When I first married at the age of twenty-two, I was happy to trade in my independence for what I thought was a guarantee of partnership and togetherness. By exchanging “me” for “we,” I knew that I was making the promise to consider his opinions and needs when making decisions and that I was committing to putting the marriage before my own desires and dreams. A transaction that seemed completely reasonable at the time.
I didn’t lose my independence all at once.
Its integrity frayed slowly, like fabric subject to excess friction. Sometimes, it simply didn’t feel worth the energy to assert my own opinions. Other times, I found that I too easily adopted his views as my own. He became my primary confidant, my go-to social partner and we undertook most tasks and errands together simply by default.
Some of my actions were driven by consideration and respect – I would notify him if I was running late, consult him before making a major decision and seek his approval before spending a significant sum.
Other behaviors seem more concerning in retrospect. I was always careful to consider his feelings or preferences, yet I often neglected to examine my own. I looked for his validation when I took up running at the age of thirty. I rarely went to parties or other large-group gatherings without him. And I relied on him to take over tasks that I found difficult instead of pushing myself outside of my comfort zone (the one that stands out the most here is making returns at a store – I HATED doing that to the point of mini anxiety attacks).
On one of my first shopping expeditions after he left, I impulsively grabbed a pack of strawberry-flavored gum at the register. Not because I have a particular fondness for fruit gum, but because he despised it so much that I never chewed the stuff. Not even in the hours I spent away from him each day.
That small act suggested a large step.
It was time to take back my independence and again find the “me” that had been lost in the “we.”
It was strange at first, acting without consulting anybody else. Making decisions on my own (and also facing the consequences of those choices on my own). I felt a little lost, like a kid at their first summer camp, unsure how to act when the accustomed structure was no longer apparent. Then, over time, the independence became comfortable and ultimately, essential. That autonomy that I had so willingly signed away years ago had become imperative to my well-being. Even though I wanted another partnership, I vowed to never again give away my independence.
My marriage now looks very different than my earlier marriage. We came together later in life, with established careers, friendships, bank accounts and habits that we weren’t willing to lose in order to enter into a relationship. Instead of there being an assumption that everything would become shared, we negotiated what elements we would merge and what would stay more autonomous.
I feel that I now truly have the best of both worlds – I know that my husband has my back but I also have my own mind (and vice-versa). There’s a much better balance; whereas my first marriage was dependent, this one is interdependent with a hearty sprinkling of independence.
The fear of losing oneself upon entering a relationship is a commonly cited reason for resisting commitment.
And rightfully so.
It’s easy to get so caught up in your role as wife, husband, mother or father that you no longer have the time or energy to devote to those things that used to bring you joy. You can find yourself slowly losing your desire or even ability to make decisions on your own, deflecting these to your partner and neglecting your thoughts in the process.
Maybe you came out of your previous marriage with the realization that you lost yourself somewhere along the way. Maybe, after years of hard work, you feel like you’ve found yourself again. You like your life. Love your independence and the confidence and freedom that comes with it. And still, you may find that you’re feeling pulled towards partnership. But you know that you don’t want to lose that independence that you’ve fought so hard for.
Good news. You can maintain your independence even within a marriage.
How to Be Married (and Still Be Yourself)
Choose a Partner With Similar Requirements
There are some people who want to spend all of their time with their spouse. They share email addresses, home offices and friends. Others prefer to have more delineation between mine, yours and ours, creating and maintaining boundaries between areas. Some married couples even agree to live separately and only have the smallest regions of intersection between their lives.
No situation is better than the other and any variation within this continuum is perfectly fine as long as both partners are in agreement with the terms. And since you’re concerned about maintaining your independence, seek out people that are equally dedicated to maintaining their freedoms as well. Those that have full lives are more likely to respect your interests and passions and willing allow you the time to operate solo.
If, like me, you’ve experienced more overlapping lives in your past relationships, be aware that it may take time for you to adjust to this shift in the dynamic. You can’t have it both ways – if you’re going to maintain your independence, you also have to accept that you will receive less attention from your partner because they will also be busy with their own lives.
Distinguish Between Independence and Consideration
When I was single, I could go away for a weekend and not tell anyone as long as I returned in time for work on Monday morning. Now as a married woman, I can still go away by myself for a weekend, but I do have to at least inform my husband first. To leave without the respect of ample notice would be rude and inconsistent with a healthy partnership.
Sometimes, when people say they want to maintain their independence, they really mean that they do not want any responsibility to anybody else. Which is ultimately incompatible in a relationship (How many of you have been married to people like this who think that everything is always and only about them?).
When you enter into a relationship, you have a responsibility to the other person. And one of those duties is to be considerate of their rights and needs. And that consideration may sometimes step on the toes of your desire for independence. But when you enter into a marriage, that’s the choice you’ve made.
Determine What is Important to You
When I lived alone, I played heavy metal in the living room during 4:00 am workouts. I came home every day to clean kitchen and relaxed every evening on my white slipcovered sofa. When I moved in with my now-husband, I knew that all of those things would be history. And I also decided that those things weren’t important to me.
Of course, there were other considerations that I deemed vital. I needed to have my own space in the home, I needed to be able to schedule my evenings and weekends the way I wanted and I had to maintain control over my own paychecks and accounts. I actually made a list of the specific types of independence that were important to me; I wanted to make sure that I didn’t inadvertently lose my autonomy again.
Take the time to decide what independence looks like for you. What makes you feel controlled or trapped? What conditions allow you the freedom you want?
Is this compatible with a relationship? With parenthood (or parenthood of younger children)? Be honest with yourself here. If you try to pigeonhole yourself into too small a hole, you will inevitably feel constricted. It’s better to start with less commitment and responsibility and see if you want to grow towards more.
Communicate Your Needs Clearly and Early
All you need to do to understand the struggles inherent in a bid for more independence is look at teenagers and their parents. The teens want more freedom; the parents fear losing their kids. The kids push their parents away and the parents often take these words and behaviors personally.
It’s not that different in a partnership. When one person suddenly makes a stand for more independence, it can be seen as a threat to the relationship and can be taken personally. This is a great place for those famous “I statements,” to communicate that this is about what you’re needing, not about the other person.
Whenever possible, communicate your needs for independence at the beginning of the relationship. If your needs have changed over time, be aware that the information may be difficult for your partner to receive and that it may take a series of conversations (and time) to fully negotiate the changes.
Listen to Your Partner and Ignore the Peanut Gallery
When I was on my recent trip and mentioned my husband (who was home in Atlanta) to someone, I often received a raised eyebrow, “Why aren’t you doing this trip together?” I gave them a pat non-answer because the real one would be a bit longer.
Travel is important to me. I only recently have the means to enjoy it again after recovering from my ex’s financial shenanigans. In my former life, I waited too much to live, always promising myself that I would do all of the things once some benchmark occurred. And after? I promised myself that I would never again wait to live. Or to travel.
It’s different for my husband. He has to travel for work and being away means that he can’t train martial arts (his passion). His preferred funnel for the “I’ve made it tough to exhale” funds is his Corvette. And he much prefers waking up in the same bed each day to days full of the unknowns and inevitably discomforts of travel.
So I travel and often he does not. And it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of that other than the two of us (and Kazh too!).
Do what works for you and your partner and feel free to turn a deaf ear to those that want to criticize from afar. After all, the ultimate independence is the freedom to build your life in the way that works for you. Whatever that may look like.