Me/Us? Personal identity, the self-defining kind, helps us to make the big life choices such as college, career, mate, when to breed, as well as small ones such as shoe selection, hair color and movies. Each time we say yes or no to something, we are giving off a whiff of who we are. When many of life’s decisions are made as a couple, the powerful influence of the “other” on how we approach decision-making and its impact on our personal sense of self, our identity, is enormous.
Definition In Negatives: It takes energy and an ample supply of self-observation to maintain a sturdy sense of self when co-partnering important decisions for years through courtship, co-habitation, marriage and parenting. Allocation of funds to support all these decisions intensifies their weightiness. As a consequence, it is quite common to see couples caught in the snares of their Coupledom netting quibbling over many of these decisions; the seemingly insignificant ones such as clothing detergent choices, and the placement of a tree in the backyard; and the big ones, moving to a new town or renovating a home. Actually not quibbling, out and out fighting with rhetoric that can be harsh, dismissive and even pleading at times. What is at stake here that motivates such drama, or propels the couple toward passive-aggressive paralysis?
On the surface, the couple will insist that the subject matter at hand is the issue: less soapsuds, more eco- friendly laundry. But scratch the surface and you will find the source for the conflagration, the hot button No. No is an 18-month-old toddler’s premiere verbal assertion of self, “NO!” With time the more specific “Mine” and its cousin, “I do it” will follow. The emerging self with its determination to master its universe shouts out, “Hey mom and dad, here is where you end and I begin.” “No” and “Mine” and “I do it” remain easily accessible and essential statements of “self” throughout the human life cycle. No means “Yes, I do exist.” The collaborative life can fog up the lines between “you and me” leading folks to resort to the primitive definition of “self” held over from toddler days, a messy and destructive method of self-definition to a relationship.
Mr. & Mrs. Everyone: Women of our time no longer fling their maiden names to the winds when they say I do. Many add their husband’s to theirs or keep their names with no additions. Some men have been known to add their wife’s name to theirs. And same sex couples are busily making similar arrangements when they marry. The offspring of these Coupledoms may sport several surnames as well. What’s that all about? Oh, so much, but one piece of this amazingly significant historical change in our country is that women are striving to protect their individuality, their “self.” I am not Mrs. Jones, I am Ms. Smith, and yes I am married to Mr. Jones. I am me, separate and self-respecting as a woman and as a person. This all boils down to the determination to preserve a reliable image separate from our partners, definable and easy to locate, and this requires a lot of effort and energy each and every day of our Coupledom lives. And men, despite the common custom of maintaining their surnames upon marriage, have the same struggle to retain an independent sense of self in the Coupledom realm.
The Embrace of The Shared Life: How can this separateness and sturdy sense of self be maintained within the embrace of the shared life? And when can you tell that something unhealthy has seeped into that embrace that is threatening to derail it?
The Clue: Many of the squabbles that unfold in my office have this hidden underpinning, the fight for survival of the sense of self, one’s internal identity, self-image and self-respect. But it isn’t that easy to spot. What I have found as a good indicator that this pyrrhic dance (as in no one wins) is at play occurs when nothing about the specific piece of acrimony unfolding before me makes any sense. Then I have to ask, “What is at stake here?” For example, someone says, “Let’s walk the dog now. It’s best to get him out early before the kids wake up.” “Not now, I’ll take him later.” “No you won’t. You’ll just plunk him in the car and drive off to your errands and he won’t get any exercise and will be hyper with the kids when they get home from school.” Why not walk the dog now? Well surely there are probably as many reasons to say no as to say yes. But instead an argument ensues, not a real exchange to further understanding. Just a fight. “You always have to have it your way.” “You are so selfish, you don’t give a damn about how the dog feels. Really, well who feeds him, takes him for his shots? Just because you have decided an early morning walk works best for him, I’m selfish?”
And the answer has historic roots. When first married, roles unfold through a process that often remains unspoken. Someone gets the final word on specific subject matters because they have some expertise or the topic seems to mean more to them. After all, consensus in decision-making requires talking time and most couples are pressed for time, so they learn a shorthand method of decision-making which will be knee jerked until someone notices that they are missing a piece of themselves in the process. But do they notice that consciously, through self-reflection and self-exploration? Nope. They just start to get fired up or “stand their ground” or, in the passive-aggressive motif, just don’t cooperate over issues that on the surface appear fairly mundane.
Smarten Up: Here’s the tip: when you find your Coupledom engaging in petty spats or losing the skill of making serious decisions, question what is at stake here? If you are frequently stalemated, quagmired, stuck in “we are unable to agree on anything anymore” – red flag that thought. Ask your partner to reflect with you on what is jamming up the works. Your first sortie into this sticky conversational arena might devolve quickly into acid laced barbs and spittle along the lines of “It’s your way or the highway,” “You have no respect for my opinion,” the messy blame game. But stick with it and dig deeper. If “giving in” is a frequent phrase or “getting your way all the time” comes up or someone or both parties are feeling invisible to the other, not known, disrespected, it is likely that each is feeling the loss of self. Are we one or two people here? Fusion confusion can descend on any Coupledom where a member of the Coupledom feels lost in the limelight or drive of the other. Or someone is not putting any time into affirming themselves and then tends to blame their partner for this rather than examining their own choices. When “we” can feel like the loss of “me.”
The NO position then steps in with a good old fashioned slog it out fight, a pitiful stand-in for a real sense of self and power. To develop this personal awareness is not easy to achieve and takes significant emotional multi-tasking, but it is essential to understand what is motivating your behaviors and reactions to get back on track to achieve the healthy shared life.
My Shadow: Fighting about nothing is no substitute for talking about something. Peter Pan had to find his shadow. He was lost without it. It defined an essential part of himself. Find your outline and fill it in with a self-assessment of who you are, what is really important to you and how that “you” can collaborate in a Coupledom where each partner knows where they end and the other begins, with outlines marked with respect and time to hear and to share. Then fighting for nothing stops being a blood sport.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2013