It’s not about finding your soul mate.
November 7, 2021
Your partner is not you.
We all know them — couples who incessantly bicker about how things should be done. Or the ones who’ve given up, detached to China because they haven’t learned how to solve problems or deal with differences.
Many relationships that matter to us die because we didn’t individuate from our family of origin, and can’t get over the belief that other people should:
- Think the way we think.
- Behave the way we behave.
- Value what we value.
- Dislike what we dislike.
The most critical factor in growing a relationship with someone you want to spend your life with is individuation — developing a separate, distinct, and stable sense of self.
Our families raised us in their image. Individuation is a process that results in our ability to observe and decide which values and beliefs that we learned as children we want to keep with us as we move through adulthood.
Individuation begins when we separate from our family of origin — we go away to school, marry, or move away for a new career. But the individuation process continues through middle age. And some of us never individuate.
You will feel uncomfortable.
Individuation isn’t easy, and as I said, everyone doesn’t accomplish it — the pull of family values can be compelling.
We carry all kinds of unspoken ideas about how the world should work because while we were growing up, our family was the world. We believed what they believed–whether it made sense or not.
If your family is still your best friend rather than your partner, individuation hasn’t occurred.
If you get in a committed relationship and find yourself struggling to make your partner over in your or your family’s image, you haven’t individuated.
We individuate by gaining clarity around our own beliefs and values so that when we meet someone with different ideas, they don’t knock us off base. We neither cave to someone else’s values nor try to force them to fit into our vision of who they should be.
We don’t replicate our families of origin — we create a new version of family that works for us.
Whoever suggested that the best relationships are the ones that are easy and don’t take any work never had an emotionally intimate relationship. It is hard work.
To achieve true emotional intimacy we need to understand how our brains work.
Your brain can work for you or against you.
Intellectually understanding what we believe and value doesn’t mean we don’t have some residual enmeshment with our family of origin.
We never totally individuate — it’s a process. We all have unfinished business that we’ll drag into our intimate relationships. The people on dating websites who say “If you have any baggage, don’t bother to get in touch,” are folks either looking for a booty call or they’re someone who couldn’t collaborate around a difference of opinion if their life depended on it.
Sara Schwarzbaum, the Academy for Couples Therapy creator, explains basic neuropsychology to every couple she works with.
She says that when we see or hear something we don’t like, our lower brain — the protective fight, flight, freeze part — jumps in and floods our bodies with the stress hormone adrenaline.
And it pretty much shuts down our higher brain — the prefrontal cortex — the part that can think like a grown-up.
Your lower brain is reflexive, always searching for danger. It doesn’t differentiate between a bear in the woods and a partner’s aggressive tone or dismissive actions. Because it’s faster than the higher brain, the higher brain becomes non-operational when the lower brain is engaged and in charge.
Let your higher brain take the lead.
If we prepare, our higher brain can manage our lower brain, but it takes practice. And it’s important to understand that our higher brain functions in one of two ways:
- based on habits, to conserve energy, or
- based on choices, which requires intentionality, patience, and learning new habits.
When our brain is functioning based on habits, we see ourselves doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result— you know, the definition of crazy.
For example, I continue to say no when my partner suggests an alternative way to do something. It’s an autopilot knee-jerk. Growing up, I had little say in family decisions, and many of them ended with pretty crazy outcomes. So, I still have some individuation to do even though my parents passed away several years ago. Saying no is instinctual.
However, when I’m operating based on choices, I can recognize that my no is reflexive. Nobody’s chasing me or forcing me to do something against my will.
I may still have to slap my hand over my mouth as “No!” is coming out, but I’m working on it.
When we operate on choices, we can navigate our differences and better understand ourselves. And we can have greater empathy for our partners who are, let’s face it, navigating the same rocky terrain we are.
When we feel rejected, blamed, criticized, or humiliated and the lower brain takes over, our upper brain is unavailable for the moment. When that happens, we need to calm ourselves down to unlock our higher brain so it can do its work.
The Gottman’s, renowned couples’ researchers and therapists, have said that fights and disagreements aren’t the problem; it’s the lack of skillful repair work that ends partnerships.
To repair, we need to understand what happened, and do something different.
Use your body to manage your brain.
When you notice you’re on autopilot, being driven by your lower brain, the easiest way to calm down is to pay attention to your body. When your body is tight and tensed, you’re almost always in your lower brain.
If someone’s after you, then use all that great energy to run away as fast as you can.
But if your partner is in front of you, looking at you like a deer in headlights because of your intense reaction, you can do the following to calm things down:
Breathe all the way out and soften your body. Then take three or four more of those calming breaths until you can step back and observe what’s going on.
Let’s sum it up.
The truth is, we’re all trying to make ourselves feel comfortable. The problem is that what helps one person get relief — shutting down or shouting — can provoke pain in the other person. And off we go.
So, understanding differentiation (that our partner is not us) is a critical component of making a partnership not only last but thrive.
If you want to turn your relationship into the best relationship you’ve ever had, make your peace with these ideas:
- Your partner is not you. If you lived with a clone of yourself, what’s the point of being in a relationship?
- You will feel uncomfortable. Forget about living in a bubble of perennial bliss. Honestly, it wouldn’t satisfy.
- You need to understand your brain. Your brain can work for you or against you, and you can be in charge of that.
Creating a great relationship doesn’t translate to creating a perfect relationship. We are works in progress, and so are our relationships.
I’m picturing my partner reading this and chuckling because he knows what I’m saying here is what we’re still working on learning for ourselves.