on the partner and the family in general.

An antidote to “de-selfing” is respect for each individual’s needs. Having a “self” is not to be confused with selfishness. Honoring the self in relationship is the only way to bring aliveness to the “we” of relationship.

I recall many years ago, the early family therapists, Salvador and Pat Minuchin, remarking how partners may sometimes have to take turns in the individuation process. Simply put, “individuation” is about maturation with the adult that is fully you, as in Abraham Maslow’s terms, it is self actualization. The Minuchins observed, in their work with graduate students, that only one student partner could complete his or her dissertation while the other partner kept the home fires burning. Then they could switch roles. In other words, one person kept the we-ness alive and well, while the other focused on individuation. Otherwise, if both were individuating at the same time, the possibility loomed large that each would veer off into separate parallel universes! Surely there are exceptions to the Minuchin’s generalization. Anecdotally, however, I can attest that my spouse completed his dissertation first, and then I completed min.

In healthy relationships, there is respect for both the “I” and the “We.” There is acknowledgment that awareness, growth, and aliveness come from the constant movement between these seeming polarities. In fact, the dance between gives more fullness to both!