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)