Before tying the knot, I viewed commitment from a wary distance, as something heavy to be avoided at all costs due to the potential loss of independence involved. I know I’m not alone in that sentiment: Many men and women fear marriage as a whole, and some don’t want to get married at all. Even if you do get hitched, there seems to be no escaping the constant stream of sarcastic quips about the ways putting a ring on it steals your freedom.
But when my wedding day arrived, I surprisingly felt limitless. Turns out a healthy marriage rooted in trust gave me a permission slip to be myself entirely, to ask for what I needed, to use my voice, and to set upon paths to big dreams. As my now-husband puts it, the ol’ ball and chain can actually make you stronger than ever before. Here’s how.
1. Carve out your own space.
To relax after work, my husband likes plopping down on the couch with a sour beer and watching YouTube videos about the process of forging handmade swords while scrolling through Twitter on his phone. Me? I prefer to hit up a yoga class, take a hot bath, and then eat cheese and crackers for dinner with a book in hand. We bond over a lot of things, but we are also different people with different interests, preferences and needs—which means that we frequently take the time to do our own thing.
“Pursuing your own hobbies and interests solo means you get to introduce your partner to the cool shit you’ve been up to,” said Kayla Hughes, senior project manager at Bolin Marketing. Or try this unique approach: “I know of a couple who has been married 25 years, and they’ve learned to plan independent time when they go on vacations. If one likes museums and the other doesn’t, they spend one daytime alone and then meet up for dinner to share all the amazing things they experienced,” said Lindsey Dressen, marketing communication specialist at UnityPoint Health.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to text your partner all day long or spend every free second at their side. But it’s okay to miss each other once in awhile by regularly nurturing friendships, passions and side gigs. Carving out space to develop your own individuality helps you practice self-care, and reminds you to be the interesting, dynamic person you are regardless of your relationship status.
2. Support inspires confidence.
I recently met a photographer friend for happy hour, and we soon got onto the topic of freelance work—she is building her artistic career as I expand my skills as a writer. I asked how she got started, and she said that her husband originally encouraged her talent. She desired to get behind a camera for a long time, but the ongoing support at home gave her the extra nudge she needed to move forward.
I knew what she meant. I once dated a man who read something I wrote and immediately said, “Nobody will care about that.” Years later, the criticism still stung and got in my way every time I sat down to create. Fast forward years later to my partner, who urged me to listen to the small voice inside me that really, really wanted to pursue my ambitions related to writing. And so I did.
One of my yoga students described it this way: Partnership enables independence. If the foundation of your relationship is secure, healthy, and safe, it can be easier to put yourself out there and take risks. If you trust that you have a solid “home base” of support, dealing with criticism or setbacks can feel less overwhelming.
3. Know what you bring to the table.
Sometimes I look at my husband across the room and think, “Damn, he’s such a good catch.” The thing is, I feel that way about myself some days, too—which is not a mark of conceit, but a measure of confidence. Knowing that you are a valuable person worthy of love and commitment has a huge impact on your ability to choose, and re-choose, your partner repeatedly. In the best relationships, each person feels as though they got the better end of the deal. They know that they are bringing their best self to the table in addition to their ability to stand on their own two feet, however that takes shape in any given season, in order to maintain individual health, sanity, and happiness.
4. Be flexible and communicate what you need.
Independence is a double-edged sword in the sense that you have to communicate what you need from another person, but you also need to be flexible in your expectations. It doesn’t mean saying, “This is what I want, this is how you fit into my life; if you don’t like it, GTFO.” It means understanding that your partner is his or her own person with an intricate past, a multi-dimensional present, and a open-ended future—just like you.
Pre-marriage, I used to only date guys who either shared all my love of literature or held a penchant for poetic writing. I thought that’s what I needed: Someone who “got” me in very specific, narrow ways. Then I met my significant other, an engineer with minimal taste for flowery language or stacks of novels, and thought: We are totally doomed. However, I was wrong. I learned that all I really wanted was someone who could respect and uplift my cherished passions as well as listen to me drone on excitedly about them. I actually didn’t need to date someone just like me, because that ended up being completely boring.
But we didn’t build that balance overnight. It took us a couple years of trial and error to figure out ways to uplift our differences into a positive light so that we both felt seen and heard as individuals.
5. Two complete halves make a whole.
I often hear couples describe themselves as best friends. That’s beautiful—except I don’t consider my husband my best friend. (Blasphemous, right?) My partner is my everything, but he’s not my be-all, end-all. Over the years, I frequently made the mistake that my significant other should, you know, meet every single need I would ever have, which is completely unrealistic and self-sabotaging. I realized that I had to find fulfillment in myself first (one of those sayings that is true for a reason).
My friend Rachael, one of the most free-spirited people I’ve ever met, explained her marriage like this: “In a committed partnership, we trust that the other person will always act in the best interest of the team. Which sometimes means prioritizing the things that make us happy individually so we can carry that positivity to our home. There cannot be a whole without two complete halves. We are each responsible for nurturing our half.”
Stop focusing on the “perfect” relationship; instead, seek out a healthy, high-functioning relationship with someone who will meet your core needs in several key areas. Expect your partner to complement you, not complete you.
How do you maintain independence within a committed relationship? What has marriage taught you about freedom and individuality?
This article was originally published on October 29, 2016.