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On Togetherness and Being Separate, in the Week of the Royal Wedding

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 183 - June 2011

At a time when we are wishing the young couple a long and happy marriage it seems appropriate to consider what may be involved.

Counselling couples in difficulty, I never discuss who said what to who, or whose fault anything is (too often, one or both members of the pair believes that things can only be resolved if their partner can change something they did five years ago). What we talk about is boundaries, space and control of distance.

It can be illuminating to ask that each member of the pair notice their own feelings while taking turns controlling the distance between them, in two ways: The one whose turn it is to be in control first asks the other to stay in one place while they move around - closer, farther away, crowding, clinging, walking away with back turned. Then controlling takes the form of staying in one place and telling the other to move away or move closer. After completing these two parts, the role of controller passes to the other partner, who goes through the same two processes. This exercise illuminates all sort of issues around controlling/being controlled, being abandoned, being suffocated.

A quite devoted husband had spent time, creativity and quite a lot of money designing a living room for his wife, who never spent time there. He hadn't understood that as he had controlled the project from beginning to end, she couldn't feel that it was hers. A young woman who did this exercise in a staff group said she felt that asking her partner to move away from her was a dreadful rejection. Checking this out with him, she learned that he had experienced it as relief from being closer than he wanted to be. She found herself able to translate this into her personal relations, asking her boyfriend whether he really wanted to come and see her every day.

They learned that they would both be more comfortable with some time away from each other.

Courting couples have to make special arrangements to spend time together, exchanging invitations to 'come closer'. Once married, living in the same house, sharing a double bed, the only special arrangements have to be to spend time apart - 'move further away'. Asking someone to go away can feel like rejection, but if you never have to ask your partner to come closer because she/he is already there, 'rejection' is the only thing that can happen. What can be taken for granted may never be commented on - 'I want you' may no longer be stated, or even experienced.

My advice to couples in difficulty is to get their own boundaried space within their home - or move out, temporarily or permanently. However it can be done, you need to have a situation in which you each have a space into which the other can be invited, into which the other cannot come unless invited. Traditionally, the man may have his study, or garden shed, or garage, but it is not traditional for a woman to have any space in the home which isn't communal. In the past, expected to take the man's name, depend on his income, uproot if his job moves, it was not surprising that while married men were psychologically better off, married women had higher rates of depression than single women, as their identity was subsumed into that of their partner.

It is a powerful cultural myth that men are the ones who lose their freedom and independence upon marriage, when the truth has been the opposite - but it has been assumed that women are fulfilled by their care of their husbands and children, and neither need nor desire any separate basis for their sense of personal identity.

If your TV viewing on the 29th of April was split between The Wedding and The Only Way, you will have been aware of these nuances - is the life of a Princess (sorry, Duchess!) a fairy tale...or is it a very luxuriously fitted-out prison? We now know that an earlier royal bride “felt the iron gates clanging behind her”; that Diana dreaded her wedding day - with good reason. Kate, now become Catherine, will have to do battle to keep anything of her own identity preserved among all the constraints of royalty, from palace protocol to enormous public expectations. And in the meantime, in Essex, Mark is explaining to Lauren that in the big expensive kitchen in the big expensive house that he is buying, he will expect her to cook and clean while he is out keeping up his reputation as a party person; Kirk is lovingly painting a pink boudoir for Popey while banning her best friend from the house she is going to move into (“Is it going to be our house, or your house” she asks him). Issues of boundaries, space, and control are alive and well everywhere we look. We have to hope that the marriage being arranged for Mr Darcy will be a happy one! (No, not the Jane Austen hero, he's Lydia's pet pig. Get with the program!)

What about ourselves, our relationships? In the UK, two women each week are murdered by their partners, so something is going wrong. If your partner starts trying to control you, be warned, at the earliest stage. If they need to come into your psychological boundaries, or take you completely into theirs, it may be flattering to be so needed, but if you become a necessary psychological part of their identity, any attempt on your part to differentiate yourself will be experienced as an attack, in some cases, a life-threatening attack. When two psyches are overlapped, a part of each will fight for freedom, while at the same time living in abject terror of loss - it is this unbearable tension between fear of suffocation and fear of abandonment which creates the 'can't live with you/can't live without you' scenario that leads to domestic violence, sometimes ending in death. Maintain some separateness; giving in for a quiet life, or imagining that you can find some way to control your controller - or even that that is your responsibility - leads inevitably to a worsening situation. If he begins to seem threatened by your independence, that is the time to get out - don't wait.

On the brighter side, as long as you are two people negotiating being together from a healthy distance - a strong sense of identity on both sides, times and spaces of separateness, you have a good chance of keeping love alive. If you are going to live together, not necessarily the best plan, don't move into his territory or let him move into yours. Together find a place to live which will allow for some separate space for each of you, in which each of you can give full rein to your own tastes and wishes. Negotiate common space together, but keep some place that is just for yourself.

Do your best to maintain your own interests, your own friends, time for you each to do what is yours to do. You will have much more chance of remaining interesting, desirable, even a little bit of a mystery to each other. And let's wish for Catherine and William that they can do the same, keeping a piece of their own identities from being subsumed into their public roles, our carnivorous fascination.


  1. Suella said..

    Such a wise article. Thank you Nancy. This helps to explain why there are somethings that my lovely husband doesn't like to, or just doesn't, get involved in. I assumed because it was easier, but I now reckon it is because he isn't asked to be involved. And maybe there are areas that I have involved myself that I shouldn't.

    Thanks for this insight!

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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as the Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), as well as on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via Her books are available to purchase at

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