Linda: In the field of couples counseling, a great deal is explored about the together aspect of relationships with attention placed on the critical importance of commitment, open communication, caring, and emotional and sexual intimacy. There is also a strong emphasis placed on learning to handle against well, with guidelines designed to enhance managing conflict. All the books, blogs, and workshops surrounding these two essential ingredients of successful partnership are a great contribution to couples’ well-being.
The area that is not sufficiently thoroughly addressed is apart. To individuate is “to form into a separate and distinct entity, the process by which social individuals become differentiated from the other.” In our culture this critical individuation stage is often neglected. Obtaining a sense of identity does not happen just once in adolescence. It is a process that we go through time and time again, if we heed the call of the wanderer. Individuation is an essential stage for each individual to achieve mastery if the partnership is to reach the highest levels of well-being. For it is the process of individuation where self-discovery takes place.
The archetypal name for individuation is Wanderer. In the old fairy tales, the hero leaves the comfort of family and community to strike out alone to find his destiny. He or she experiences loneliness, and may become lost during the journey. In the Wanderer stage we separate from the symbiotic form that our relationship may have grown into, to be a unique separate individual again. Togetherness serves a significant purpose when two people are establishing their couple-ness, joining their interests and mutual life-styles. But high functioning relationships maintain a way for each of the pair to be an individual, with a clear and separate identity.
One day we can wake up and feel like something is not quite right. It may happen after we have played out a lot of the other myths in our lives, about finding happiness from the external world by becoming successful, making money, having a family, or doing what it is that we were programmed by the culture to do. At some point, we find ourselves looking at our life and saying, “Is this it? Is this all there is? Is this what I get for being a hard worker, or for being a good girl, or for being productive or for doing what I am supposed to do? Something is missing!” It can be a profound opening to make a very powerful shift in our lives.
In the archetypal stories the heroes leave the security of home and community because they feel called to wander. They slay dragons and meet up with strangers on their journeys. The modern day wanderer is much more apt to take an inner journey as what Sam Keen calls a “psychonaut”, to make a journey into the psyche to discover their identity. This can be a difficult stage in a relationship because the wanderer tends to be extremely absorbed in the process and not thinking about meeting the other person’s needs. A wanderer cannot be taking care of many of the practical things in life. Trust and good communication help us negotiate this stage.
Time Alone: Individuation sometimes requires us to physically go somewhere, or we may go inside ourselves where we spend time meditating, writing in our journal, or in therapy, looking at ourselves in a different way. During this time of introspection, we are definitely going to be much less available to our partner. Time apart to reflect allows for self-discovery Although we can discover a great deal about ourselves within the interactions of the partnership, there is a truth that can only be discovered when we are alone and undistracted by our partner. At times we need to let go of the relationship temporarily, for a few hours, days, weeks, or even months, to go exploring deep inside ourselves for a period of self-discovery. Our sense of autonomy comes from experiencing that we are a separate individual with a unique history, personality, thoughts interests, values and a style of being in the world.
Time with Family and Friends: To have an active social network of friends is a mark of psychological and emotional well-being. Time spent with other important people in our life, especially when the interactions and conversations are meaningful, enhances our process of self-discovery. An added advantage from having strong ties with family and friends outside the partnership is that they enlarge our world, which takes pressure off of the partnership. Our interactions with others expand us and assist with discovering more of who we are and can become.
If we don’t heed the call of the wanderer, vitality starts to slip away and we are left with the empty form. We live out the days playing the roles politely but the juiciness of life is missing in the relationship because we are not honoring who we truly are. In the individuation stage we become an expanded version of who we can be rather than merely fulfilling the role of husband or wife.
Individuation is critical in developing a sense of self as a fully functioning individual. By honoring the urge to explore and discover more truth about what we really are, we are free to bring more of ourselves to our partner. The task of this stage is to master autonomy and learn to be apart, with love. Knowing ourselves deeply both our signature strengths and weaknesses, positions us well to bring our whole full self to our partner. When our partner is doing the same, we are two fully functioning people that have the greatest chance at happiness.