I received an email earlier this week from a married friend of mine who always signs off, “With love from Natalie and Jeff.” Jeff has never sent me an email nor, as far as I can tell, does Natalie consult with him in advance about what she plans to write. Despite its inclusive closing, the email came from Natalie alone. I was reminded of a couple I knew back in Los Angeles, Tom and Molly, who shared a single email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. It was a clever play on the word tamale, of course; but even then, in the early days of email, I wondered why they didn’t have separate addresses. Marriage involves the formation of a new joint identity, but for some married people (and for some unmarried couples, too), this new combined identity overshadows and often eclipses a separate sense of self for its members.
“I now pronounce you husbandwife.”
I’m sure you’ve known couples who seem to be joined at the hip, who have no separate interests and do virtually everything together. Sometimes such couples are best friends as well as relationship partners, with a great many shared passions and preferred activities. But often, what they actually share are problems with separation and merger. For a variety of psychological reasons, they may have merged identities on an unconscious level, becoming emotional “Siamese twins” in order to avoid the experience of being two separate people. To experience the actual dependency involved in all significant emotional relationships, you have to recognize that you are distinct from the person you need. If I’m unconsciously merged with you, I thereby avoid the conscious experience of actual dependency and the potential for pain that goes with it: frustration, disappointment, jealousy, loss. Furthermore, if you and I agree that we are the same person and want the same thing, we don’t have to deal with the conflict, negotiation and compromise that make up a part of all healthy relationships.
Sometimes, these fusion-based relationships are asymmetrical — that is, rather than feeling the same way, the needs of one partner take precedence over those of the other. The apparenlty subservient partner appears to be without needs and is devoted to caring for the spouse. Now we’re in the realm of codependency — one of those buzzbirds people throw around without fully understanding what it means. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:
a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of, or control of, another. It also often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships. Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns. Narcissists are considered to be natural magnets for the codependent.
With its emphasis on manipulation and control (one person the apparent victim of another due to “low self-esteem”), this definition obscures the fact that a codependent relationship actually satisfies the unconscious emotional needs of both parties. For example, codependency may be a shared delusion where we both agree that I am the strong one without significant needs; you are the needy one with all the difficulties but you actually control me. I exist in order to look after you. On an unconscious level, I off-load my needs and vulnerability into you, thus ridding myself of hated aspects of myself; and while you may lack certain emotional capacities or psychological strengths, you annex those very qualities in me and take control of them. Neither one of us is truly needy or separate.
In my practice, I’ve worked with clients on either side of the codependent relationship. An emotionally chaotic woman, forever in crisis, married to a high-powered litigation attorney who (from what I could gather) had little conscious awareness of his own feelings and needs. A schizoid engineer who projected unconscious pain and despair into his wife, who was chronically depressed and unable to work, continually in need of emotional “rescues.” You’ve probably known married people with similar dynamics to their relationships. This type of codependency can be tremendously stable and enduring, despite the apparent dissatisfaction of both parties.
When one spouse in such a marriage starts to grow and separate (perhaps as a result of psychotherapy), it unsettles that equilibrium; either or both partners may find it so threatening that they seek to re-merge and undo the change. One of my clients is currently going through such a painful transition in her marriage. The apparently “crazy” spouse, she has lived for years in a state of delusional fusion with her husband, the strong and unemotional one. As she has begun to separate from him, becoming healthier and more self-reliant, more able to cope alone with the emotional challenges of her life, she notices that he repeatedly tries to “incite” her to craziness. He will say things or behave in ways designed to trigger a familiar emotional outburst. To the extent she can refrain, and as she has become more invested in her own hobbies and interests that don’t include him, he feels threatened and jealous. He hovers about, waiting for her to be free, always trying to enlist her in one of his own activities because he’s unwilling to do things alone.
While such separation/individuation struggles are extreme, all of us in committed, long-term relationships must try to find a balance between shared and separate experiences, between our identities as individuals and as halves of a couple. In order to keep our relationships emotionally vital, we need to make sure we have enough “us” time, even when one or both of us may want to do something apart. We also need to make sure we have enough alone time for pursuing separate interests or friendships; if we don’t, the marriage may become stifling or claustrophobic. I’m sure you (like me) have known couples who went too far in either direction. I personally find it a difficult balance to achieve. If I’m not careful, I become too selfishly focused on my writing ambitions or playing piano; if I put those interests aside too extensively for the “common” good, I can easily feel deprived and resentful.
How do you remain an individual without sacrificing emotional connection? How do you remain emotionally involved with your partner without losing sight of yourself?