Where do you end and where does your partner begin?
Early in a relationship, you may not know or even care. Initially, both you and your partner present your best selves to each other. You want to share everything, do everything together and form commonalities, which create a foundation for the future. Gradually, as your committed relationship continues and you realize you’re going to be together long-term, you may begin to look at your partner more critically and start to see him or her as a reflection on you as you "merge" into a couple.
But that feeling of merging may contribute to you feeling like you're losing your identity—or losing yourself in the relationship. When two become one, there’s beauty to that. A reciprocal relationship celebrates and encourages your unique sense of self within it. But that process usually doesn't happen cleanly, and you may start to fear that your independent self will be annihilated.
As the relationship deepens, you may begin to grow resentful of giving up vital parts of yourself, especially if these self-sacrifices are expected or demanded by your partner. Keeping these facets of yourself contained creates internal tension. Forcing yourself to conform to a partner's expectations or demands will make these constricted aspects of your self more exaggerated, more extreme than if they had been allowed to naturally unfold in the relationship.
Losing yourself in a relationship can create anxiety, resentment, or even hopelessness, and can cause you to rebel, or express yourself in exaggerated or extreme ways that can threaten the connection.
Consider: Do you and your partner fight about things that two days later you recognize as not that important, though in the moment they felt like life or death? Does this kind of episode occur often? When your partner doesn't agree with you, it can feel like you're being devalued and invalidated, which makes it feel vitally important to stand your ground so you don't fall into what in the moment feels like an identity-less abyss.
An example: When your partner wouldn’t dance with you to All the Single Ladies at last weekend’s wedding, did that mean he or she doesn't ever want to dance with you again—or that your longing to seize that moment was ignored, and therefore you are deflated and resigned to being disappointed for the rest of your relationship?
For many couples, taking irrational stands can be due to the need to express these constricted aspects of self. You always have a self, independent of your relationship. But if you don't feel safe expressing it rationally, regularly, and freely, you will begin to express it with less clarity, in a more distorted way. If you feel that the core of your identity is not validated, you may take a stand for things that don’t matter, which compels you to become an extreme version of your true self.
This extreme version of self that may surface affects not only your actions within the relationship, but your behavior outside it as well. In a discussion on my Facebook page, a man shared this statement:
“Being a controlling individual, I did not allow my wife enough space, and I was manipulative and untrusting. This led to her being distant and secretive, and eventually she had an affair. This was her way to end the marriage...We had so much codependence that we lost our identity.”
Would his wife have acted this way outside their relationship had she not felt as if her identity and independence were subsumed inside it?
Positive reciprocal relationships encourage giving of yourself while your partner respects the boundaries of your need for independence—and vice versa. But if you feel ambivalent, frustrated, unhappy, resentful, or sad, maybe your boundaries aren’t being respected. Left to fester, your anger can be expressed outside the relationship in uncomfortable or retaliatory ways.
These behaviors and issues can end relationships—and in some cases, it is necessary for you to find your way out. But when you and your partner are open to change, it can be an opportunity to set boundaries around your self that also make room for the relationship to grow and deepen. The less threatened you feel, the more open you can be. If each partner is willing to see change and the desire for an independent self within the relationship as an opportunity for growth, that in turn will promote a positive emotional environment.
Have you become an extreme version of yourself? Awareness can be the first step in shifting toward rediscovering your independent identity within the relationship. This awareness can facilitate more direct and healthy communication with your partner about your needs. Whether you choose to work on the relationship you have, or extricate yourself from it in favor of seeking a partner who better respects and honors your boundaries, you will begin to rebuild yourself into someone who feels far more in control, and therefore less extreme.