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Individuation: Gaining a Clearer Sense of Self

Their relationship progressed when they were forced to spend time apart.

Source: Niko_Shogol/Pixabay

Linda: Ira and Jeanette owned two homes, one in Chicago and a vacation home in a quiet fishing village in Mexico. Ira dearly loved their home in Mexico on the beach where he could walk out the door and swim in the aquamarine sea. Over the years that they had been vacationing there, he had made some friends. Jeanette loved the excitement and variety of the city. Ira longed to spend more time in the quiet environment where he felt most at peace. Since most of his work could be done online, he could even keep his business in good shape when they spent extended time in Mexico.

Their difference over the stimulation of being in the city vs. the quiet of their vacation home was only one of their differences. Jeanette’s parents did everything together; they were almost never apart. That was the model she held of a good marriage. Jeanette wanted to grocery shop together; Ira preferred to alternate the shopping. Jeanette wanted to prepare meals together, while Ira preferred to alternate who cooked. Jeanette wanted to sit down to all their meals together, and Ira felt that it was acceptable to have some meals separately. Jeanette wanted to put the kids and grandkids on speakerphone so that she and Ira could speak with them together. Ira preferred to call the kids and grandkids by himself and found it overwhelming to have so many family members speaking on the same call. She wanted to spend their evenings playing board games, and although Ira was willing to play a night or two a week, that was his limit. Jeanette did not approve of separate vacations, while Ira thought it was a good idea.

When Jeanette was busy raising the children, she was preoccupied with their care. But now that the last child had moved out, Jeanette was suffering from empty-nest syndrome, compounded by her not having a career. It was an especially vulnerable time for her, and their differences became more pronounced when Ira conducted his business behind a closed door. Jeanette took it as a personal rejection. Their fights became more frequent and over-heated.

Their first three marriage counselors didn’t make much headway; they found themselves still entrenched in a standoff. Neither one would budge from their position, they could not come to any joint agreement. In a counseling session with the third marriage counselor, Ira said, “I’m going to Mexico. You don’t have to come with me, but I’m going.” Jeanette was furious, but Ira carried out his plan. He had only intended to stay for a few weeks, but while he was in Mexico the Pandemic heated up. The one place where these two were aligned was that it was too dangerous for her to fly to Mexico and too dangerous for him to fly back to Chicago. Their separation went on for several months.

Jeanette: “It’s so obvious to me now that Ira does love me. All those months, he was consistent about our Zoom and Facetime sessions. He really showed up so we both enjoyed our calls. I have come to understand that we can be connected even though we are in different countries. I have been able to make a good life for myself in Chicago where my best friends, kids, and grandkids live. I was shocked to find that I could enjoy my life without Ira there. I so enjoy my connections to my dear family and friends.”

Ira: “It took me a long time to put my foot down and tell Jeanette in no uncertain terms that I was not willing to live the life that she had planned for me. I kept hoping that she would understand what I was trying to say, that I just needed the peace and quiet that the Mexico house offered to me. It never was a rejection of her. While we were apart, we had some amazing conversations. Out of these fruitful discussions, we have made a pact that when we are living in the same home, my privacy and need for solitude will be respected and that we don’t have to fight about it. If I can get that quiet time, I’m happy to come out of my room to play games and interact with her because it is freely chosen, not demanded of me. We can even have people over to entertain, and I will participate with a good attitude.”

Jeanette: “When I was a little girl, sometimes at birthday parties, we would play a game called the three-legged race. I would pair up with another little girl about my size, side by side. A parent would tie the two of us together with a bandanna, just above the knees. All the bound together pairs would line up to start at the same time. We couldn't move very fast, but we got to laugh a lot. The couple who crossed the finish line first got an extra prize. I always love the game, even if I didn't win.”

“I realize now that I can’t move forward very quickly as part of a pair in a three-legged race. Too much togetherness slowed down my development. Letting go, having faith that the relationship was strong enough to stand the separateness, trusting that he would come back to me after the forced separation, all these were anxiety-provoking to me. I came to understand after many months, that preserving my uniqueness and freedom, and enhancing my own individual strength was as important a foundation stone on which to build our marriage as was the intimate connection. Now I know with certainty, that intimacy is all the sweeter when mixed with regular periods of being apart. I get it now, or it to thrive, love requires separateness as well as togetherness.”

Ira: “When we were together all of the time, we didn't have the distinct experiences that enlarge us to bring back to our relationship. The experiences that we have with other people and situations expand us. When we bring this into our relationship it becomes enriched. While we're on our own we have a chance to feel our uniqueness, express our different tastes, and move at our own pace and rhythm. And in addition, while I was in Mexico having those experiences, Jeanette had a chance to miss me and we both got to have a fond reunion when we had our Zoom sessions. The months that we had to live apart turned out to be an extended personal growth workshop for us. The result has become that instead of two slices attempting to join into being a whole, we have learned to maintain our autonomy and become two whole human beings.”

Jeanette: “I had been taking it all so personally when we didn’t do all those activities together that I thought were required to be a happy couple. I realize now that I was attaching way too much significance to the way he chooses to live his life. I now understand that he is an introvert and just needs time to himself in quiet, which is not a rejection of me personally. More than one marriage counselor had tried to introduce that idea to me, but I was so attached to my idea of what marriage had to look like that I dismissed their offerings. It just took a while for it to sink in.”

Ira: “We never would have planned to stay away from each other that long. The Pandemic demanded that we stay apart. But something very important happened while we were living separately. We both saw how much our marriage meant to us. I had a chance to miss her, which I hadn’t been able to do when we were together all the time. Now I believe that the Pandemic was the best thing that could have happened to us.”

Individuation refers to the process of forming a stable personality. As a person individuates, they gain a clearer sense of self that is separate from their partner. Ira and Jeanette are great examples of doing their work to become separate in a relationship-enhancing way.