People in relationships tend to view themselves as part of something greater than themselves or the sum of its constituent parts. This tendency is reinforced by others outside the relationship who realize it would be impolitic to invite one without the other. However, it is important for both parties in a relationship to maintain some level of autonomy and independence. Not only is this crucial to maintaining a sense of self, but it also helps create more diverse experiences for both parties. Here are seven ways being independent improves your long-term relationship.
1. Not everything needs to be shared.
It is natural to want to share as much with your significant other as possible, especially in the beginning of a relationship. Call it hormones, desire, joy, or the first stirrings of love, but it’s normal and typical. However, if you share everything about yourself right at the beginning, what else is there to learn? Love should be an ongoing process of discovery, and it’s simply not possible to do that if your significant other knows everything there is to know about you by the end of your third date.
Part of being independent is to keep something of yourself for yourself. This is not the same as lying. If you feel you need to lie to your significant other about anything (of greater import than where you went when you bought his or her birthday present), it is time to take a long, hard look at your relationship and why you’re in it. But you should feel free not to explain everything about yourself all at once, and your significant other should not feel this pressure either. Cataloging every last move each person makes and regurgitating it borders on stalkerish and certainly is not conducive to a sense of independence on either side.
2. Get a hobby that requires at least a little time away from your significant other.
Hobbies are good for us. They give us a chance to get away from the quotidian cares of our regular lives, to indulge our creativity and to do something that’s just fun. Studies indicate that finding a hobby such as painting, writing or even hiking offers health and mental benefits such as reduced blood pressure, enhanced creative problem solving ability, and a greater sense of satisfaction and independence. To get the maximum benefit, find something you like that doesn’t particularly interest your significant other and is uniquely your own. This is a great way to affirm your independence while doing something your lover will be able to appreciate once it is done. Getting a hobby is not a one-way street. Both parties should feel free to find new ways to express themselves.
3. Take a relationship break.
This does not mean you should “see other people” or engage in any of the other signs that your relationship is effectively over. However, there is nothing wrong with wanting a little space from time to time. Take a mini-vacation by yourself. Go camping, fishing or just go to the beach and unwind. A couple of days apart can give you new perspective on your relationship, as well as making the other person’s company more attractive. As the old saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Learn to appreciate the other person’s company by getting away from it for a little while. Being independent means being willing to stand alone as well as with someone else and can increase your sense of self-worth, even when your other half isn’t there.
4. Have some separate friends and experiences.
This ties in with No. 3 to some extent, because a couple whose component parts cannot have separate experiences may be dangerously unbalanced. Depending upon one another is fine, but codependency is often the first sign of an incipient abusive relationship for both genders. Because of this, each person should have a unique identity with his or her own friends and experiences outside the relationship. Again, this has to be a two-way street. If either party says “It’s okay for me to have friends, go bowling or go hang out and play poker, but you have to stay home,” this is grossly unfair and a clear warning sign of a controlling, unhealthy relationship. When both parties are free to come and go as they please without suspicion or concern about when they’ll be home or what they are doing, this builds trust and allows both parties to celebrate being independent of each other while still choosing to be together.
5. Learn to say and accept “no.”
“Can I come too?” There are times and situations where this is fine and others where it is simply not appropriate. One crucial key to being independent is the ability to say and accept “no” as an answer without inflicting or getting unduly hurt. This kind of dialogue may go something like:
“I’d love you to come tonight, but we’re going to be watching The Empire Strikes Back and then talking about the latest Jim Butcher book while we play D&D, and you don’t like any of that. You’d just be bored.”
“Oh, okay.” [pause] “Well, maybe I can see what the folks from the erotic book club are up to tonight and we can go out for cocktails.”
“That sounds like a good idea. Call me if you’re going to be out too late so I don’t worry, okay?”
“I will.” [smiles] “Have fun tonight!”
This is a healthy means of dealing with this situation without hurt feelings. The rejection here has nothing to do with wanting the person there and everything to do with knowing the other person’s tastes well enough to understand they won’t enjoy themselves. Of course, it relies on both parties being completely truthful about their intentions. However, we can safely assume here that both sides are speaking from an honest place. The person who asked may not be entirely happy about the answer, but accepts the refusal and the implicit need to assert independence on his or her partner’s part. Because of this, this person thinks of a way in which the partner can do something as well. There is an underlying assumption that the evening will end with both of them home and in each others’ arms and neither feels chained to their partner’s side. Being independent sometimes means being able to reject the other person’s company gracefully and accepting that rejection with equal grace.
6. Don’t lose sight of your dreams.
Dreams define us. They make us what we are and give us something to strive for. Just because you enter a relationship with someone does not mean you should sacrifice your dreams for them. In fact, the exact opposite is true. A truly good, loving relationship is based upon both parties having dreams and desires within and outside the relationship. Conversely, a good partner is someone who is willing to allow his or her partner their dreams without nay-saying or ridiculing them. Knowing mutual support is available if it is needed and the understanding that both partners need space to strive for their dreams is the hallmark of a strong relationship. Ultimately, your dreams are an integral part of who you are. If your partner insists that your dream should take a back-seat to what they want, it is time to reevaluate whether this person is really someone you want to be with.
7. Be who you are.
Being independent means being who and what you are, not someone else’s version of what you should be. If your partner insists you change your hairstyle, wardrobe or friends and interests to better suit their vision of who you are, something clearly is amiss. In the same way, love your partner for all they are and not in spite of it. No two people are the same, and trying to force someone into a narrow mold is unfair to both sides in the relationship. Be willing to stand up for yourself when necessary, and never be afraid to ask “Why?” You cannot be yourself and someone else’s version of yourself at the same time. As Shakespeare put it: “This above all: To thine own self be true; it then follows thou canst not be false to any man.”