One of the areas of intimate or romantic relationships that can get a bit muddy or gray is the concept of maintaining and cultivating one’s individual agency along with the connection and communion that is desired, and inherent, in the relationship.

These dynamics play out differently in all of our relationships, and there are so many layers to this conversation, but there are some common threads I want to tease out here.

Hopefully I can offer some useful ideas on how to balance these dynamics with your intimate partner(s). 

In mainstream culture, people tend to feel very strongly about the idea of people in relationships being very separate entities. It’s almost an obvious conclusion; in this day and age, partners are themselves first, and pieces of each other second – if at all. 

However, in the more spiritual realm of personal growth and development, what we find is that people begin falling more on the side of a singular entity, not just consisting of the people in the relationship, but inclusive of all of the factors in our lives that make up our everyday experiences. There is a question of where one person, idea, or life starts, and where another begins, because we are all so tangled in ourselves, each other, in the world around us that it can become very difficult to separate all the pieces out into individual entities. 

Like many things, I think both of these perspectives are true.

The idea that we either have agency OR communion, that we’re either separate OR we are one, is really just two sides of the same coin. It’s just a different way to look at partnership, and both can be equally true.

Without separation, there is nothing to connect

Now, this being said, I do believe this is an area where things get a little lost in some places. In the personal development or spiritual relational realm, the tendency is often to lean towards, and to get to the place where there is no boundary and we’re all one in connection with each other. But I believe that in order for there to be a relationship, we have to acknowledge that there’s separation; in fact, that’s what allows us to connect. 

If there is no separation, if we are all one, there’s actually no polarity. If there’s no separation, there’s no intimacy, and there’s ultimately no relationship, because there’s nothing to have a relationship with.

Connection and relationship(s) occur between two or more beings. Without separation, there are no other things or people, and therefore no separate beings to connect with!

It’s also important to acknowledge that although we are separate individuals, that doesn’t mean we have to be disconnected from each other. By acknowledging that we are actually separate, we are able to then discover how close we want to be, what we want to do together, and what spaces we want to keep separate in our lives.

Too often moving towards, and more closeness, are seen as always better – or ‘more connected’. Healthy connection requires acknowledging the separation and not habitually or unconsciously putting merging above individuation.

The three elements of a relationship

There’s a framework I like to apply both to how we think about and look at our relationships, which helps us better understand where we are in each moment in a relationship.

I think of it as three stages, but rather than a hierarchy, it’s more like a series of concentric circles.

Essentially, the first stage needs to be there in order for the second to exist, and both must be there in order for the third to exist. It is also true that the degree to which we can fully inhabit the first circle, is the degree to which we even have the capacity to inhabit the second, etc… This doesn’t mean the third is the best, it just depends on the others; all three must be at play in order for a relationship to work.  And the most beautiful relating is when all three are in play -with each other- consciously.

The first element is the place right in the center. I like to call it the Me stage. It’s all about the individual, focused on only our own needs, wants, and desires. I often call it the self-centered or selfish element, but without the negative connotation that comes with those labels. No one wants to be the person who’s all about themselves, but actually it’s incredibly important to be able to tap into that place. We have to know what our own boundaries are, and we have to know what our own wants, needs, and desires are, in order to develop the capacity for stage two, which incorporates both the individual and the other. Without true understanding, welcoming, and embodiment of stage one, stage two (and three) are often more of a mimicry than an authentic expression.

This first element is a really important developmental stage for all human beings to go through, because if we can’t be okay with being fully self-centered and self-focused at times, then we will have a hard time moving through to these other layers in a way that’s actually healthy. 

The second element is focused on the two separate entities in a relationship working together to understand each other’s needs. I often talk about this one as the Me and You stage. In this stage you share your wants, needs & desires, and also want to hear about what they want, need & desire. You spend time discovering & negotiating about where you have shared wants & needs, and where there are differences. There’s still an inherent separation of the two entities in this stage, but it’s where you begin to cultivate the capacity to actually hear another person’s boundaries, wants, needs, and desires without immediately making them your own or without needing to make them wrong because they’re different from yours. 

What you learn from this stage are the ways that you are different, and the tension point when you realize your innate differences can be anxiety-provoking. Building our capacity to be with the anxiety that you and your partner are separate and different is the greatest relational skill. It forces us to confront our beliefs about the “right” way to exist, to connect, and to communicate. 

The third layer, the one that relies on the first two, is what I call the We stage. This stage is more focused on the third being born from the connection of two separate beings – the relationship, or relational dynamic, itself. It’s important to remember that the We layer is, in and of itself, a third entity. It does not erase the separation of the two beings in relationship; it’s like we now have three beings to tend to.

Like any situation, this becomes exponentially more complex the more beings we add to it. But recognizing “we” as a separate entity from “you” and “me” inherently shifts things so that the conversation is focused on how what “I” want and what “you” want can work together to fulfill what the “we” space is calling for in any given moment. 

Describe before prescribing

A useful way to manage the transition between these three elements is what I call “describing first”. Essentially, before we look at where we want our relationship to be, or how we want communication to be, we first need to determine how it currently is, and how it currently affects our individual selves in terms of our own needs and desires. Being able to fully describe the current situation – to yourself and to your partner – better enables you to actually shift that situation into something more mutually-beneficial. 

One of the important pieces of describing is each person checking in about what they ‘see’ as what is so in the dynamic – without assuming that is also what the other person ‘sees’.  “You never want to spend any time with me!” is very different from “It seems to me like I want to spend more time together than you do.  Does it seem that way to you too?”

The fluidity of agency and communion 

Within any relationship, there is always going to be an ebb and a flow between agency and communion. There’s a natural inhalation and exhalation, a balance that must be walked. Just as if we never exhaled, we would suffer, so too do our relationships suffer when we don’t include agency, space, or putting attention on the Me stage within our relationships.

People are often afraid of the “me and you” stage – they are afraid of relinquishing the control that comes with receiving and giving equal value to the other’s boundaries without judgment, and with allowing that to take up as much space in the relationship dynamic as their own boundaries. This is because we have all had a long-time habit of overriding our individuality, not actually bringing ourselves into the connection in stage two. 

A place that people often get tripped up is, we think that we’re focused on the other person – i.e. what they want, what they need, and what they desire – when actually we’re still mostly focused on ourselves. It’s just that we reflexively look externally to determine whether we are okay.

It’s very different to relate to another person from the place of “I want to know who you are and what your desires, dreams, and hopes and needs are (whether I want the same things or not)”, than from the orientation of, “what do you need, so that I can fulfill it (so that you’ll stay)?”

That habitual or compulsive need to fulfill somebody else’s wants, needs, and desires, or to do it their way often actually comes from a very self-centered place. 

So with this in mind, I invite you to think about the different aspects of this to bring in different perspectives about how this actually relates to your life and your relationships, especially the relationships where you might have some tension or where you’re struggling a little bit.

Let’s work with the specificity of that, and see if you can begin to shift some of your patterns and preconceived notions around agency vs. communion. 

If you want help diving deeper into this, join The Collective for my Relationship By Design program: 

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