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Avoiding the "Trap of Couplehood"

Posted on January 20, 2015 at 7:59 PM

Being in a committed relationship can be a wonderful experience. 
At its best, a good relationship feels welcoming, warm, secure, supportive, and nurturing.  The partners can depend on each other, they trust each other, they’re in each other’s corner.  They share a level of intimacy with each other that they don’t share with anyone else, and they become bonded in a unique way.

In many ways, this bonding is necessary and adaptive.  A couple whose bond is strong will be more resilient through the stresses and strains of ordinary life, such as job changes, buying a home, and having children.  When we know someone well, our ability to anticipate how they might think or feel in certain situations can help us solve problems more quickly, or even avoid them altogether.

But coupling can also be a slippery slope into Loss of Self.  Wanting to spend time with our partner can creep, inch by inch, into not spending time with anyone else, not going places unless our partner comes along, and not getting any alone-time.  We can become so focused on “being a couple” that we forget to cherish our separate Self.  This is damaging, not only to our individual Selves, but ironically, to the couple relationship as well.  If we don’t tend to our own growth and development, we deprive both ourselves and our partner of the growing, evolving, vital person they fell in love with.  We run the risk of collapsing ourselves into our role as husband or wife, mom or dad, and we gradually lose touch with our individual identity.  And the relationship suffers.

So how do we guard against the Trap of Couplehood?  How do we preserve the Self, while continuing to nurture and grow our relationship?  I’m glad you asked!  Nena and George O’Neill, in their ground-breaking book, Open Marriage, outline several components of what they call the Open Contract:

  • Undependent Living
  • Personal Growth
  • Individual Freedom
  • Flexible Roles
  • Mutual Trust
  • Expansion through Openness

Now before you freak out, thinking that I’m suggesting a sexual free-for-all, let me assure you, that’s not the case!  All of the above ideas can be incorporated into any relationship, regardless of whether that relationship is monogamous, polyamorous, or something else.  For those of you who’ve been reading this blog all along, you’ll remember that I’ve talked a little bit about some of these ideas already.

Let’s start with Undependent Living.  This is a term the O’Neills use to describe the opposite of the Closed Contract (what many would call “traditional” marriage), which implies Ownership of the Partner.  Now of course, we don’t literally think we own our partner, but we often use language that suggests exactly that, such as “you belong to me,” or (from earlier generations) “no wife of mine is ever going to work!”  I particularly used that second one because, not only does it imply ownership, it also implies that “traditional wifely duties” – such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and childcare – aren’t work! 

In an earlier post, I talked about a few of the ways we can act as if we own our partners:

  • Assuming our partner’s free time is “couple time” for us to schedule as we like

  • Depriving our partner of alone-time (everyone needs it, just in different amounts)

  • Intruding on our partner’s privacy (including snail mail, texts, email, and social media)

  • Criticizing our partner’s friendships

  • Undermining our partner’s goals

  • Expecting that you and your partner can be everything to each other

  • Nagging (which we tend to think of as “reminding” but is really a demand)

  • Guessing how we hope our partner will feel about something, instead of asking

  • Thinking that we know what’s best for his/her own good

With the concept of Undependent Living, you and your partner are free to be yourselves.  You can keep your friendships, hobbies, habits, and wardrobe, and so can your partner.  Each of you is an adult, and treats the other like one.  If you want to go to the party, and your partner doesn’t, there’s no need to take it personally.  There’s also no need to stay home, if you’d rather go.  But if you do stay home, remember that it’s your choice to do so – not your partner’s fault.  Adults take responsibility for their choices.

Stay tuned for more!

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