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October 2012: Connection and Separation in a Marriage, a Business, a Family

“One very cold night a group of porcupines were huddled together for warmth. However, their spines made proximity uncomfortable, so they moved apart again and got cold. After shuffling repeatedly in and out, they eventually found a distance at which they could still be comfortably warm without getting pricked. This distance they henceforth called decency and good manners.”

E. O. Wilson, evolutionary biologist, citing a German fable in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis

No marriage, friendship, work team or family can function at a high level without mature connection and mature separation.

As with porcupines, the combination of “enough” emotional connection and “enough” emotional space enables humans to stay relatively calm, think clearly and cooperate in daily living and working.

Emotional Connection

Often called “the togetherness force,” connection supplies the emotional juice for group cohesion. Establishing a strong connection with another enables us to communicate more openly and candidly, take appropriate emotional risks with that person and define ourselves more clearly, without needing the other’s approval.

In a marriage, healthy connection helps partners stay tuned-in to what the other is feeling, thinking and up against. Time is set aside to check in. Self-disclosure flows without having to “pull teeth.” There is a high interest in listening and trying to understand the other as a separate person rather than as an appendage of oneself. In a well-connected marriage, there’s a good mix of fun and depth. Partners are interested in learning about each other, supporting each other’s growth and enjoying the benefits of the relationship.

Connection loses its beneficial effects when it intensifies into attachment, unspoken expectations, over-caring and loss of self-clarity. Needy attachment always involves some version of “you exist to make me happy.” I spend more time thinking about what you owe me and how you should treat me, rather than about my own clarity, and what I wish to contribute to the relationship.

Mature Connection and Organizational Leadership

In organizations, a well-connected leader – one who “allows others in,” promotes interactions beyond the superficial and demonstrates genuine interest in getting to know and understand others – enjoys strong advantages. For example, a difficult conversation about a performance issue proceeds much more fruitfully between a leader and a subordinate who have a solid connection.

Leaders often ask, “How do I establish a better connection with my staff?”

I encourage leaders to work on strengthening the connections within their own families. Every leader’s family is a potential state-of-the-art gymnasium for emotional strength-training. A leader who spends deliberate time in that gym has the chance to gain a high level of emotional fitness that will show up in friendships and work interactions.

Emotional fitness routines vary: Get curious and learn more about siblings, parents and spouse; Pay visits to extended family members you have been out of touch with; Where cut-off has occurred, initiate contact just to say hello; Experiment with “showing up differently” when your teenager pulls a move you don’t like, a spouse over-reacts, a sibling or parent makes a stupid comment.

See what happens when you respond in a way that is out of character for you.

Watch for any workplace shifts that occur in the wake of consciously engaging your own family.

Many report that leadership challenges are “less of a federal case” after spending time working on family relationships.

Emotional Separation

Creating healthy space promotes calmness, clarity and courage. If emotional space becomes vast, the ensuing distance can create turmoil. If the space between persons shrinks, they can easily lose themselves in the relationship, with perilous consequences to their health. The trick is to get “enough” space without reactively attaching or distancing.

Emotional separation reflects responsibility for self. I accept responsibility for my own emotional reactions, moods, and decisions. I am a separate self from my spouse, children and parents, as well as from my boss, peers, subordinates and clients.

Emotional separation helps me avoid blaming others for my own frustration with them, even when they act immaturely. I am 100 percent responsible for how I respond to the mischief of others.


The quest for emotional separation is supported by self-awareness. To the extent I am not self-aware, I will expect others to define me. To the extent I am out of touch with my wants, needs, beliefs and destiny, I will expect others to “guess right” about me, and I will blame them when they “guess wrong.”

A spouse or leader who values emotional separation accepts that she must be the one who decides how her life will be lived. Whether or not to accept a new job, follow a religion, take up golf or attend a family wedding is his decision, and he will live with the consequences.

Healthy separation means I don’t expect others to tell me what’s best for me; and I don’t pretend to know what’s best for others.

Although connection and separation are often viewed as opposites, the two are complimentary in a healthy relationship. Mature connection cannot occur without with a respect for individuality.

The work of staying connected while also staying separate is the work of a lifetime in a marriage, family or business. In a pressured state, there’s a greater tendency to get sucked into the emotional space of others or to create unhelpful distance between ourselves and others.

In my next blog (November 1, 2012), I will share specific examples of how mature connection and mature separation show up in families and businesses.

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