Maybe you’re familiar with the famous line from Jerry Maguire: "You complete me."

While this is sweet and sentimental, it’s problematic: No person can ever complete you, and expecting someone to do so can set a toxic precedent for your relationship. But what about marriage, when two people are supposed to become one flesh?

According to experts, becoming one flesh doesn’t mean each spouse has to lose their identity. "The concept of ‘oneness’ or ‘togetherness’ in marriage is a good one, if properly understood and implemented," Dr. Minnie Claiborne, a counsellor and life coach, explains.

In the book The Best Advice I Ever Got on Marriage, contributor Frank Pastore shares advice from his own marriage: "While you have to work together and grow as a couple, both of you also have to grow as individuals. You see, you are two individuals joining together to create this third thing, the couple. But if you don’t have a strong sense of yourself as an individual, then suddenly the other person and the couple become all-important."

How do you strike a proper balance? Read on to learn the roles of independence and dependence in your marriage and come out with the strongest relationship possible.

How does culture influence "oneness"?

Hollywood often presents a highly romanticized idea of marriage, and the Bible describes it as an irreplaceable foundation (Genesis 2:24). Societal trends, however, show that marriage is instead becoming viewed as a crowning achievement. According to research by Knot Yet, more young adults are waiting to get married until they feel they’re financially and professionally prepared – treating marriage as a "capstone" to their life, rather than a "cornerstone" upon which they build a life together. Additionally, a 2011 Pew Research survey showed that the median age for first marriage is 29 for men and 27 for women – a median which the survey notes has increased in recent years.

Research suggests that changes in workforce demographics have influenced this trend. In a 2007 article tilted "Women, Men and the New Economics of Marriage," Pew Research cited that a significant number men are married to women whose education and earnings exceeds their own in 2007 as opposed to 1970.

These studies suggest that marital oneness isn’t necessarily seen as an essential building block, but as something that will happen after each individual establishes their career and finances.

How much independence should you declare in your marriage?

Don’t lose heart. These trends don’t mean that today’s marriages have abandoned any core values. Most of today’s families live in dual-income households, meaning that each spouse likely has their own professional life and circle of workplace acquaintances. According to experts, this can actually be beneficial for marriage. In an article titled "Marriage Advice: What I Learned About Marriage from Editing Huffington Post Divorce," editor Sara Wilson lays out what she sees as preventative measures for building a healthy marriage. One way to do that, she advises, is for spouses to cultivate passion and purpose outside of their marriage. "Your marriage will be stronger for it," she writes.

Karin Gregory, a counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada, uses an illustration to describe a unified marriage composed of two individual identities: In medieval times, architects constructed stone arches by stacking numerous bricks together, but there was one wedge-shaped stone – the keystone – that, through the laws of physics, held all the other bricks in place by exerting equal amounts of pressure. Gregory says that marriage is similar, in that each spouse is composed of countless individual "stones" – such as hobbies, skills and passions – that are unique to each person and give them their identity, but that a marriage founded in Christ is the influential "keystone" that holds all those different parts together (Ecclesiastes 4:12).

Don’t let these passions and interests take too much time away from your spouse, though. Gregory cautions that while pursuing personal areas of interest can benefit your marriage, couples should make sure that they’re still investing into their relationship. "If we’re so busy, are we even seeing each other?" she asks, "or are we being drawn apart and letting something else come between us?"

Can you have too much oneness?

Experts advise spouses to remember that, while oneness in marriage is important and attainable, each spouse’s individual identity should never be neglected. "It is unhealthy when either partner loses their God-given identity, personality and individuality," Dr. Claiborne says. "This robs the partnership of the gifts, talents and insights that would create a healthy balance."

As part of their Becoming Soul Mates seminars, bestselling authors Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott painted a sobering picture of seeking to find complete fulfillment in another human being: "If you try to build intimacy with another person before becoming whole on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself."

Pastore stresses the importance of maintaining friendships with people other than your spouse. By having friends who are outside of your marriage relationship, it saves your spouse from the belief that they will need to fulfill every single one of your needs. "If your spouse is your only friend, you’re going to place heavy expectations on him or her to meet all your needs, and that becomes toxic," he writes.

When is oneness essential in marriage?

Don’t forget, though, that interdependence certainly has its place in a marriage. "This oneness in motive, purpose, values and goals is essential [and] is an example of two walking together in agreement," Dr. Claiborne says.

Gregory names two areas that benefit from healthy interdependence:

  1. Finances. "Interdependence in finances equals complete trustworthiness," she says, adding that spouses should support one another via shared resources. "There’s a difference between one spouse handling most of the money stuff because they have a stronger ability to get the numbers right, and one spouse handling finances because of having control, or because of one spouse not stepping up to sharing responsibilities, or either spouse hiding money information or being careless of family needs while indulging in personal spending. Even ‘overly generous’ partners can be problematic in a marriage, which crashes against cooperative trustworthiness."
  2. Faith. Gregory describes this spiritual interdependence as sharing a spiritual perspective, intentionally following Christ and encouraging each other in your faith. "Interdependence in faith," she says, "is the heart of being equally yoked."

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

Todd Foley is on staff with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2013 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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