Me Before We

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Losing Self in a Relationship Can Create Extreme Reactions

There is beauty and danger in merging into a couple.

Does merging yourself in a relationship make you extreme? Image: Flickr/QuinnDombrowski

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 direct reflection on you as you two continue to "merge" into a couple.

However, that feeling of merging may also contribute to losing your identity, 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 the relationship. But in most situations that process doesn't happen cleanly. Rather you may start to fear that your independent self will be annihilated. As the relationship unfolds you may begin to grow resentful of giving up vital parts of yourself, especially when these self-sacrifices are expected or demanded by your partner.    

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Keeping these parts contained creates internal tension. Forcing ourselves to conform to the expectations and demands of our partner will make these constricted aspects of self more exaggerated, more extreme than they would have been if they had been able to naturally unfold during the relationship.

Losing yourself in a relationship can create anxiety, depression, resentment, anger, tension, even hopelessness. It can cause you to rebel, to express yourself in an exaggerated or extreme ways that can threaten the relationship.

Do you and your partner fight about things that two days later you recognize as not all that important, but in the moment feels like life or death? Does this kind of scenario occur often? When your partner doesn't agree with you it can feel like you are being devalued and invalidated, which in turn 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 have a self, independent of the relationship. If you don't feel safe expressing yourself rationally, regularly, and freely, you will begin to express yourself with less clarity, in a more distorted, exaggerated way. If you feel the core of your identity is not validated, you may take a stand for things that don’t matter, which in turn compels you to become an extreme version of yourself.

This extreme version of self that surfaces affects not only your actions within the relationship, but your behaviors outside the relationship in the world as well. For example, there was a discussion on my Facebook page in which a man shared that, “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 this man's wife have acted this way outside the relationship had she not felt as if her identity and independence were subsumed inside the relationship? Somebody who feels pressured within a relationship to conform to his or her partner’s expectations and demands feels the threat of losing self. This experience makes it come out more intensely in other ways. 

Positive reciprocal relationships encourage giving of yourself while your partner continues to respect the boundaries of your need for independence, and vice versa. But if you feel unhappy, ambivalent, frustrated, resentful, sad, or angry, maybe this boundary isn’t being respected. Left to fester, your anger can be expressed outside the relationship in uncomfortable or retaliatory ways. Feeling contricted in a relationship may cause acting out outside the relationship.

These behaviors and issues can end relationships, and in some cases, it is necessary to find your way out. However, when you and your partner are open to change, it can also be an opportunity to set boundaries around your self that 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. Respecting each other's boundaries can help validate each person’s sense of self in the world in a way that doesn't threaten the relationship 

Have you become an extreme version of yourself? Awareness of your extreme version of self can be the first step in shifting toward discovering or rediscovering your own 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 someday discovering 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.


Twitter: @DrSuzanneL

FB: facebook/DrSuzanneLachmann

Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in NYC specializing in psychotherapy.


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