Typical relationship scenario: You start out feeling like the very best version of yourself that you have ever been and before you know it, you are digging around in the relationship looking for some remnant of that person you were when you fell in love. "Where did I put that person? Where is that "Me"? And how did I get lost in the "We" that you and I have become? And come to think of it, where did you go? I haven't seen that person in a long time either!"
The question is: how to be in a relationship and not lose yourself; how to be part of a We without losing Me.
What makes being in a relationship tricky is that it provides the opportunity for two completely different experiences. On the one hand, it is an opportunity for two individuals to be supported by each other's appreciation and love for the person their partner is. Both partners are enhanced by such an association, and flourish and grow as people.
On the other hand, people can go into a relationship with a fantasy that the union will assuage their insecurities, hurts and unresolved issues from their past. Within this illusion of fusion, or fantasy bond, both individuals begin to deteriorate as they repeat their early attachment patterns and retreat to childish or parental ways of relating.
So what can people do to make sure that their relationship is one in which they and their partner thrive? And what can they not do to make sure that their relationship is not having a stultifying effect on either of them?
WHAT TO DO
The goal in a relationship is to be close and still maintain an identity as a separate person. When people are in an individuated state, they are happier and more optimistic. They have a stronger sense of themselves so they are capable of more intimacy, love and passion in their relationship.
The only way to stay yourself in a relationship
Maintain your interests. When two people fall in love, they experience themselves and each other as separate individuals with distinct identities, and their own ideas, interests and friends. Their individuality makes them interesting to each other.
* Maintain interests that were important to you before becoming involved in your relationship.
* Keep up friendships that were important to you when you were single.
* Encourage your partner to maintain interests that have always been meaningful to him/her.
* Support your partner maintaining friendships that were important to him/her before knowing you.
Establish meaningful communication. Two people sharing life together have much to talk about. It is important for them to develop an open and compassionate style of talking and listening to one another.
* Keep your communication with your partner meaningful by making sure it is more than from just small talk, superficial chit-chat or practical conversations.
* Make time to sit down together and talk about yourselves personally.
* Make eye contact with one another when you talk.
* Don't just discuss your relationship or the kids; each of you should make a point to talk about him/herself while the other listens.
* Listen to your partner with compassion and without judgment; with the same respect you would offer any other human being.
Give importance to your sexual relationship. Sexuality is not only an intimate expression of love between two people, it is a significant aspect of who you are as an adult. Pay attention to your sexuality: enjoy the playfulness of flirting, the tenderness of affectionate contact, and the passion of lovemaking.
* Be flirtatious: it's intimate, sexy and it's fun! It is also a way of acknowledging each other as a separate people.
* Make time to be romantic, plan a date night. Give romance equal time with the other aspects of your life together (children, career, etc.).
* Be fully present in your lovemaking. Maintain eye contact, talk; shut out the rest of the world and really be together.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
The idea of finding your "missing piece" or "soul mate" is based on misconceptions about needing someone else to be made complete. Unfortunately, to try to accomplish this, a person has to be less than they are. In the process of giving up part of themselves, they come to resent their partner. To avoid this:
Don't assume you know what your partner is feeling. Just because you are a couple and know each other well, does not mean that you have the same perceptions, thoughts and ideas. And don't assume you know how your partner sees you; we often project our negative self-image on to our loved one and imagine them sharing that viewpoint.
* Don't speak as a unit, as "we."
* Don't speak for your partner. Don't complete each other's sentences.
* Don't assume that there is no more to know about your partner. It does him/her an injustice to assume that there are no more ways that he/she can surprise or delight you.
Don't let a role replace real relating. In a fantasy bond, fantasy takes the place of reality. The form of a relationship is substituted for the substance of a relationship.
* Don't get caught up in the role of being in a couple and lose track of each of your unique characteristics that went into making your relationship unique.
* Don't use conventional symbols of love to take the place of genuine, personal expressions of love.
* Don't get into the role of being either the parent or child with each other. Don't give up relating as the two equal adults that you actually are.
Don't idealize or denigrate your partner. When a fantasy bond first develops, partners tend to idealize each other. But as they become aware of one another's shortcomings, they over-react because their fantasy is being disrupted. They become cynical and disillusioned, and critical of each other. Neither idealization nor cynicism has a place in a relationship between two adults who see each other as real people with positive attributes, amusing idiosyncrasies and personal limitations and flaws.
* Don't distort your partner so that you can see him/her as perfect.
* Don't try to avoid seeing your partner's flaws.
* Don't punish your partner for not living up to your idealization of him/her.
* Don't exaggerate your partner's negative traits because they shatter your fantasy of who they are.
Don't stop your loving behaviors. With a fantasy bond, partners treat each other as extensions of themselves and they start to take one another for granted. They withhold the desirable qualities in themselves that their partner especially appreciates.
* Don't take your partner for granted; express your appreciation for who they are and for ways they are loving and kind to you.
* Don't withhold personal characteristics and behaviors that your partner especially values.
* Don't let a fantasy of being in love take the place of actions that actually express love.
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships visit PsychAlive - Alive to Intimacy