The final stage in the process of individuation is reconnecting with the person you individuated from, and interacting with them without losing yourself. This is not always possible. But you won’t know until you go through the stages of declaring and separating, which I previously wrote about.
This final stage involves making new agreements, but here’s the key, making these agreements should be relatively easy. If renegotiating your agreements is difficult, you are recreating a power struggle, which is a sign of enmeshment and you still have more work to do in the separating stage.
It is during this stage of reconnecting that you recognize, maybe for the first time ever, the other person for who they are. This stage is gentle. You both have experienced the stage of separation, and most likely don’t want to go back to that, so you proceed with care. There are people with whom it is not possible to reconnect—not without losing yourself—in which case you can only have a superficial and limited relationship. Accepting this is part of the process of individuating.
Your Emotional Life is a Territory Comprised of Concentric Circles
You may help yourself by thinking of your emotional life as a territory comprised of concentric circles. Who do you allow into your territory? How far in? How must the other person behave when they enter your emotional territory? What rights do they have while in your territory? What rights do you have to ask them to leave your territory? What consequence will there be if they don’t live according to the rules of your territory? What do you do if there is a dispute within your territory?
Typically, the outer circles of our territory are least well defined. If people aren’t outright abusive, and they use deodorant, we let them into our outer most circle and we don’t have much in the way of expectations. But as people move from our outer circle to our inner circle, there are more conditions. They earn more rights—the right to expect our attention, care and concern—and they have more responsibilities to live up to certain agreements. These agreements are often unspoken, and part of the process of individuation, especially during this final stage, is to make new overt agreements.
Who Has Access to Your Inner Circles?
What behaviors are acceptable? What expectations do we hold of one another? What are our rules for interacting? For example, my wife Hannah, and I agree that we will never be rude to one another. We expect to be treated as a priority, and when one of us can’t treat the other as a priority, we have an agreement that we’ll explain why. One of our rules of engagement is that when there is tension in our relationship we will turn toward one another, not away from one another.
During this stage of reconnecting, we may also need to make overt the old agreements we had, many of which were covert. The point in doing this is to say, “It’s a new day. I used to accept it when you behaved in a certain way, but I no longer am comfortable or okay with those behaviors.” This is part of the process of individuation.
And we need to be really clear about the consequences that will follow if the other person doesn’t honor the agreements they make. If agreements aren’t honored and we just go along, acting like it’s okay, we’re giving the other person a double message. On the one hand we’re saying, “here’s what I need,” but then with our actions we’re accepting something less than what we say we need. This causes confusion and often repressed anger.
Making agreements with consequences is not an attempt to control the other person. It’s a matter of being really clear about what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. Once the other person understands this they can decide for themselves whether to agree or not. This is a very important point. When my wife, Hannah, told me she couldn’t tolerate me flirting with other women, she wasn’t telling me about me, she was telling me about her. I had to make a decision about what was more important to me, flirting with other women or being with Hannah.
The Process of Individuation Frees Us to Choose for Ourselves
If I had not individuated—to a large degree—I would have perceived her comments as an attempt to control me. But because I had individuated, I heard her comment as a statement about her. I was free to make my own choice, which allowed me to accommodate her without being resentful.
The process of individuating from our parents is essential for us to emotionally grow ourselves up. But if we don’t complete that process with our parents we are often left needing to do this with our romantic partners. So, we’re likely to project onto our romantic partners the unfinished issues we have with our parents. For example, part of the process of individuating from our parents is recognizing that the unconditional love we expected, but didn’t get when we were young, is no longer a reasonable thing to expect as an adult. If we don’t realize this, we may project onto our romantic partners a desire to be unconditionally loved, which is not realistic. Adult/adult relating includes conditions and this is hard to accept until we individuate. But after we individuate, we can experience a deeper, more penetrating kind of love than we have ever known, because it is love based on free will.
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