“The purpose of a relationship is not to have another who might complete you,
but to have another with whom you might share your completeness.”
- Neale Donald Walsch
One of the most important lessons that I learned in life is that relationships can be repaired. Not just patched, but completely, fully repaired – they can even be improved beyond their original state. No matter what problem you are facing, or how hopeless you feel, your relationship can flourish once again.
When my marriage was falling to pieces, I searched everywhere for an answer. I talked with anyone who would listen and read every relationship book I could get my hands on. Luckily, I found an answer. I want to share that answer with you.
A Personal Story
I came into marriage madly in love. We had no problems – Not a single fight. I honestly could not imagine anything ever going wrong between us. We were the perfect match.
Fast forward four years, and there we were sitting at the therapist’s office, I hadn’t eaten or slept in days, and I had had nonstop panic attacks for a week. My perfect marriage was killing me. I was ready to sign divorce papers if only to regain a minimal sense of control over my life.
A week before our first visit to a marriage counselor, my husband said that he wanted to talk. “I am a little busy now, could we talk, say, tomorrow night?” I asked. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be anything serious.
When we finally sat down to talk several days later, I didn’t stay seated for long.
“Do you still love me?” I asked when I realized that the situation was grave.
“I don’t know,” replied my husband after a long pause.
I cried. I screamed. I pleaded. I tried everything I could think of. But, after about 2 weeks, I realized that our marriage had been in trouble well before this dreadful night. The truth is that our relationship had been on a downward trajectory for several years. Very gradually, we had become less and less interested in each other, and less excited to spend time together.
By the time my husband brought our problems to light, they were already very serious. We had completely lost interest in one another. We each preferred to spend time with our friends than with each other. The spark, which was once a raging fire, was gone. The only difference between me and my husband was that he came out of denial sooner than I did. I kept telling myself that what was happening was normal, that the honeymoon feeling doesn’t last forever.
What caused the downwards spiral in our relationship? After much study, I found our that we were going through a process that most couples experience. Romantics call it “two become one.” Family therapists call it “emotional fusion.” It boils down to a loss of individuality and an over dependence on one another, which invariably hurts both parties involved, and eventually causes a loss of interest and excitement. In short, the relationship dies, regardless of whether the partners technically stay together.
Luckily, David and I found out what the problem was, and repaired our relationship. We are now happier than we have ever been. Our marriage is now better than our honeymoon.
No matter where you are now in your relationship, you can repair it.
Differentiation: when two become two
When two people get together they spend some time “becoming one”. They focus on their similarities. They feel as if they have found their other half. Two become one. This is a healthy start for a relationship. Indeed, it is absolutely necessary – otherwise, people usually separate very quickly. However, this becomes unhealthy when it goes on for too long.
As a relationship progresses, a different approach becomes necessary. Two need to become two again. This process is called “differentiation.”
Differentiation is the process of detaching from your partner; not completely, but enough to live a full, meaningful life. You don’t agree on everything. You don’t have all the same hobbies and interests. You don’t always want to do the same thing. The challenge is to admit to this simple reality, and regain your self-integrity. Your relationship will then enrich your life, and that of your partner, instead of stifling and limiting both of you.
Unfortunately, this contradicts what popular culture teaches us about relationships, and so, naturally, most couples don’t realize the importance of differentiation. They desperately hold onto that feeling of oneness. But, no two people are the same. Each of us has our own needs and desires and, if we are being honest with ourselves and with our partners, many of those needs and desires are not going to coincide. Being “one” eventually hurts both partners. Serious problems in relationships arise when we deny our individuality for too long.
Advantages of differentiation
Differentiation brings your relationship, and your life as a whole, to a new level of satisfaction. Here are just three key advantages of this process.
1. Your life as a whole will improve
The first, and most important thing about differentiation is that it improves your own life. When you realize your own need for individuality and autonomy, many things begin to change. You devote more of your time to things you enjoy. You spend your money in ways that enrich your life. You express your views even when they differ from your partner’s, and your relationship starts to reflect your needs and desires.
It is amazing how much we give up for those we love, regardless of whether it’s necessary or even a good idea to do so. People stop having friends, give up hobbies, even work at jobs they hate for their family. Differentiation gives you space to be you, and this is an inherently enjoyable, albeit not easy, process.
Differentiation promotes self-development. Too many people put a stop to their self-development once they get married or find a long-term partner. They feel obligated to give every moment of every day to their partner or their family. And so here ends all hopes for personal growth. “There simply isn’t enough time,” they might say. But when you differentiate yourself from your partner, begin to once again feel your autonomy and get in touch with your desires, your need for self-development quickly resurfaces. When you are no longer one with your partner, you will find the resources to devote to your own self-development.
2. Your partner will be more interested in you
Surely you have heard of women who “play hard to get.” You’ve probably also heard that guys who “play it cool” are more successful with women. While I can’t say that I support such tactics, there is a reason why they are so pervasive. Nobody wants to be with someone who is desperate. We are all attracted to confident people who know who they are and what they want. None of this changes when you enter a relationship. Even married people still prefer a confident, relaxed partner. It’s just human nature.
Differentiation gets you there without any kind of “playing.” By knowing who you are, and putting yourself first, you automatically relax and stop appearing desperate. Having your own life, your own desires, and your own interests, makes you genuinely more attractive to your partner.
3. You will be more interested in your partner
When you refocus on yourself, and start enjoying your life more, you create room to want, instead of need, your partner. Happier people have more capacity for love, and by focusing on yourself you quickly become a lot happier. In addition, when you stop sacrificing everything for your partner, resentment disappears. It creates room for real excitement, for real affection, and deep love.
How to achieve differentiation
1. Put yourself first.
You come first. Your partner comes second.
This attitude will benefit both of you. Your partner doesn’t live inside your head, nor do you in theirs. The only person who really knows who you are is you. If you take care of yourself, and they take care of themselves, you will both be better off. Taking care of each other, and building a relationship on the foundation of self-sacrifice simply does not work in practice. Self-integrity is a lot more practical.
2. Get in touch with your desires
If you have been fused (the opposite of differentiated) with your partner for too long, you may need to actively get in touch with your own desires. When David and I ran into difficulties, I had been out of touch with my own desires for so long that it took me some time to figure out who I am.
Put time aside to figure out what you want in your life, irrespective of anyone else. It may help to write some ideas. If you find yourself thinking “I want my partner to be nice to me,” or “I want a better partner,” simply refocus on yourself. This exercise isn’t about anyone else. It’s about you and your life as an individual. Think about professional goals, hobbies your would like to pursue, things you would like to do in your spare time – anything that’s about you, and you alone. Find within yourself a part that wants to live and enjoy, and ask it what it wants.
3. Reclaim your time
Who’s life is it anyway? It’s your life. Too many of us who are married live as if our life belongs to someone else. And what are the building blocks of life? Not other people, no. It’s seconds, minutes, hours. It’s time.
So reclaim your time. It is all yours. Whatever time you choose to give to others you do voluntarily. You don’t have to do anything.
But, what do you want to do? I am sure that there is a lot that you want. Go after it. Go after what you want. Be it belly dancing, a course to progress your career, picking up writing, learning to play the guitar, going for a trip around the world, or just having a relaxing bath… Go ahead, do what it is that you have always wanted to do – not for anybody else, but for yourself.
4. Reclaim your money
I can feel myself standing against most of society, but hear me out: Your money is yours. Not your partners. Just yours. You don’t owe it to anyone. The reason that this is so important is because most of us spend a lot of time and energy earning a living. By giving someone your money, you give them your time and energy. Instead of giving it away, you have the right to use it for yourself. I bet you could afford all kinds of stuff if you had only yourself to worry about.
Of course, some amount of sharing is inevitable in a family. If you have children, you need to pay your part. My husband and I share all household and childcare financial responsibilities. But whatever I have left over is mine – just mine. I can choose to save. I can choose to give it away. I can choose to get an overpriced hairstyle. The point is that it is my choice.
I realize that this doesn’t necessarily apply to all families. For those where one partner stays home and watches the children, perhaps splitting the money in half as it comes in, and placing it into two separate accounts would work.
5. Reclaim your opinion
By the time my marriage was in trouble, I didn’t even know what my opinions were anymore. It took me some time to even realize what I think about different issues. Whatever the issue may be, you have the right to your own opinion. Take time to figure out your own point of view. If you are being honest with yourself, you wouldn’t agree with your partner on everything. Differences in opinion are completely normal and healthy.
The next step is to learn how to communicate well and honestly.
6. Learn to communicate honestly
So you figured out how you feel. And, as it turns out, it isn’t all rosy. You might be afraid to express your views to your partner because of how they may react. Say it anyway. This was so hard for me to do. But, to my great surprise, the world doesn’t end when I say something that David might not like. Usually, he doesn’t even mind as much as I expected. But, even when he does, we work on figuring out a solution instead of sweeping it under the rug. You can also check out some more advice on communicating effectively and honestly.
7. Stand on your own two feet
Don’t lean on your partner. I know that popular media makes leaning on each other sound romantic, but it doesn’t work. Leaning on each other only makes both partners fall over, and leads to resentment.
You have the strength within yourself to carry yourself. You do. It can take time and courage to find that strength, but it is there. When you learn how to stand on your own feet, you will become irresistibly attractive to your partner, just like you were when you first met.
Independence is both an emotional and physical thing. When you are upset, practice self-soothing. Don’t immediately run to your partner and seek comfort from them. Do something that makes you feel better. Take a bath. Have herbal tea. Write in a journal. Do whatever it is that you would do to make yourself feel better had you been single. Of course, sharing your feelings with your partner is great, just don’t expect them to fix anything or sooth you.
If you are relying on your spouse financially, see if you can change that. This might not be an option if you are a stay at home parent to small children. However, in other situations financial independence can greatly help to repair a relationship. The less you need your partner, the freer you are to want them.
8. Support your partner’s differentiation
Finally, allow your partner to differentiate. Even though it might feel nice to have them at your beck and call, you will feel a lot more in love if they have their own life, too. Maybe your partner is already differentiating. If so, let them be. Let them go out. Let them pursue their interests. Let them find out who they are.
In some cases, some amount of negotiation my be necessary. My husband and I have a small child, so if one of us is spending time away from home, or spending time alone at home, the other partner needs to look after the child by themselves. If you have children, you will have to balance your own needs for freedom and autonomy with that of your partner. But, having a partner or a family shouldn’t prevent either of you from having a full life.
So there it is. It’s not a quick, easy fix, but it works. It worked wonders for me, and I hope that you will reap similar benefits from this approach.
There is a deep satisfaction to a relationship that consists of two strong individuals, each knowing who they are, and what they want. Neither needs the other, but both want to be together. You can be yourself with your partner, and they are themselves with you. You each pursue your own dreams, you each have your own friends, your own views, and your own opinions. Your life as individuals is rich and fulfilling. And when you come home, you want to see each other and share what’s on your mind. You look into each other’s eyes, deeply in love and excited to spend time together. You know who you are, and who your partner is, and you wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s why marriage is better than the honeymoon.
If you have any questions about my experience, differentiation, or if you feel like sharing your own experience, please feel free to leave a comment. This is your blog, not mine. I would love to hear what you think and answer your questions.
Note (April 22, 2013): Due to the popularity of this article, I put together an e-book to help you fix your relationship. Relationships: How To Fix Them & Keep The Love Alive gives you my best writing on the subject, showing you how to restore love, passion, and commitment in seemingly broken relationships. Download this e-book and start fixing your relationship now.
Here are some addition resources:
- In Quest of the Mythical Mate by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson
- The Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch.
- 5 Tips for Effective Communication In Relationships
- 8 Relationship Tips For Women From A Man
- 15 Tips To Keep Love Alive
- To Divorce or Not To Divorce
- Cinderella Files For Divorce: Debunking 3 Classical Relationship Myths
- The Science of Love
- A Poem About Differentiation