My boyfriend and I have been together for almost four years. We lived together for the first three and a half years of our relationship, but never really dated the conventional way, just shared a house and fell in love fairly quickly. Because of this we really had some issues getting to know each other, things we might have worked out while dating. We were forced to face these issues head on and in close proximity to each other in order to maintain our relationship. In a lot of ways we may be stronger for this, but in many other ways we have developed a codependent relationship where we just sink into each other. I often end up feeling bored by this way of living.
In order to try a new approach and hopefully save our relationship (we really do love each other) we decided that I would get my own apartment and we would live apart but still maintain our relationship in every possible way. This is so far a very successful situation for both of us. We are each living our lives more fully outside of each other and therefore, our time together is more comfortable and happy. We are both feeling very positive about this choice that we made and will really give ourselves the necessary amount of time to find who we are as individuals before we live together again.
We would like very much to be able to bring these new understandings with us into a situation where we could live together again, even get married eventually. How can we be sure of not slipping into the co-dependent state of mind that really kept us in a rut for so long? We are very committed to each other but need a few tools for maintaining this fresh perspective. I would hate to think that we would always be better off living apart!
You pose great questions based on very astute observations about your behavior! What you're talking about is entropy: the tendency of a system to deteriorate when no external forces are introduced. Experientially in a relationship, it can feel like being taken for granted or a lazy-making sense of codependence marked by predictability and boredom. Discontent in the face of everything being all right is another red flag that the relationship needs vitalizing.
When you find yourself in the rut of a codependent status quo, you need to introduce well-timed doses of newness, freshness, vitality, and the unfamiliar. How do kids keep seeing things new? They play! Cultivate that attitude with each other. Also try relationship-enhancing retreats and/or workshops. Surprises help. Don't wait for them to happen.
Get honest about your feelings. That's the most direct way to keep a relationship vital. Express your boredom when it shows up, and get on the same team about overthrowing your tendency to intermesh and get lazy with each other. Otherwise, you might fall into the trap of picking fights as a way to make some distance between you, and keep you from becoming psychological Siamese twins. It should be possible to maintain a healthy distance without having to fight. Or if you do feel like fighting, be determined to make room for those feelings and to get to the root of them together.
An older woman in a couple I counseled complained that her husband did things for her that she was very well able to do for herself, and she felt disempowered by that. So she spoke up, and made a clear request: "don't do things for me that I can do for myself, and trust that I'll ask you when I can't do it". She made sure to preface her request with: "I love knowing that you love me, and want to do things for me...." so her request went down smooth, and not harshly. I pass her gift on to you: the tool of direct requests.
Other ways to foster independence include having your own friends, taking a class or pursuing a hobby that's just yours. Parallel play is an expression that describes how children of a certain age play together without actually engaging, thereby fostering individuality. They do it in the same room, but not together. Have parallel playtime together in addition to time apart.
Finally, make sure that each of your lives is self-defined as well as defined by the relationship. So that neither of you becomes over-identified with the other's job position, achievement, skill, or status. Make sure each of you is coming to the relationship with your cup predominantly already full.
Anything less than that will easily be tagged by the lousy feeling of codependence you described. With your sensitivity and thoughtful questioning, I'm sure you'll find other resources to keep your relationship lively. What a great challenge! I think you're up to it.
This question was answered by Andy Bernay-Roman, RN, MS, LMHC, NCC, LMT. He is a nationally certified counselor in private psychotherapy practice in South Florida working with individuals, couples, and families with a deep-feeling therapy approach. Andy's medical background as an ICU nurse contributes to his success with clients with difficult medical diagnoses and/or chronic physical conditions. He also serves as head of the Psychological Support Department of West Palm Beach's Hippocrates Health Institute.
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