Tuesday Feb. 16th, 2010

Creating Spaces in Your Togetherness

A new way of thinking about relationships that can make all the difference
Patricia Spadaro

Relationships, like most things in life, are paradoxical. Even in the closest of connections, where mutual support should come with the territory, it’s essential to strike a balance between leaning on another and standing strong and tall on your own—between dependence and independence.
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I received as a newlywed years ago was from a friend who was also a psychologist. “If you ever notice yourself or your husband becoming snappy, edgy, or just plain grouchy, it doesn’t mean the relationship is cracking,” she said. “Take it as a sign that you may simply need some healthy time apart.” Her words echoed these lines from one of my favorite writers, the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness. . . . Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”
We’re all asked to give and receive support in many ways as we walk through life. Yet we sabotage our potential for fulfilling relationships when we buy into the myth that “constant support, sacrifice, and togetherness create the best relationships.” The liberating truth reflects this paradox instead: “My relationships are stronger when I also pursue my own interests and nurture my individual strengths.” The real magic takes place when everyone in a relationship, including you, is free to realize his or her full potential—and when you give yourself permission to spend quiet, quality moments doing what energizes you. If an intimate relationship suddenly seems off balance or smothering, be sure you are giving yourself enough time and space to build your own strengths and pursue the desires of your own heart.
The following story from the Hasidic tradition of Judaism highlights why self-reliance is indispensable. A young rabbi complained to his mentor that he felt full of life when he studied, but when he turned away from that source of support and went about his daily activities, this mood disappeared. “What should I do?” he asked. His astute teacher replied with an apt analogy: “You must be like the man who is walking through the forest in the dark accompanied by a friend. A time will come when the two companions must part and each must go his own way alone. Neither will fear the darkness if he carries his own lantern.” When it comes down to it, you have to be able to depend on yourself to light your way. You must be the guiding star in your life and make the decisions that allow you to live and give your fullest.
In an odd sort of way, though, we may avoid doing just that. At subconscious levels, extreme sacrificing for others or “for the sake of our relationship” can be a way to avoid the sometimes scary process of stepping out of our cocoon and developing our real gifts. Sacrifice can even be a way to avoid the confrontations that may come when we begin to assert our right to be at the top of our priority list. All that, however, comes with a cost. Sacrifice can be a mask that we put on and then become so used to that we forget that the face we are showing to the world, and to ourselves, is not our real face.
Don’t get me wrong—sacrifice is a beautiful virtue when it comes from the heart. But to use sacrifice as a way to avoid facing our fears or shaping our own futures, is a cop-out. It’s handing over our choices to someone else. It’s like accepting a supporting role in someone else’s drama when you should be playing the leading role in your own life story.
Every part of life, as it grows and evolves, naturally moves between seeking support and flying solo, between giving and receiving. Only when those elements are in balance can we make real and lasting progress. Navigating the paradox of dependence and independence in relationships requires a keen sense of balance. There can be a blurred line between receiving help and allowing a partner or mentor to control your life—or between giving help and stifling a loved one’s opportunity to grow and blossom. Here are two questions and tips that can help you reflect on whether there is enough breathing space in your relationship.

Do you find yourself becoming easily irritated with your partner? You may become annoyed with those you love not because they are doing something outrageous but because you simply need some breathing space—some time to honor yourself. Having a close relationship doesn’t mean you should give up being yourself. No two people have all the same interests, and it’s not healthy to expect that to be the case. Are there spaces in your togetherness? Do you allow and encourage yourself and your partner to pursue your own individual interests? Take some dedicated time for yourself and allow your partner to do the same. That act of open-hearted generosity will create more vibrancy when the two of you come together again, and you’ll have more to offer each other, and the world, as a result.
Are you in a relationship with someone who is making decisions that you should be making or trying to manage your life? What would you like to tell that person about how you are feeling? What would you like to request of him or her? Try crafting what you want to say on paper before explaining it in person. You may even need to send your message in writing to fully express what you find it hard to say in person. Follow up to make sure your partner understands what you are asking and that you both have the same expectations going forward. Know that giving yourself room to be your own person isn’t about pushing the other person in your relationship out, but about counting yourself in.

Patricia Spadaro is the author of the new book Honor Yourself: The Inner Art of Giving and Receiving. This article is adapted from her book, available at stores throughout Bozeman and nationwide. To learn more about her work and for more resources on how to honor yourself, honor endings, and bring more balance into your life, visit www.HowToHonorYourself.com