Embrace Separateness: Put Individual Growth First

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road Less Traveled" by M. Scott Peck. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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In what way is separateness a healthy aspect of relationships? Is growth as a couple more important than growth as individuals?

In The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck argues that couples should embrace separateness. It’s a myth that love prioritizes growth as a couple. In reality, love puts growth as individuals first. Only then does true growth occur.

Continue reading to learn about the value of separateness.

Myth: Love Prioritizes Growth as a Couple

We often think there is one true soulmate meant for all of us, and once we meet them, we will live happily ever after. If the relationship with “the one” doesn’t work out, we think we made a mistake. It’s a lie that primarily serves the survival of our species (the myth entraps people in marriage, so they can have children and stay together long enough to raise them). Even when the magic has worn off in a relationship, and you have fallen out of love, you may likely still try to force that relationship to fit the myth. Couples who do this value togetherness more so than growth and this is precisely what keeps them from growing after breakdowns in the dynamic of the relationship. 

In interpersonal relationships, there is often a failure to distinguish between the self and the other. Separateness isn’t recognized, much less valued. In its most severe state, this inability to distinguish manifests as narcissism, which renders the narcissistic individual unable to connect with others outside the context of themselves. For example, parents who are narcissistic lack empathy and don’t give proper emotional support or validation. Their children grow up with little to no ability to understand or manage their emotions. This lack of healthy individuation creates conflict in all intimate relationships as the child ages, because they are unable to appreciate the separateness of others, and consequently unable to give or receive genuine love.

The Truth: Love Prioritizes Growth as an Individual

Genuine love always recognizes that there is a distinction between the self and the other. Furthermore, genuine love seeks to respect and honor that separation. It requires that both individuals embrace true mutual acceptance. That separateness is necessary to build or rebuild a healthy foundation for a long-lasting relationship. In the context of spiritual evolution, a relationship is a supportive entity, meant to function as a respite where each individual can replenish while pursuing their own growth. 

A Note on Love and Ego Boundaries

Mystics believe that you can truly experience reality only when you give up your ego boundaries and become one with all of the universe. However, you need a solid awareness of your ego boundaries before you can release them (in other words, you need to know yourself before you can transcend yourself). 

For example, infants are great at tuning in to oneness because they don’t yet have an ego. However, while the infant has no ego boundaries, and therefore is closer to reality, they are still defenseless without the care of adults and don’t have the ability to verbalize any wisdom they may have from living in that oneness. Clearly, their oneness is neither the result of spiritual growth nor an entirely good thing—their lack of boundaries and dependence on others threatens their survival. In contrast, because adults do have ego boundaries, they have the opportunity to access the state of oneness and consciously use it to become fully present in reality, enriching their spiritual growth.

Cathexis love merges your identity with that of another, but this expansion of your ego boundary is too limited—it doesn’t truly connect you to reality, which is much bigger than your merged egos. Genuine love also expands your ego boundaries, but it takes you a step further and actually dissolves your ego boundaries. 

In sum, you need to be willing to make sacrifices to support your spiritual growth, and you are better equipped to do that when you embrace separateness. Genuine love uses that separateness to enhance each individual’s growth, which consequently also enhances the growth of the relationship and society at large. Eventually, once your ego boundaries have served their purpose, you’ll transcend them into oneness.

Embrace Separateness: Put Individual Growth First

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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