There’s a tug-of-war going on in intimate relationships all across the country. A conflict, although sometimes never fully resolved, that can make or break a marriage. It often rears its head around Valentine’s Day, birthdays, or anniversaries. Can you guess what it is?

If you or your partner has been voicing the sentiments in the following list, you are not alone. It’s normal.

  •  “You never spend time with me!”
  • “I need to be able to spend time with my friends.”
  • “Why can’t we just hang out and talk like we used to?”
  • “I wish you would find your own friends or get more hobbies.”
  • “Why don’t you take better care of yourself and learn to be happy.”

One of the ongoing polarities in any relationship–whether between marriage partners, parents and children, or friends–is the balancing act of closeness and distance. This is the ongoing dance of intimacy, and the key is to learn to move towards and to move away without seeing either polarity as right or wrong, good or bad. To forge the bonds of relationship takes time together but also takes time apart lest the bonds begin to feel too tight or binding.

The Stages of Intimacyfile171294450152

The dance of intimacy and autonomy goes through predictable stages as a couple passes through the family life cycle. At the beginning, when couples are getting to know one another, and are falling in love, they tend to spend so much time together that other friends and family may feel abandoned or neglected. The first stage is all about closeness and bonding or the relationship never gets off the ground. Once the bond is established, a new stage emerges where each person feels safe enough to assert his or her individuality.

The second stage, known by psychotherapists as differentiation, was named after the biological process when cells or tissues start to become specialized in their functions. It is a necessary and positive movement that is crucial for healthy growth and development. But the process of differentiation in couples–moving from “we are one” to becoming two unique individuals in relationship–is often confusing and painful for couples. In fact, couples often break up or enter therapy when this stage gets too conflictual.

The reason this stage can be so difficult is that it feels like, all of a sudden, the person that you fell in love with because you had so much (everything, it seemed) in common is now wanting to spend time away, craving aspects of their “old” life such as friendships, family time, outside activities, or time just to be alone. It is easy to feel rejected or even betrayed. “I thought you liked (fill in the blank) rap music, walks on the beach, spy movies, pizza, big parties…”

file000349823764Rather than take this move towards freedom and autonomy as evidence that you fell in love with the wrong person, realize that your partner now feels safe enough to begin to be more open and authentic. Unconsciously, this is often a time of testing the bond to see how strong it really is. Inside each person is wondering, “Will you still love me if I really tell you what I think, want and feel?”

If your relationship weathers this stage, you will go on to refine the dance, practicing together times of deeper connection and times of more independence. In this way, you will be learning how to balance the needs of the couple with those of each individual, finding ways to talk about the push-pull and to compromise. In a happy healthy relationship, you learn to respect each other’s needs for closeness and distance rather than blaming each other when the inevitable tug of war resurfaces time and again.

The goal is to work towards a relationship of mutual interdependence, one in which you feel safe to assert who you really are and know that your partner wants you to be all that you can be. You are each able to be close and connected and to be alone and happy. As with most everything in life, this takes practice and patience, courage and commitment. As someone who has been married to the same guy for over thirty years, it is well worth it. Even the tug-of-war is part of what keeps the dance alive.