Call me an overly analytical psychologist, but one of the things I find fascinating is seeing how many different kinds of couples there are. Couples have all different kinds of relationship dynamics, and you can often see them on the surface when you socialize with them.
One thing that has always struck me is watching how couples vary in terms of the extent to which they socialize together and the extent to which they socialize apart. You know some couples where you almost never see one without the other, while you can think of another couple where the opposite is true. Is there a ‘right’ level of independence couples should have? How much is too much time to spend together? Where do you draw the line between too much or too little time spent together?
Usually, any therapist will tell you there is no right way to be about anything. In this case, I disagree somewhat. Based on my anecdotal experience of counseling hundreds of couples over the years, one approach does appear to be better than the other. While I acknowledge that there is a spectrum, I also acknowledge that people lose themselves (their interests, ambitions, and uniqueness) when they spend all their time with one person. You can’t fuse with another and expect to remain a vibrant, happy, and separate entity. You need to have some level of independence within a couple to be healthy. This does not include going to work! Yes, that is time apart, but that time apart is forced and not sought out by choice. Couples who eat together, sleep together, go to church together, do everything socially together, blah, blah, blah, make me nervous, and I’ll tell you why.
In my clinical work, I have found that couples who do everything together secretly feel claustrophobic in the relationship and wish they had a little more breathing room. The claustrophobic feelings later morph into other problems and the relationship starts to crumble. A relationship can last a lifetime, remember, but “lasting” shouldn’t be the goal; the goal should be that two people stay together happily. The goal should be that two people stay together because each continues to meet the other’s primary social needs.
If you are in a relationship now, take a moment to reflect on what kind of relationship you have. Do you and your partner have some friends you see separately? Do you feel pressure if the expectation is usually that you will spend all of your weekend or evening social time together? Use this opportunity to have a discussion with your partner and ask him or her about their thoughts on this issue. Ask, “Would you say that we are an independent couple or a codependent couple?” Most importantly, ask the really crucial questions: “Do you feel like I’m okay with it if you socialize with some friends without me? Have you ever wanted to just see your friends and wished that I wasn’t there? If so, that’s okay.” Because you are opening yourself to hearing the cold, hard truth from your partner, also share your honest feelings. Do you ever want to see friends but feel like your partner will feel hurt or angry if you don’t include them?
The best time to broach these issues is when each of you is relaxed and in a good mood. Don’t have a come-to-Jesus talk with your partner if they’ve had a bad day, are stressed, or are preoccupied with an issue. Choose a time when you’re both relaxed and take inventory of this issue with your partner when the time feels right. Initiating this kind of conversation with your partner sends a very important message: It’s okay to talk about how we really feel about the state of our relationship, even if it feels a bit uncomfortable when we first broach the issue.
Feel free to explore my book on dysfunctional romantic relationships, Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve, or follow me on Twitter for regular mental health updates.