This is the start of helping the child bear the tension between separateness and togetherness – a key developmental milestone. As the child exists some distance away from the couple level of relating, they are in a position to look up to their parents and absorb the example of what it means to be a couple. This image is then internalised and a template is formed. If there is a healthy degree of separateness and togetherness modelled for the child by their parents, then when they grow-up they’re able to emulate this in their own couple relationship.
When relationships are overly close or ‘merged’, there isn’t a healthy degree of separateness balanced with togetherness. This merged type of closeness means there is no space to take a step back and make sense of what it means to be in a couple relationship. Additionally, there is no experiential practice for the child in holding the tension between separateness and togetherness. The overly emmeshed togetherness can take over the family unit, and the space for perspective taking is then lost. If this was your experience as a child, it may be challenging for you to perspective take in your own couple relationship and create more space so that you’re not so merged with your partner.
Strength of the couple unit
We know in the Bible that companionship as a couple and relating from this strong position is a gift from God and this helps to reinforce the importance of having a strong alignment as a couple. There’s power in this position: ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil’ (Ecclesiastes 4:9). The Bible also reminds us that there is a difference between the parental and child level of relating as we are commanded to look up to our parents and: ‘Honour your father and your mother’ (Exodus 20:12).
Ruth and Naomi – together but separate
In the biblical story of Ruth, we see an example of a healthy degree of separateness and togetherness. You may be aware that Ruth loses her husband and her mother-in-law Naomi also loses her husband, as does Ruth’s sister-in-law. They have all lost their partners: they have become widows. But Ruth honours her mother-in-law and chooses to stay with her and keep her company instead of returning to her own land and people. Naomi is grieving and has entered a period of bitterness. She says: “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me.” (Ruth 1:20).
Yet Naomi does not cling onto Ruth in her emptiness and sense of depletion. She doesn’t attempt to rely on Ruth as a substitute partner. Whilst Ruth and Naomi remain together, Naomi soon sets out on a mission to find Ruth a new husband, the wonderful Boaz. Naomi supports Ruth and allows the separation that would come with remarriage, potentially another loss for Naomi. But Naomi instinctively knows what an appropriate family triangle looks like, and that it doesn’t consist of a mother-in-law relying on the companionship of her daughter-in-law. She frees Ruth to enter marriage again.
Ruth and Boaz’s family triangle
In fact, Naomi moves Ruth closer and closer to Boaz, encouraging her to continue to gather stalks of grain in Boaz’s harvest fields. Then she suggests that Ruth goes across to the threshing barn and lie by Boaz’s side during the night. A symbolic proclamation from Ruth that she wants Boaz. We see Naomi engineer the increasing degrees of separateness from her through encouraging Ruth to make contact with Boaz. Eventually Ruth and Boaz marry. The other beautiful outcome from this coupling is that Ruth and Boaz go onto have children, create their own family triangle, and they’re recorded as ancestors of Jesus.
Prayer for seeking connection and balance
Dear God, help us to discover the right degree of separateness and togetherness for our couple relationship and model that in our family triangle. Thank you God that you call us to be in relationship with one another and we are encouraged by your all-knowing declaration at the beginning of creation that ‘..it is not good for the man to be alone…’ (Genesis 2:18).