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Maintaining individuality in a relationship

February 23, 2001

Maintaining individuality in a relationship



By KEVIN CLAPP / Staff Writer


Angie and Mark Youngblood are not best friends.

They live together. They work together. In May, they will celebrate 11 years of marriage.

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But they are not best friends.

"We each have our own friends and do our own things," Angie says. "It helps, but I don't think you have to be best friends at all" to have a successful marriage.

While they own and operate Youngblood Studios in Hagerstown - her office is upstairs, his is downstairs - they pursue outside interests that have nothing to do with the other.

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Maintaining individuality is critical to establishing a long-lasting, healthy relationship. Experts agree that in order to form a more perfect union, men and women must pay as much attention to themselves as they do to making the relationship work.

"A person first has to have a sense of self-worth and self-purpose in life," says the Rev. Judith McLean, a therapist and director of Family Life Counseling in Hagerstown. "If you don't have that, you're more likely to be more dependent in the relationship."

Angie Youngblood is a deacon at her church. Mark Youngblood exercises religiously and goes mountain biking when possible.

They share a social circle, but also have a stable of friends they call their own. Angie Youngblood is planning a trip to New York with some of her girlfriends.

McLean says it's important not to feel that you "walk lockstep with your partner."

"I think when people lose their sense of identity, they rely on their spouse to identify who they are," she says. "They just don't have a general sense of what their life goals are, or who they are as an individual."

Ironically, according to relationship experts such as Kathryn Elliott, couples get together because they are drawn to each other as individuals but can end up sacrificing themselves to create a union devoid of separation or disagreement.

Elliott, assistant professor of psychology at University of Louisiana, Lafayette, says one person - usually the woman - ends up acquiescing, sometimes building up enough animosity toward his or her partner to doom the relationship.

"The person who's not maintaining individuality ends up angry and withdrawn," she says. "It creates so much anger and distrust, and there's no chance to work on it when you don't say what your wants and needs are."

It's a paradox. By trying to maintain harmony, couples can lose the individual traits that attracted them to each other in the first place.

"The thing that is so hard for people when they fall in love is they experience the honeymoon phase and they feel they want to keep that, it feels so good," Elliott says. "They start doing the opposite of what they need to do: Talk about what they need and want. That's what they do in the early stage of a relationship.

"That's the death knell of a real closeness because unless you can maintain your individuality, you start becoming less and less of a person in a relationship."

Placing blame for a relationship gone sour is not healthy, either.

Elliott talks about individuation - the process of becoming separate from one's partner, with wants, needs and desires that might be different from that person.

She also talks about the inner critic, the internal voice that tells you how you should or shouldn't feel, act or think. Those who think they "should do this" or "shouldn't do that" to preserve harmony are forming the first crack that can end a relationship, Elliott says.

"You've really got to be conscious of it to not have the process impact your relationship negatively," she says. "And most people don't have a clue about it. We just don't get training in how to maintain our individuality in a relationship."

Elliott has found that it takes two people to create a poor relationship. Sometimes, it's an unconscious eroding of the bonds that created the couple.

If one person sacrifices needs to avoid making waves in the relationship, he or she should have spoken up about what they want. By not challenging the status quo, the spouse or partner contributes to the rift.

"It's true. They both play a part in that whole profile," Elliott says. "We don't usually talk about it as someone being at fault, but it takes both partners being supportive of their individuality for the relationship to survive."

McLean says maintaining individuality isn't the problem. Creating a strong couple out of two strong people used to taking care of only themselves can be.

Indiana University professor of human development Robert Billingham says this is due to a new cultural climate where men and women are players in the work force.

In this model, he says people first focus on themselves, their careers and their prosperity before spending time on a relationship.

"Very simply, what this does is make committed relationships impossible," Billingham says. "Because relationships, by their definition, demand that both people talk in terms of what needs to be done to maintain the relationship."

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