Get the balance back in your relationship

Supporting individual identity to be stronger together

Shifts in workplace environments matched with the need to downsize or cut back on personal expenses have led to many couples spending more time at home and in one another’s space – a change that may not always be welcome.

“More time together does not automatically equal a healthier relationship. In fact, a lack of independence can breed resentment between partners. At the same time, without common ground the distance between you can grow, which may lead to other problems,” says Ashira Moonsamy, occupational therapist and team leader of Netcare Akeso Umhlanga’s Centre of Psychotherapy Excellence (COPE).

“For a relationship to truly thrive, it requires consistent commitment and work from both parties to take responsibility for upholding their individuality while continuously making a concerted effort to nourish the relationship. A sense of self awareness in understanding your own needs – both within and separate to the relationship – is essential here.

Embracing individuality

“As humans, we all go through different psychosocial phases and it is important to have our own sense of identity, independent of our relationship with our significant other. Without this, individuals in a relationship can become co-dependent, leading to feelings of frustration and blame for areas of dissatisfaction,” she says.

“Too much time together can also lead to isolation from other support mechanisms. In a partnership there are always two sides to a conflict, and if you limit yourself by speaking only to your partner you may not receive the validation and perspective needed to work through negative issues. It is important to have other support networks of people with whom you can connect and share your views and who can contribute to your personal growth.”

Remaining connected

Moonsamy notes that while maintaining a strong sense of self is important, this needs to be balanced by coming together to keep the relationship healthy and honouring your commitment to support one another.

“Too little time together decreases the meaning of a relationship where a lack of communication can leave more room for misunderstandings and assumptions. At a practical level, this may mean you have a reduced ability for shared decision making, for example when there are children in the family.

“Being on different pages and living separate lives disables a long-term relationship from being your primary support system. Physical and emotional intimacy are the foundation for creating your family unit, whatever that may mean to you, and for everyone to benefit from emotional wellness within that unit.

“One of our most basic needs as humans is the need to belong. A marriage or long-term relationship can play a key role in meeting that need, where you have a person you can commiserate and celebrate with. In this sense, one person can be more powerful than 1 000 people. If one or both individuals are disinterested, it can result in loneliness in the relationship and a lack of fulfillment.

“Having said that, relying on your partner for your sense of self-image is dangerous as you then become dependent on their view of you. A relationship should support individual identity and expression where you are both encouraged to accept and love your authentic selves so that together you can be stronger.

Healthy practices for a supportive relationship

Moonsamy suggests the following practices to cultivate and maintain a supportive relationship as you and your partner go through life’s inevitable changes together:

  • Explore your values – separately assess what matters to you as individuals, the principles that you each uphold as being the most important in your life and which you cannot do without.
  • Set boundaries – consider what boundaries you believe are important for protecting your values as an individual and in your relationship. Remember that boundaries must be flexible enough to allow for positive change without impacting your values. 
  • Establish your love languages – as individuals we all have different ways of expressing love, which usually fall into one of five languages, namely touch, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and gifts. Being aware of your own and your partner’s love language assists in communicating and helps to prevent missing out on any opportunities to nourish the relationship.
  • List needs and expectations – having clarified what matters most to you, make a list of what your needs and expectations are in the relationship.
  • Seek to serve each other – sit down and present your values, boundaries, needs and expectations to your partner and work together to find ways of supporting each other physically, spiritually, socially and emotionally. This will likely involve some negotiation and compromise for both parties. Rigidity does not encourage growth.
  • Touch base regularly – go through your weekly schedules together, perhaps on a Sunday evening, and block off quality time every week. A quick daily check-in is an effective way to stay in touch. Ask questions such as: What are you grateful for today? What made you laugh today? What was stressful about today? As connection builds, you may see more intentional and healthy conversation developing from this.
  • Keep the fun alive – maintain a sense of spontaneity by creating a quality time jar, where you each write down any number of fun activities you would like to do with your partner, fold them up individually and pop them in the jar. These do not have to be activities that are costly or complicated, but things that you would like to do more of as a couple, such as cooking a meal together or playing a game. You can then draw on these in the time that you have set aside to be together rather than falling into a robotic routine.
  • Use mirroring to build understanding and empathy – if you find that misunderstandings in your relationship are leading to conflict and unhappiness, try mirroring by listening to what your partner is saying and verbalising back to them what it is that you have heard. This may sound simplistic, but it can be highly effective in clarifying meaning and understanding one another by listening with interest and empathy.
  • Reach out – even the strongest relationships go through difficult periods when an outside perspective may be beneficial. Spending time with a couple you admire or consulting experienced older loved ones can give you a different perspective on the challenge at hand.

“Finally, don’t wait until the relationship has broken down completely to seek professional help. If, after making an effort for some time you feel you are not on the same page and the strategies you have in place are not working, then it is time to approach a therapist or counsellor to help you assess the issues in your relationship and find a way forward,” concludes Moonsamy.

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