How Your Identity Can Feel Threatened In a Relationship

How to identify when the need to stand your ground becomes unreasonable

Posted Jan 07, 2014

Deepening relationships require compromise and even sacrifice. But there can be a downside. As real-life challenges arise, it can seem as if your identity and individuality are being threatened — like you’re losing a part of yourself. As a result, you become entrenched in opinions and versions of yourself that are so extreme that any compromise, even on small issues, seems unacceptable. There is a fearful urgency to stand your ground in order to preserve those parts of yourself that are becoming submerged. But, if you are able identify this dynamic in your interactions, it can help you put your feelings in perspective and calm yourself down. You might even recognize that whatever you are fighting for, against your partner, is inconsequential in the larger scale of things. In reality, your identity is not threatened. Rather, you are being confronted with having to adjust values and beliefs that have either always felt intrinsic to who you are, or you didn't even know these feelings existed until they were challenged.

This dynamic most often occurs in the first months or years of the relationship. It can feel like you and your partner are digging in your heels, bickering, and fighting battles that feel intensely magnified in the moment. You may end up utterly polarized because the concept of finding ways to meet in the middle is not accessible when it feels like you are fighting to maintain who you are.

Are you suddenly out of your mind with frustration that your partner is watching sports when the two of you could be outside taking a walk? Maybe your partner keeps badgering you to watch that TV show when you have a deadline. It can feel like the dynamics of who wins or loses these everyday conflicts absolutely define the relationship. Suddenly your partner is always going to choose sports or work over you, or your family’s needs will always come second at the big event, which makes wedding or other big event planning even more loaded. You can find yourself overly invested in seating charts, and family-related accommodations that can become so heightened that it feels like a life or death fight.

In reality, what you’re fighting for is to be heard, understood, and respected as an individual, rather than what feels in the moment like an undervalued, disacknowledged, irrelevant participant. The belief that what you want somehow doesn't matter in your relationship can compel you to fight with  disproportionate intensity about things that in the light of day you are able to identify as irrational. It  can seem as if your partner has become the enemy, challenging you at your very core, as if adhering to your partner's needs is at the expense of your own, rather than viewing these conflicts as potential building blocks to compromise.

Here’s how to tell you’ve fallen into this trap: after your partner acquiesces and you win the argument, you feel relieved because your need was recognized. In response, you become more flexible, generous, and willing to compromise. Once the relief sets in that your needs and identity are still in tact, and were validated by your partner, then you can de-escalate.

Work on identifying this dynamic in your relationship and accepting that the feelings and reactions that percolate when you're combining your life imwith your partner inevitable. It’s understandable when it feels like a life or death struggle. Deepening your understanding that these feelings are par for the course will help you set the tone of honoring your partner as an individual within the couple, and in recognizing and voicing your needs when your individuality feels threatened. This way, the relationship can evolve rather than feel like a vortex in which you can lose yourself.

The tendency to fight to be heard as an individual can also be an opportunity to deepen communication as you articulate to your partner what is going on for you when your disagreements become heightened. When you can identify your contribution to the escalation of the conflicts, it can help your partner feel less threatened by the intensity and urgency of your need to be recognized, and respond in a way that confirms that who you are within relationship is vital, which can result in a broader scale validation.

Understanding that the sources of big fights over small things are not typically what they appear to be is important to restoring peace and reciprocity within the relationship and can help you move forward both as individuals and as a couple. Over time, with reflection, communication and intention, you can begin to feel less threatened and more comfortable and confident when your points of view differ. Recognizing where the core of your fear is coming from will help you debate with your partner in a manner that does not evoke the threat of losing yourself. Self-awareness and communication are key to creating confidence that your identity is safe within the relationship, even when you make compromises and even sacrifices.


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About the Author

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

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