Coupling: Celebrate your partner’s individuality

July 15, 2014 

I am going through a divorce with a friend. You know what I mean: they are going through the divorce but you get to go through it with them. You might call it a story about Jack and Diane. With apologies to John Mellencamp, they are no longer compatible. Life goes on, but Jackie is getting his thrills somewhere else.

There is a natural tension in a committed relationship. First, we always get into a relationship because it makes us feel good. Secondly, we get into a relationship because we love who the other is, what they are about. The tension arises because we are naturally greedy about feeling good and getting our own needs met. But our higher self leads us in appreciating how and who our loved one is.

It’s not fair to say, “I love you and how you make me feel,” and also expect the other to change. But we always do. It’s an old song, “men marry women expecting they won’t change, women marry men expecting they will.” Not exactly fair but mostly true.

Al-Anon literature has a novel concept addressing this tension. Al-Anon is the Allied Family Group that supports and educates people who live with or are related to people with alcoholism or addiction. The idea reads like this, “it is the job of the husband/wife to guard the individuality of their spouse.”

Now, if I am to guard her or his unique individuality, how can I expect her or him to change? Or even worse, shape her or him to meet my needs?

Occam’s razor suggests we go with the simplest solution. And that solution is growth. We are marching toward perfection; we are not there yet.

My friend Abe says, “you grow or you go!” Nobody is perfect at 18 years old or 25 or even 35. Whenever the couple meets, they are not static, set in stone or perfect. Things will change and the challenge for any couple is to roll with the changes. Jackie had some immature ideas about life behind the Tasty Freeze. Maturity will naturally move us forward.

Growth will have to happen on both fronts. First, I will learn to be less selfish, less focused on my needs. Second, I will learn to be more accepting, more able to allow the individuality of my true love. Love requires this.

The Al-Anon quote mentioned earlier suggests we go even further. Somehow we are to celebrate and encourage the individuality of the other. A true lover can find ways to do this behind the scenes. No need to say, “look what I did for you.”

This takes strength of self. We need to know ourselves so that we are not threatened. From the position of strength, we can share. But from the same position of strength, we can see what is okay and what is not. Not okay is not okay, and we can stand up for our needs.

By the way, addiction has snuck in between Jack and Diane. No need to tolerate that stuff. If Jackie can’t see the problem, Diane needs to move on. And she is.

Bruce Conn is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and practices as a group therapist. Contact him at or call 478-742-1464.

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