Separateness Makes for Togetherness

All relationships are couple relationships: parent and child, lover and lover, husband and wife, manager and employee, child and child, friend and friend.  Furthermore, no two couple relationships are the same, because when two unique individuals interact it makes for a unique relationship.  There is also the fact that each child in the one family has a different parent, each student in a classroom has a different teacher, each employee has a different employer/manager and each churchgoer has a different Pastor.  Any parent or teacher who says that they treat all the children in the same way concerns me, because, one, they are missing the point that all relationships are couple relationships, and, two, that each child is a unique individual and fiercely determined to be seen for self.  The same concern holds true for clergy and their ‘flock’ and employers/managers and their ‘staff’.  It is the wise Pastor and employer/manager who relates to the individual person and not to their ‘mass’ of individuals.

In order to appreciate and relate to another at the level of individuality, the person requires a strong sense of their own unique and true self.  Indeed, to have a relationship with a unique other, one first needs to know self.  It is in the knowing of self that one finds that essential human quality to the creation of a fulfilling relationship with another – separateness.  However, this is easier said than done.

One of the first steps to becoming separate is to leave the nest (your home of origin).  All the evidence points to the fact that when you remain enmeshed with your mother or father or both, you are highly likely to develop no relationship or an enmeshed relationship with your life partner or, indeed, lifelong friend.  For example, if a daughter feels her mother totally depends on her, it is very challenging for her to separate out from her mother and say, in so many words: ‘Mother, I love you but I need to fly the nest and begin to live my own life!’  The danger in such an assertion is that the mother may have ‘a heart attack’ which can lead to the daughter feeling utterly ‘selfish’ and guilty.  I recall a situation where, in spite of her mother’s objections to her wanting to marry her boyfriend, the daughter determined she was going to go to Rome and marry him and bring two friends as witnesses.  This assertion was followed by her mother screaming, grabbing her chest and ‘having a heart attack’.  The ambulance was called for, mother rushed off into hospital and then into intensive care.  The daughter never mentioned the boyfriend and marriage afterwards.  The mother made a full recovery!

Separateness in relationships needs to start at the earliest possible time, particularly, in the relationship between a child and a parent.  Parents need to live their own lives, not live their lives through their children and create the opportunities for each child to discover his/her own unique way of being in this world.  The paradox is that the deeper the parent’s own relationship with self, the deeper her relationship with her child.  Automatically, the nature of the relationship will be one of separateness and togetherness.  When parents do not create such mature relationships with their children, later on it becomes a major challenge for the young person to fly the nest, to separate out from the enmeshed relationship with one or both parents.  Sadly, when the young person remains enmeshed, he brings that relationship baggage into his relationship with his partner. Basically, his ties to home will now have a telling effect on the new relationship, very often with sad and painful results.

Before embarking on a long-term relationship it is wise for any person, young or old to check the degree of separateness from parents achieved to date.  Below are twelve indicators of separateness; the higher the score, the higher the independence achieved:

  • seeing parents and partner as people in their own right
  • seeing self as person in own right
  • believing that parents can take responsibility for their own lives
  • respecting beliefs, values, morals, religious affiliation of parents
  • respecting own beliefs, values, morals, religious affiliation and opinions
  • non-conforming
  • being self-directing, independent and self-responsible
  • being spontaneous in expression of feelings, ambitions, wishes and needs
  • being able to say ‘no’ to parents
  • positively caring when parents are unable to do things for themselves
  • not permitting interference or intrusion by parents into own life
  • enjoying privacy

A low score indicates an urgent review of the nature of the person’s relationship with parents and the necessity to work towards independence so that this independence and separateness can be carried into an intimate relationship with another.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist.  Listen in to Tony’s radio programme, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship on Wednesday next at 8.00 p.m. on RTE Radio 1.