With the Fourth of July holiday behind us, I thought about the meaning of “independence” in our daily lives. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, we talked a lot about being “independent” and “freedom” in reference to the Viet Nam war and the draft. Those terms are often used together when we describe our rights in the United States. We look at freedom and independent to describe our rights to live free from oppression. The women’s movement was labeled “Women’s Lib” and was about liberation from being held to stereotypical roles. I do not believe that women were really thinking about independence as much as maybe freedom. Women were concerned with being liberated from being held back, and being free to seek a better life for themselves.
According to Wikipedia, “independence is a condition of a nation, country, or state in which its residents and population, or some portion thereof, exercise self-government, and usual sovereignty, over its territory." The opposite of independence is dependence.
So what does independence have to do with your relationships; and, therefore, your mental health? Often when we think of being independent we associate that with being alone and not having relationships. We say, “She a very independent woman when we describe single women." This suggests that you cannot independent and be in a relationship. However, to be in a relationship that is strong, healthy and resilient, you need independence. I tell my clients you should be good in your separateness. What does that mean? I will get to that but, first let’s talk about self-differentiation.
David Schnarch, author of Passionate Marriage, a book that I highly recommend to my clients, writes; “differentiation as always involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness.”
Schnarch further speaks about the fantasy in the wedding vows, “The two shall become one." We are individuals with individual’s needs, wants and desires. We also have separate families of origin where we developed our sense of self.
In my work as a therapist, I stress the importance for clients to be self-differentiated. Sometimes clients are not sure what self-differentiation is, and assume that I am speaking about alienation. I don’t believe we must alienate others to be independent or self-differentiated. My understanding is that independence is not being dependent of others and acting independently. Self-differentiation is about acting and reacting independently. It is also about responsibility. Becoming self-differentiated is not being emotionally dependent and accepting responsibility for your own emotional state.
In some ways, I believe that being liberated may mean being released from the restraint of authority as independence and autonomy are. However, if being independent implies that we are standing alone. I have heard that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is such a marvelous document because it stands alone. We are in the United States in relationship with the rest of the world. This is what I refer to in my sessions with clients, if they believe that I am asking them to not be part of a relationship. My standard comment about this is “no one is independent.” You will always be in a relationship with others and therefore you must learn to be independent of their emotional state and self-differentiated so that you can make a choice about your emotional state.
Yes, you might make more money than your spouse, feel that you can take care of yourself or have been single for ten years, and feel that you are independent in your relationship, but I beg to differ. I repeat it is my belief that “no one is independent." We all have to depend on someone, even if it is only a relationship with our neighbors, our boss or the government. In addition, you may be financially independent and still be dependent emotionally.
We are all in relationships with others, so it is difficult to not allow others to influence our emotional health. We must learn to choose our emotional health and how we allow the world to impact it. Therefore, we should not depend on other for your emotional needs or blame others for our unhappiness. In other words, we must take responsibility for our mental health and be self-differentiated. With being self-differentiated, we have independence to choose our own behavior.
Many times, clients argue that they have no relationships and do not depend on anyone for anything. Yet, they hold many people responsible for their unhappiness. Even if you live under a rock in the forest, you depend on someone…even if it is a forest ranger that protects you from forest fires. We are all dependent on each other in many areas of our lives; however, our happiness is not dependent on others. That may sound harsh and something you may not want to hear, but you control the happiness meter on your life.
It is important to understand the need for emotional independence. Again, we are all dependent on each other in many areas of our lives, but not for our emotional stability. We must learn to self-regulate our emotions and not let our emotions be controlled by others. Think about the typical adolescent whom we all know if fighting for his independence from his parents, the authority figures in his life. Despite telling everyone that he can take care of himself and doesn’t need anyone in his life to tell him what to do, and not to do, the teenage is at the most emotionally unregulated state possible. Every change in the wind causes the emotional roller coaster. If at that time in the maturation cycle the teen does not have the parenting and guidance to learn self-regulation, they become that adult who cannot self-differentiate in relationships. This is especially a difficult issue when I see parents who have not learned to self-regulate or self-differentiate, and their emotions are dependent on the mood of their teenager!
As a parent of a teenager, having the misconception that you want your child to be happy all the time can be disastrous. The typical scenario is that the parent sees the child unhappy and tries to fix it with gifts, food or money. This reaction to the child’s discomfort simply reinforced the concept that being uncomfortable is something that cannot be tolerated. The child does not learn to self-regulate or sit with their discomfort. They become dependent on other and other things to fix their happiness. They are not self-differentiated and in their relationship they look for someone to make them happy. When that doesn’t work they look for someone else or something else to ease their discomfort and pain.
Why is it important to be self-differentiated in your relationships? Let’s look at it from the perspective of the spouse who believes that she or he can make their partner happy. They have needs and desires, opinions and concerns; however, they do not express them because they might upset their spouse. They are miserable and unhappy trying to meet the emotional needs of their partner. The other spouse is miserable, because their partner will not express their opinion or takes care of themselves. This makes them feel responsible for everything. Neither partner realizes what is happening and why they are both unhappy. One will say to the other in the session, “I just want you to be happy. What can I do to make you happy?” Most often, the response is “make yourself happy,” which is being “self-differentiated” or “independent emotionally."