Is there a way to be seen as an individual in a relationship, but still have safety in the relationship?

What I notice …

Often times in relationships, couples avoid communication and connection by continually interrupting his or her individual needs. I am not talking about contact in physical ways, but rather making contact with oneself. You might notice this as the same arguments you have with a loved one that never seem to be mitigated. A disruption in contact (with the authentic self) is often displaced as “I’m doing this for her or him.” As relationships lengthen, the narrative becomes, “I need to sacrifice me for you.” I know this about my own relationship. Early on in my relationship, I would avoid going out with friends or even not speak up for what I needed in the relationship for fear of hurting my wife (I’m doing this for her) or fear of not being able to speak up (she won’t listen or hear me anyway). This is a troubling paradox for the young men I see on a daily basis.

In my understanding of gestalt therapy, we illustrate the need for wholeness within the self, and those of us that choose to support couples in relationships, wholeness in the couple hood. A lack of wholeness, or authentic love in a relationship (I’ll come back to this), usually looks like one individual in the relationship being quiet or allowing the other to walk all over them. Furthermore, this can also look like one being overly-demanding or even being ambivalent about staying in a relationship. Many couples often break with one another for fear of having to exercise his or her needs in the relationship, for many of the same fears outlined above. These fears can often be deeply rooted in belief patterns that many individuals adhere to — more often, these individuals are afraid to challenge these seemingly monumental patterns, often due to not being supported by his or her partner in the effort. When these patterns are placed under a microscope, they soon begin to look more like autopilot.

In a relationship where an individual has appropriate contact with oneself, this often looks like:

  • the ability to ask for individual space
  • the ability to ask for acceptance (accept me for me)
  • the ability to allow space for me to be me and you to be you, so we can meet

This notion is solidified by one of the theorists of Gestalt Psychotherapy as the gestalt prayer:

“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you and I am I,
And if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.” – Fritz Perls.

A Taoist perspective I employ is “going with nature.” I employ this with my life as well as try to help the couples I work with learn to bring curiosity of nature into their waking life. Nature — in relation to a couple — asks, what do I need in this relationship? The question is not stated as, what can the other do for me, but organically is asked as, what do I need? As humans, we have the ability to self-sooth. Self-soothing allows us to calm and reflect, then regain control and be present for oneself — and maybe the other.

As I addressed earlier, authentic love in a relationship surfaces as one being able to be authentic with oneself (one’s needs), while being authentic with his or her partner. This authenticity allows growth and contact to be made between the partners in the couple hood. As illustrated by the compassionate, poetic couple’s counselor and gestalt practitioner, Joseph Zinker:

“When we feel totally loved by someone who really ‘matters,’ the ecstatic, receptive experience makes us feel beautiful, perfect, graceful, profound, and wise. Our deepest most profound stirrings of self-appreciation, self-love, and self-knowledge surface in the presence of a person whom we experience as totally accepting. It is as though we say, “When I know your total acceptance, then I can show you my softest, most penetrable, delicate, beautiful, and vulnerable self”” (1977, p. 7).

To live in one’s experience is the ability to be totally emerged in one’s experience. More aptly, one’s natural needs is one’s natural inclination to fulfill his or her needs. Not paying attention to one’s needs is not living up to one’s authenticity. If I cannot make contact with my needs, there is no way I can embrace my wife or allow my wife to embrace me, nor be embraced by her. Again, the Taoist principle states — going with nature. To go with nature is to go with what the individual’s immediate needs are. When an individual goes with his or her needs, he or she can then be present for the other person.

Living in relationship with an other is challenging. Living in relationship with individual needs is even more so challenging because of the conflating needs of the other and the needs we refuse to acknowledge that we have. To successfully live in couple hood means to understand I can have needs, you can have needs, and together our needs can be met, while meeting the needs of the couple. To understand my needs will allow me to ensure I place all intentions into what I need, so I do not inadvertently project my needs as your hatred.

Jeremy R. Allen, M.A., LPCc


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