Relationship Intimacy & Independence – Why Loving Couples Often Fight

On the topic of marriage, famed poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran writes

“…stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow…”

There is no doubt that intimacy and closeness are essential characteristics of a successful relationship. Indeed, most experts agree that couples commence their relationships in a relatively fused state. This is a wonderful time for new couples – every spare moment is spent together, personalities are discovered and emotions are shared – as the intensity of a new relationship is encouraged and enjoyed.

This state of togetherness and ‘preoccupation with the other’ helps to enable the creation of trusting and loving bonds which are crucial for a healthy relationship.

However, as relationships progress beyond the ‘honeymoon period’, the strains and stresses of everyday life start to have an impact.

  • Work stresses or financial pressure might limit the time available to spend together,
  • A new baby might mean that partners are no longer able to devote as much attention or emotional energy to each other,
  • Differences in cultural or political values may arise,
  • Partners may sense a loss of their pre-relationship interests and values.

For many couples, the very thing that heralds a strong relationship – intimacy and closeness – can become problematic in these situations because partners have become emotionally interdependent – they rely on each other to meet all their emotional needs and appease all their fears. When pressures arise, like those described above, each partner battles the other to return to a state where they can get the support they used to enjoy from one another. This can become a source of great conflict in otherwise loving relationships. For other couples, intimacy can become stifling if it leads the individuals in the relationship to lose their sense of self.

Self Soothing To Help With Independence

Psychologists and theorists like Murray Bowen, Dr. David Schnarch, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz have written a great deal on the theory of differentiation and the importance of learning how to self-soothe. These theorists agree that couples who become fused become dependent on each other to soothe each other when they become disappointed, frustrated or wounded. This becomes a real issue when partners enter natural states of conflicts associated with a move toward regaining one’s pre-relationship identity or when dealing with which stress and limited resources. In such circumstances, a person’s ability to self-soothe reduces their reliance on their partner to provide emotional resilience – it stops the fights which develop when we try to get our partners to do the soothing for us.

Relationship counselling can help couples to attain greater self reliance within the relationship, teaching relationship partners to sooth themselves; this enables each partner to reach a state where they can address issues and stresses in their lives in less heated ways.

Independence is a central aspect of the theory of differentiation and self-soothing, and is therefore an important element to foster and encourage in a relationship – allowing for differences in opinion, the capacity to enjoy separate interests, the ability to have independent friendships and to spend time apart from one another.

Time Apart in Relationship

At a practical level, this need for independence can often be reflected in the desire for a night out without one’s partner – a drink with the boys, perhaps, or a girls’ night out. Depending on the level of trust and independence in the relationship, and the degree of commitment to also spending time together, such a break from the routine can renew the couple’s sense of independence spurring renewed interest in each other. On the other hand, for couples who have difficulty connecting or who have trust issues, it can also be the cause of much tension and heated arguments.

One example of a common complaint talked about by couples in counselling is that one partner in the relationship, often the male, spends a lot of time drinking with mates, having late nights and coming home drunk. Many partners complain that the other partner is now preoccupied and no longer as available to them as they used to be.

Yet certainly one of the ways to maintain separateness in a relationship is to make time to enjoy spending time with your own friends. Typically speaking, women may tend to socialise in settings where they are able to talk more often and more deeply about emotional issues. Women with young children often find they have the unique opportunity to form relationships with other mothers through the benefits of shared experience or mothering groups. These experiences are becoming more common for men as traditional roles begin to be more evenly shared.

Again speaking typically, men may find the need to forge relationships with other men around shared activity. This may include spending time playing sport, at a pub or a club. For many men, these interactions help to revitalize the masculine energy of men away from the family home or relationship.

Whilst the need to have time alone or with friends can be a valid and valuable part of a healthy relationship, it can also raise some red flags. If you are going out to places and flirting with available men or women, then you are risking a sexual affair and there may be deeper issues influencing your need to go out without your partner. Similarly, if you find you are going out to escape your partner (rather than find yourself), then you are probably avoiding real issues in your relationship.

Relationship & Marriage Counselling

Relationship counselling with one of our Sydney-based psychologists or counsellors can assist couples to sort through the conflict associated with time apart, help develop trust and find ways to address the needs and concerns of each person in the relationship. Counselling can also help to resolve underlying issues or areas of conflict which might be fuelling the desire for time apart.

The fantasy of “happy ever after” only works if you are prepared to work on your relationship. Couples need to put energy into making their relationships work, especially over time. It’s not always easy, but a good relationship counsellor can assist you to engage in good relationship practice, understand your own and your partner’s needs, and provide tools to aid in the resolution of conflict.

If you think your relationship might benefit from the assistance of a specialist marriage, relationship and couples counsellor, you can call us to make an appointment and to discuss treatment options with one of our therapists.

Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney