The following is an excerpt from Naked Marriage.
Remember what your spouse was like when you first met?
Remember how you would look forward to meeting him or her for a date at the end of a long week, back when the two of you were both so busy that the date was the only time you were able to see each other?
Remember how purposeful you were with that time?
Remember when your spouse’s ideas, thoughts, emotions, and reactions surprised and delighted you?
Remember when you were attracted to your spouse precisely because of the unique and different way he or she looked at the world?
Over time and in an effort “to become one,” one spouse (or both) makes deeply personal sacrifices in order to keep the peace of the household, assuming that that’s what their spouse desires. But in that sacrifice, a spouse gives up far more than just a hobby, a friend, or a passion. That person loses an important part of his identity. When that happens, a vacuum forms, and whatever highly defining characteristics are near that vacuum get sucked in. Consequently, a person can quickly find himself being defined by his spouse more than his own unique selfhood.
This is why it’s foundationally important to marriage that both partners seek differentiation.
In other words, both partners need to learn to live apart together.
Great marriages are the result of two mature grownups with full, satisfying lives who cooperate with each other to get their needs met. In this kind of lovingly independent relationship, each partner complements — but doesn’t complete — the other. When you approach your relationship with this attitude, you’ll begin to enjoy a marriage where you feel closer together — for the right reasons — and far more attracted to each other.
It’s sexy when your spouse can live life independently of you.
Consider the neediest person you’ve ever known. For this illustration, don’t consider your spouse, even though it may be true. What are your feelings toward this person? Are you excited about them and remember fond memories, or is it something different? I suspect it’s something different because no one wants to be with someone they feel tremendous pressure to “fix” or “keep healthy.”
We often have enough to worry about for ourselves. When I’m around needy people, I don’t feel needed; I feel trapped. And that’s a terrible way to describe a marriage. A mature, loving relationship should lighten your load, not add to your burden.
In order to create this kind of independent relationship, partners have to hold onto their own lives as the relationship evolves. This is often the point in my counseling sessions where one or both spouses push back: “Are you telling me that we’re supposed to live separate lives?” I always hear incredulity in their voices. And I can always see greater incredulity in their eyes when I reply, “Exactly.”
They tend to disbelieve me—or think I’m making some kind of dry joke—because they have often only heard otherwise. Religious and cultural traditions regarding marriage are strong and long-standing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. Often, they’re not the healthiest ways to look at marriage, especially when it concerns the dance of individuality and togetherness that a thriving marriage requires.
Living apart together relies on self-care, not self-centeredness.
Each spouse should continue living an interesting and fulfilling life beyond the intimate relationship with their spouse.
Don’t misconstrue that statement: it doesn’t mean seeking sexual or emotional fulfillment outside of the marriage. Rather, that means that a mature married couple can take responsibility for getting their respective needs met from both their spouse and from other sources (self, friends, family, work, religion, etc.).
Essentially, a spouse looking to defuse a fused relationship should go back to doing what they enjoyed doing before they met their spouse. Of course, there are boundaries, but regaining a person’s selfhood in light of his relationship is an integral part of breaking an unhealthy fused relationship. It’s also very life-giving to the partners who have felt suffocated by the marriage.
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