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The Capacity for Separation, And Not Just Attachment, Is Significant: Guest Post by Karen L. Smith

[Bella’s intro: Welcome to guest blogger and psychotherapist Karen L. Smith. In this article, she explains the importance of the capacity to be separate from other people, as well as the more widely-recognized significance of being attached. She knows how much singlism is out there, and how much some people complain about single life,  yet, as she notes below, “when folks are in a relationship, they spend a fair amount of time in therapy distressed about their relationship.” Thank-you, Karen Smith, for contributing your insights.]

Always Look on the Bright Side of Your Relationship Status

Guest Post by Karen L. Smith

As an analytically oriented psychotherapist, I am always thrown a bit by “attachment theory” and “attachment parenting”. What about the other side of the coin, separation? Both attachment and separation are capacities that must be achieved. They are accomplishments that need to be nurtured in our children, because both entail losses.

Let me see if I can explain that some here, both as relates to children, and what it looks like in adulthood. Some of this is heavy, clinical stuff…I am hoping I can lay it out here in a comprehensible way for the lay person.

To successfully attach to another requires significant accommodations in behavior. As an infant and toddler this means concrete things, like learning not to bite the breast, throw your cereal bowl, hit your dad, and eventually to please your parents by controlling your bowels in toilet training. These may seem mundane, but psychically they demand regulation of the self, something none of us do without tasting the loss of internal and external freedom.

Tied to the demand on self-regulation is the necessity of acknowledging the existence of the “other”.  Newborns cannot yet identify any distinction between them and the outside world. The sense of “self” and “other” is developed slowly, as a result of normal everyday disappointments; a cuddle that comes too long in the waiting, milk that is the wrong temperature, gas that goes unrelieved. It is in these moments of disappointment that the infant begins to understand that it is not their need/desire alone that brings relief, but that there is a something, ultimately a someone,  that must bring, or not bring, that relief.

The awareness of the “other” builds over time. And with it an increasing sense of the imperative for accommodation, and loss of the delicious world where we are the only thing that exists, and where our own needs and desires are the only things in the world that matter. The children’s book “Where the Wild things Are” by Maurice Sendak, illustrates this beautifully. Max is behaving badly and sent to his room without dinner. There he dreams of a world where he is allowed to behave as unruly as desired and have it rewarded. He becomes the king of the wild things, and therefore need not accommodate the other. He reveals in separation.  And then he misses home, where “someone loves him best”. He returns to the reality of his room to find the comforts of attachment in a warm meal.

As adults it seems we privilege coupledom and attachment over singledom and separation. Most people seem to treat being single as something which “needs to be fixed”, and that is inherently deficit. They can easily list everything that is great/important/better about being in a couple, and what sucks about being single. Interestingly, when folks are in a relationship, they spend a fair amount of time in therapy distressed about their relationship. Even when they are really struggling with their relationship, their fears about being without a relationship are alive and well.

I have been in 2 ten year relationships in the past 30 years, and have spent the bulk of the other 10 years single, usually without much dating. The thing is, I think they both have their pros and cons. I honestly like them both. Part of what allows me to like whichever I am in is I remember they both have their pros and cons and I should enjoy the pros of which ever I am in; looking on the bright side of my relationship status. I also remember the importance of having experiences of attachment and separation regardless of my relationship status.

Examples of pro/cons and honoring both:

  • Cuddling in bed with someone rocks. I super love it. Except when I don’t; like when I need a really good night sleep, or am tossy turny, or my body aches. So even in a relationship, I make sure it is emotionally benign to sleep in another room when needed.
  • When I am single, my sleep schedule is getting up early in the morning, taking a serious nap in the day, and staying up super late at night watching bad TV while working on my computer. This does not work great in a relationship, so I value it when I am single and work it in at least once or twice a week when I am in a couple.
  • A routine aspect of being single that people worry will be true is loneliness. The problem is loneliness happens routinely while in a couple as well, and can be easily managed with good friends and community.
  • It is really lovely when I am in a couple to have someone grab me a glass of water when they go in the kitchen. I remember it is great when it is happening, rather than seeing it as a given. In fact, I try to be really aware of not over-relying on a partner to do stuff for me, but rather to assume I am responsible for me, and they are responsible for them, and any favors we do for each other are just that; favors.
  • When I am single, I feel very clear of what I want to do, what matters to me, how I want to use my time. That gets really muddled in relationships with all the compromising. I try to stay connected to what I want before I compromise.
  • My least favorite thing about being single is being sick while single. But I am a person with a loving community of friends, and I let myself rely on them in many ways to get some of my attachment needs met when I am single.
  • I am inspired by cooking when I have a sweetie, and make much more elaborate meals more frequently as opposed to when I am single. But when I am single, I get to make meals with only my own tastes and appetite in consideration.

These are just a handful of random differences. What I would wish for others is that they can think about all the ways each relationship status satisfies different needs and desires. And by remembering, they wouldn’t take any of the pros of either status for granted, but would remember them for the treat they are. So get out there: connect when it feels good, and disconnect when that is what serves you, regardless of your relationship status!

About the author: Karen L. Smith MSS, LCSW is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 20 years in clinical practice. She is the founder/director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice that offers clinical services by seasoned psychotherapists though out the greater Philadelphia area. Smith muses about issues from both sides of the clinical couch on her blogs and

Woman cooking photo available from Shutterstock

The Capacity for Separation, And Not Just Attachment, Is Significant: Guest Post by Karen L. Smith

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D

Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Academic Affiliate, Psychological and Brain Sciences, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Her TEDx talk is "What no one ever told you about people who are single," Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" -- single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life. Visit her website at

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APA Reference
DePaulo, B. (2015). The Capacity for Separation, And Not Just Attachment, Is Significant: Guest Post by Karen L. Smith. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Oct 2015
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