I’ve been to a bunch of weddings and I often hear the phrase “two become one” when talking about the commitment two people are making. It can bring about such warm sentiments thinking about how two people are melding their lives together.
But if I think about this as a marriage and family therapist, it’s really an issue. When I counsel clients, I don’t tell them that they are becoming “one” with their commitment to marriage. Becoming “one” implies that you are giving up part of what makes you uniquely you. And, if one person is more dominant, that would mean there is more of the one person and less of the other…and over time that can take a toll on a relationship.
This concept makes me think of two terms in family therapy called enmeshment and differentiation. Enmeshment is when there are blurred lines between what is you and what is me. We both think we have to have the same opinions, feel the same way about things, have the same interests and so on to be intimately close. This couldn’t be further from the truth. So, in order to grow in this area, the process of differentiating yourself is finding a YOU apart from others. Differences are healthy! Really, the more two people can come together and accept differences, be their unique self…this is what creates intimacy in relationships.
Ask yourself a few questions:
1) Do you struggle when your partner is experiencing emotions? It’s normal to struggle, but not to the point where it completely takes over and derails you.
2) Do you struggle if your partner does not take on your own emotions?
3) Do you struggle if you have different opinions of close others, thinking that in order to be close you must have the same opinions?
4) Do you try to convince others to think, act, feel the same way you do?
5) How do you feel if your partner has different friends or hobbies from you?
6) What did you learn from your family growing up about how to handle emotions? What did you learn from your family about differences?
Pay attention to that last question. Often in therapy I will ask the client, “where did you learn that?” We have set reactions to life events and often times we learn them somewhere growing up. A female client who apologizes to me about her anger might have learned growing up that women are not allowed to be angry.
Usually people pick partners who have a similar level of differentiation. So, if you’re finding that you get stuck in a certain area, chances are your partner might get stuck too. Explore together your family of origin and what was expected in terms of how emotions and differences were handled. If you’re finding that you are very reactive to your partner, it might mean you need to learn to differentiate more. Here’s an example of what I mean by reactive: A husband needs to make a doctor’s appointment, but as soon as he starts he asks his wife to make the call. He also asks her to find the insurance card and then also find out how much is covered. She is in the middle of talking on the phone. She gets so angry (reactive) to her husband’s demands. She hangs up the phone and yells at him for being rude. Even though she is angry, she moves forward with fulfilling his request, yet under her breath is she is saying what a jerk he is. As this couple re-tells their story, as an onlooker I could say, “Couldn’t you calmly tell him you’re on the phone and walk away?...and that he can make his own doctor’s appointment?” I can say that because I’m an outsider and have no emotional connection to the situation or their family system. Proper boundaries in this situation could be for the wife to set her limit. Chances are, however, that they have had years of the wife being what is called the “over-functioner” in their marriage. This is a person that does 80% to the other’s 20%. Now, most times it’s never completely 50/50, that’s not reality, but it’s important to pay attention when things get out of balance. The thing to note in this example is that it would be ok for the wife to help the husband only if it was out of good-will. That is, if she wanted to help. But because it created such a reaction from her and she was angry, I could tell that it was not something she wanted to do.
Setting appropriate boundaries will help create a clearer sense of what is you apart from your partner. You might need help from an outsider with this because we can get so blinded to an in-balance of boundaries we have in our relationships. Take time to explore this topic with your partner and see what you come up with! Accept what arises and see it as an invitation for growth. If you want help in your exploration and you're not yet married, check out my course that helps you dig deeper into your love life! Happy rooting!