You'd like to be in a relationship, but there's one little problem: you have a life of your own, and you want to keep it that way. Some of us think of partnerships as black holes of time and energy that rob us of our separateness and force us into a unit, a "we" that quickly takes over "me."
But do relationships always have to constrain us? Can we keep our friends, interests, and careers while enjoying the benefits of love and companionship? Join us as we examine the concept of the independent relationship, its pros and cons, and how to balance a partner with a full, autonomous life.
What Is An Independent Relationship?
An independent relationship involves partners who have rich lives of their own outside of the relationship, including social connections, hobbies, activities, and emotionally supportive friends and family. In an independent relationship, one partner is typically not the sole source of love and connection for the other, though some people in independent relationships may enjoy spending more time alone and less with others.
One partner may be more independent than the other in a relationship, and may find themselves at odds with their significant other over how much time to spend together and how interwoven their lives should be.
The Independent Personality
An independent relationship typically involves one or more partners with independent personalities. You may have this kind of temperament yourself, or be in love with someone who does. Maybe you've heard that you have a fiercely independent personality, or can't be tied down.
Signs of an independent person include:
- Interests of their own. An independent person doesn't need a partner to provide a social life or things to do, because they already have lots of both. They might be driven by their career, hobbies, fitness, or friendships that help them feel grounded and loved. They don't plan to give up their interests for a relationship, even one they value.
- Boundaries. Boundaries are all about respecting separateness and taking responsibility for our own needs. Independent people typically have strong boundaries and have little trouble enforcing them. Their boundaries may involve the time they spend with other people, how much emotional energy they can give, or how financially autonomous they want to be.
- Self-determination. Relationships don't typically define an independent person. They may love their partner, friends, and family, but take care of many of their own needs. Independent people are less likely to be involved in codependent relationships, which are defined by losing one's individuality in another person and taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of other people.
The Different Types of Independent Relationships
Just as there are different types of relationships, there are different types of independent relationships, too. Here are some of the most common:
Married partners. Married partners can be as independent of each other as partners who aren't married. They may have started the relationship with similar needs for space, or develop separate interests over time.
Friends with benefits. Friends with benefits — friendly, low-commitment relationships that are typically more physically than emotionally intimate — are the relationship of choice for many independent people. While they typically involve more of a bond than a one-night stand, FWB arrangements make few demands and are characterized by their easy, casual, no-strings nature.
Long-term partners. Independent people who eschew marriage but want more than a casual fling are often drawn to long-term unmarried partnerships. They may live together or not, have children or not, but choose to stay together while they maintain independent lives.
Ethical non-monogamists. Ethical non-monogamists have other sexual partners but usually maintain a relationship with a primary partner who may be a spouse. These people have an independent sex life with rules agreed upon by all parties. Non-monogamists may be independent in other ways, as well, or only when it comes to intimacy.
Independent Relationship Pros
Like all relationships, independent partnerships have upsides as well as drawbacks. Some of their benefits might include:
- Keeping the spark alive. Independent partners can bring fresh energy to a long-term relationship by maintaining their own lives and bonds with other people. This can make intimacy more exciting, conversation more interesting, and the partnership stronger.
- Time to pursue interests. Independent people often make time for their own interests and hobbies, which can enrich their lives and lead to less reliance on the relationship to meet all of their needs.
- Space to breathe. Not all independent people want a busy social life. Some like to carve out time alone, or are introverted and feel energized by spending time away from others. A bit of independence from the relationship can help these people honor their need for space and quiet, and allow them to be fully present with their partner when they spend time together.
Independent Relationship Cons
Every relationship is unique, with its own dynamic and set of rules. While some people may thrive in an independent relationship, others may find it lonely or unfulfilling. Some cons of independent relationships might include:
- A feeling of distance. Independence in a relationship doesn't necessarily cause distance, but can if partners aren't careful to prioritize each other. Careers, hobbies, and social events can make it more challenging to connect and share experiences, particularly if both partners are busy leading lives away from the relationship.
- Avoidance of intimacy. Some partners in independent relationships are actually less independent than they may appear. People who have avoidant attachment styles may use the idea of independence or outside interests to keep themselves at a safe emotional distance from their partners. If you or your partner retreat during times of closeness or take refuge in time away from the relationship because it feels more comfortable, you may have an avoidant attachment style.
- Less family time. Independent partners with children may spend less time together as a family if they put other interests first. This can lead to a feeling of disconnection in the family, a sort of "ships passing in the night" dynamic between family members who all have separate lives. Making family time a priority and scheduling activities together can help preserve everyone's independence while allowing for time to connect and support each other.