This blue marble

– and yet it spins

Interlude: about high-independence relationships

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Lovely ones, even if I spent much time writing about creativity, introspection, and a quiet but robust sense of inspiration, just like most (all?) of you my 2020 was difficult, too. It seems that we all have gone through seismic shifts in our lives, even if many do not seem to relate to the coronavirus pandemic at all (perhaps they still do?). And so, while warming myself with a golden latte and new woolen socks, I want to share my journey.

I have spent much time this year thinking about high-independence relationships. I used to live with someone who needed much independence in order to feel free in a relationship. And if he was not feeling free, anxiety and unhappiness would slowly eat him from the inside.

The preference for high independence seems to be a millennial generation problem. Instead of getting hitched young and building up our selves in teamwork with a partner (a “cornerstone relationship” according to couples therapist Esther Perel), we first form ourselves as individuals and then, maybe in our thirties, we need to find a partner who checks all the boxes on our long list of demands. We look for someone who will maintain our individuality and help it grow (a “capstone relationship”). In our search for a life partner for whom we do not need to compromise anything, we run the risk of looking for a copy of ourselves. Yet, would a copy of ourselves keep us charmed and interested?

High-independence relationships take it a notch further. I did not even know this was a “thing” until I met someone who had all the arguments for why it was the best model: allowing each other the space to do what we liked and to grow as we liked sounded like just the right balance of teamwork and personal growth. “I do my thing and you do your thing, together” was his unspoken mantra. But when this philosophy ran into the minutiae of daily decisions, we ran into trouble. It would take us an hour to choose a movie because the only way for him was to choose a movie we both were in the mood for. Taking turns in allowing the other to indulge was not a worthwhile use of his time. Sometimes we got tired of searching and did not end up watching a movie at all. Choosing a restaurant was exhausting and 9 times out of 10 we gave up and went for sushi because it was optimal for his taste and health, and I did not mind compromising.

When we choose to live with a partner, we choose by our own free will to subject ourselves to a level of dependence. There is no way we can live with someone without depending on them. At the lowest level of functionality this means agreeing on how to share the contents of the fridge and how to stock it; and at the highest level, how to walk through life together in synergy as a loving, well-functioning team. “I do my thing and you do your thing” only works if both put the relationship first, not themselves. This is what clinical psychologist Stan Tatkin calls a “couple bubble”: a safe, loving, supportive space a couple creates and maintains around them, and which protects them from the rest of the world. It is also “an intimate environment that the partners create and sustain together and that implicitly guarantees specific promises.”

My partner and I never managed to create a couple bubble. I never truly felt I was included in his life plan. Often, I felt scared that his high independence would lead to a situation where he chose move to another city or country, and I would be given the choice to follow – or be left behind. Because it was against his values to ask me to forgo my freedom and come along, for his sake – and to say he needed me and he would support me in return, if I ever had a big ask for him. I felt afraid that he would not put our relationship first, and he felt shackled by my needs. There was much anxiety and anger. Living under the same roof was not sustainable, even with constant open communication and all the intimacy and love.

And so, just before the pandemic hit us, I moved across the country, to Copenhagen. On my own. And when the world locked down I realized that if I were to catch the virus, my partner would not have my back. I would have to create that bubble of safety, love, and support all by myself. And you know what? I found it quite easy to do because I, too, have enough independence to find my footing when the world is a windy place.

We millennials are a very individualistic generation, and along with our parents’ generation, we have in many developed countries pushed the divorce rate to fifty percent (and an increasing number of couples choose to not marry at all). And so, one year later, with better language to put my 2020 journey into words, I wonder whether it is possible to have a deep need for sovereignty and still share a household and a life with someone, in partnership? Is the need for high independence just a fear of unhealthy dependency? And what is the definition of healthy interdependence?

(Copenhagen, Denmark; December 2020)

5 thoughts on “Interlude: about high-independence relationships

  1. I think that a certain level of independence a desirable trait. Yes, I agree that Millenials have accepted the “high level of independence” as being an ideal way of living. I caught onto this high-independent mindset as a child due to the way I was raised. I was forced to be independent which wasn’t by choice. That being said, I learned that I don’t need to settle for this lifestyle and it took me a really long time to arrive at this conclusion.

    In my 20’s (I’m 29 going on 30), I realize that it is okay to have a partner and it is okay to get married. It is even okay to have kids if one chooses. I am much happier now than I was a kid and teenager and I would not trade being married or being a mom for the high-strung single life/highly-functioning independent Millennial lifestyle. At the same time, I don’t want to be entirely dependent on my husband for everything, so we both continue to maintain a level of independence while working as a team. One should not feel guilty for wanting to settle down or live a traditional lifestyle. If it worked for people back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, then why can’t it work now? Relationships don’t need to be difficult in modern day society. Personally, I believe that people make things out to be way more difficult than it needs to be.

    • Thank you Hilary for sharing your thoughts! Sounds like you and I came from different ends of the spectrum in our childhoods, and you are right, a certain sense of independence is healthy and necessary. I would not want to be dependent on my husband, and I would not want a husband to be dependent on me. And yes, we people make things out to be way more difficult than they need to be – and it seems to get worse for many as we grow older!

      • I totally get that. The last thing I want is to be dependent on my husband. What if something happens to him? What if we end up getting a divorce and I have to fend for myself? We have separate bank accounts and I like to have an “emergency slush fund” just in case. It doesn’t hurt to be over-prepared. I would hate to go from living comfortably to barely staying afloat because something happened to my husband. It’s thoughts like these that keep me up at night.

        My mom is dependent on my father and the relationship is quite toxic. Because of that, I’ve decided to find a way to support myself in the event that something were to happen.

      • Thumbs up for an emergency slush fund and supporting oneself!

  2. Pingback: Goodbye 2020 | This blue marble

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