By: Thomas G. Beley, PhD, LCSW
There is a German fable that states that relationships are like two porcupines trying to keep warm in the dead of winter. Move in too close, or too quickly, in the anticipation of feeling the warmth, chances are the porcupines are going to experience some discomfort and pain from their respective ill-positioned quills. Yet, being afraid of getting too close to each other, the porcupines are likely to run the risk of dying from the winter cold.
As individuals, our relationships are not too different than the porcupines. Whether it is with family, friends, co-workers or strangers, we are constantly in a natural process of trying to determine just how close we need to be with someone while at the same time not sacrificing our own individual beliefs, values, or needs. It is the negotiation of these two natural forces of individuality and togetherness that determines the success of any relationship. Too much of either or an imbalance can have unsettling effects.
It is important to understand that individuals are subject to an inherent process of trying to reach a successful balance between these two natural forces. Research has shown that this is a process rooted in nature and all living organisms. Being a part of all life means we have the desire to be our own person yet at the same time desire the safety and security of the group.
Finding Balanced Relationships
In humans, this process happens both consciously and unconsciously. We seek out relationships that will give us both the opportunity to pursue our own individual needs while at the same time involve ourselves in a relationship that is nurturing and comforting. Our behavior, whether good, bad, or indifferent, is often influenced by these forces of nature of trying to find that right balance between one’s need for individuality and togetherness. The successful balance of these two life forces is what brings us a sense of well being and contentment. It is our ability to maintain this delicate balance between individuality and togetherness that determines the quality of any given relationship.
It is also important to note, here, that the quest for individuality or togetherness is not to say that one is more important than the other. They are both extremely critical. However, it is how a person balances these two forces within their life and the relationship systems in place that makes the difference between staying calm and collected and being in a state of turmoil and conflict.
Relationship conflicts often occur when there is an imbalance in these two natural forces. Imbalances can occur both within the individual and within the relationship system itself. A common scenario that often develops is when one person within the relationship system desires more individuality and the other person in the relationship system desires more togetherness and closeness. As is often the case, one person begins to feel overwhelmed in the relationship while the other person may feel neglected. Typically, the person desiring more individuality is running away from the relationship system while the person seeking more closeness is chasing the relationship system.
The Dance of Conflict
This “dance” can occur in a variety of ways. One such way is when an individual requires an excessive amount of one or the other. Too much of an individuality influence may make it difficult for that person to make a meaningful connection with others, particularly those who desire more closeness and togetherness. In that desire to achieve a sense of individuality, a person can easily cut him or herself off from others. Along the same lines, a person with a high degree of individuality may find others having a difficult time making a meaningful connection with him or her. The same holds true for the person needing a great deal of togetherness. The desire to achieve closeness can result in the person becoming excessively dependent on others or not maximizing their own individual potential.
Another common scenario that is when one person desires individuality and the other person is requiring a sense of togetherness. A person who requires a sense of individuality will likely create a conflict in the relationship system of the person who has the desire to achieve more togetherness. The same dilemma holds true if two people have inordinate amounts of the same needs. Two people desiring a great deal of individuality will likely experience the cold of winter. Two people desiring a great deal of togetherness will likely feel the quills of another person. When there is an imbalance of these needs, anxiety occurs and the potential for conflict exists.
Find What Matters
It is important to emphasize that there is no magic formula that constitutes what is the right amount of togetherness or individuality within a relationship system. What truly matters is how a person manages their respective needs and the awareness of the needs of the other within the relationship system.