I remember the nurse’s words as he walked me and my husband down a long hallway before my mastectomy: “This is as far as you can go together, time to go in different directions; waiting room to the left, surgery to the right.” Where I was going, my husband could not come. And where he was going I could not go. So in that moment and in that place of divergence, we kissed each other good bye, told each other, “I love you” and then we parted. Each of us walking in different directions, born of the same experience. Both of us facing the challenges of breast cancer. Each being asked to face different fears. I remember thinking as we said good bye in that long hallway, and as the anxiety and fear swirled in my entire body, “In this moment, my life is mine alone to live just as it is; my husband’s life is his to live just as it is.” As much as we love each other, we cannot live for the other or fix things or even protect each other from suffering. We can only live side by side supporting, understanding, listening, championing, comforting, and trusting. Separate, yet connected; the same, yet different.
When my surgery was over, I woke in the recovery room and saw my husband standing over me. We were together again. We just returned from traveling different roads with very different experiences which required different things from us. But, as always, we found our way back to each other, following the deeply connected threads from which we have knit our relationship. The experience we just had (mine in surgery and his in the waiting room) changed us both forever. Our love for each other and our deep respect for our separate and different experiences would be our guide as we recovered and healed; as we learned how to integrate this life-altering experience and deepen our understanding of both ourselves and each other more than ever before.
We were asked to do this before in our lives. We did not always do it well or effectively or handled our differences respectfully and with understanding. But we kept working at it, and still work at it. And over the years we have been able to move a bit more gracefully through the very real couple challenges of balancing times of connection and times of separation; similarities and differences.
How many times in our intimate relationships are we asked to do this? To experience the same thing, only differently, because each of us, no matter how strong our bond, how deep our care, how similar our similarities, are separate individuals. We can be feeling completely in sync with our partner, when all of a sudden, the path diverges and each of us needs to go in a separate direction. How then do we let go and trust that the separate and different experience contains essential aspects for our growth (both as individuals and as a couple)? How do we honor this path with the utmost integrity and a hefty dose of respect? How do we uphold each other during moments of separateness? How do we use these moments to strengthen ourselves and each other? How do we come back around to find each other again?
These questions reveal some of the most challenging things we face in our intimate relationship. Facing these challenges require us to start with our own internal awareness of our experiences as well as our non-judgmental acceptance for ourselves and our partner. We can offer our support and full presence to each other’s experience. Supporting each other’s separateness and being fully present creates the finely woven threads of connection. The threads of connection are: compassion, empathy, curiosity and respect. And all of these things are what we give to ourselves as we stand on our own, as well as what we give to our partner as they travel their own unique path. These threads weave our separate selves together until we are inextricably linked; separate and yet deeply connected; whole beings on our own, yet more alive and empowered together.
In times of separateness, uncertainty, and fear, following these threads become our map, our light, guiding us to forge the path that brings us home to each other. When in an intimate relationship, it is the bond of connection that strengthens us to continuously travel our own path, when life asks this of us over and over again. When we trust that the finely woven, yet incredibly strong, threads of connection are able to withstand the stress and strain of difficult times, we have the courage to embark on the paths of our separate experiences with courage and integrity.
Connection and separateness, constantly influencing each other and circling back around again and again. Patiently and faithfully, weaving the threads of compassion, empathy, curiosity, respect. Creating deep and abiding love.
If you and your partner struggle when life experiences ask you to walk on separate paths and require different things of you, if you fear that differences are equated with a permanent loss of connection, you are not alone. These are very common challenges for couples, but ones that can be addressed most effectively through the work in couples therapy. You can learn how to cultivate support, compassion, empathy, respect, curiosity and love. You can learn how to use these threads of connection to celebrate and honor the unique, separate self of each of you. You can use these threads to bring together your separate and beautiful selves and create a strong foundation of deep and abiding love and connection.