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Relationships

How We Lose Ourselves in Relationships

We can lose ourselves in the name of love or peace, but pay the highest price.

Source: Unsplash/Mike Lloyd

Whether you feel lost in a relationship or are afraid to start one, we can easily sacrifice our individuality in relationships with narcissists and abusers. They usually insist on dominating, that their needs come first and that they are right. Women especially tend to lose themselves in relationships due to cultural conditioning. In fact, even in good relationships, we may do this out of love, not fear. We compromise ourselves slowly often in imperceptible ways, unaware that losing our Self risks our greatest despair. After a breakup, it’s devastating, because we are lost. If we stay, we risk becoming empty shells, feeling powerless and anxious or depressed.

Often there are power struggles, characterized by repeated, unresolved arguments, either about a single recurring issue or numerous trivial things. Many of them boil down to the question of who has control, whose needs will be met, or how intimate they will be.

Real intimacy is impossible when we don't feel safe. Avoidance of intimacy and the vulnerability that occurs when we open up is a way to maintain safety and autonomy. We fear that closeness makes us more dependent on our partner and exposes us to being judged and hurt. In relationships that are not abusive, these outcomes aren’t necessarily true, but hearken back to childhood trauma or dysfunctional childhood when being vulnerable and dependent was unsafe. Some people feel unsafe both in and out of relationships. The more we’re threatened by both closeness and autonomy, the greater is the conflict in the relationship.

How We Lose Ourselves

We lose ourselves incrementally in small ways. It can start with romance, when it’s normal to want to please our loved one and spend much of our time together. However, emotionally mature adults don’t drop their activities, give up their lives (they have a life), or overlook improper behavior of their partner, despite strong physical attraction. Neither are they desperate to have or maintain a relationship.

Stages of Losing Ourselves

Many people do fine on their own, but once in a relationship, they start losing their autonomy, not make waves, and be with and please their partner. When there is “chemistry,” they overlook negative indicators that might be a warning not to get involved. Feel-good chemicals in our brain start to alleviate our emptiness, so that we want more of that drug. We don’t want to lose these happy feelings. If we're unhappy being alone, we're more vulnerable to hold on.

Hence, we become increasingly preoccupied with and dependent upon our loved ones. We see less of our friends and may drop our routine to spend time together. For women more than men, often our work and professional goals take second place to the relationship.

The desire to please can lead to obsession. Our need for connection can create denial about our partner’s behavior and makes us doubt our own perceptions. Boundaries become blurred so that we start to accept our partner's point of view.

If our partner is abusive, our self-doubt grows and our self-esteem shrinks. We don’t say “no” or set limits on what we’re willing to do or what we’re willing to accept from our partner. Not only that, but confusion also arises between what our partner feels and our own feelings. We feel responsible for their feelings, too, especially if we're being blamed. If he’s sad, then I’m sad, too–as the Barry Manilow song goes. If she’s disappointed or angry, it must be my fault.

We’re confused (or never really knew) what we believe, what are our values and opinions. We may not have noticed this until we got involved in a serious relationship. We give up our hobbies, outside interests, friends, and sometimes relationship(s) with our relative(s) to be with our partner. Usually, we do this willingly at the start of a relationship, but later may do so to comply with our partner’s wishes. Although our choices seem desirable or necessary, we’re not consciously aware of the price we pay: Our Self!

A “Lost Self”

This pattern reflects a “lost Self.” (See my book, Codependency for Dummies.) Because our identity is referenced externally, we prioritize our relationships above our self, not occasionally, which would be normal, but repeatedly. In important relationships, we dread losing our connection with others or their approval. With our partner, we sacrifice ourselves over and over in small and big ways―from insignificant concessions to giving up a career, cutting off a relative, or condoning or participating in unethical behavior that before would have seemed unimaginable.

Over years, a pattern of compliance develops and new norms are established. Over time, we build up guilt, anger, and resentment that’s often silent. We blame ourselves. Our self-esteem, autonomy, and self-respect that we had coming into the relationship are whittled away. We become anxious and depressed, more obsessive and/or compulsive. We slowly give up choice and freedom until we feel trapped and hopeless, while our depression and despair grow. We may develop an addiction or physical symptoms. Eventually, we can become a shell of our former self.

Abusive Relationships

These symptoms are exacerbated in authoritarian relationships, where decisions revolve around the needs and authority of one person. This is typical of an abusive relationship, where our partner makes explicit demands. When our partner is insistent, it feels as if we have to choose between ourselves and our relationship―that we must give up our Self to keep it. We become invisible, no longer a separate person with independent needs and wants, assuming we knew what they were. To please our partner and not make waves, we give them up and collude in sacrificing our Self.

Our relationship might be with an addict or someone mentally ill or with a personality disorder, such as narcissistic, borderline, or anti-social personality disorder. These partners are manipulative and can be abusive or threaten abuse or abandonment when they don’t get their way or sense that we’re becoming more autonomous. Any act toward autonomy, such as setting a boundary, threatens their control. They will attempt to maintain power and authority with guilt, character assassination, gaslighting, and all forms of criticism and emotional abuse.

If we had a controlling parent, this pattern may have been established in childhood and carries over into our adult relationships. We end up walking on egg-shells and living in fear that can traumatize our nervous systems, with symptoms continuing after we leave. It’s essential to get outside support and seek counseling.

Healthy Relationships

Healthy relationships are interdependent. There is give and take, respect for each other’s needs and feelings, and are able to settle conflict through authentic communication. Decisions and problem-solving are collaborative. Assertiveness is key. Negotiations are not a zero-sum game. Boundaries are expressed directly, without hinting, manipulation, or assuming our partner will read our mind. Neither security nor autonomy is threatened by closeness. Vulnerability actually makes us stronger, not weaker. In fact, we can be more intimate and vulnerable when our autonomy and boundaries are intact and respected.

Both partners feel secure. They want to maintain their relationship and allow for each other’s separateness and independence, and aren’t threatened by their partner’s autonomy. Thus the relationship supports our independence and gives us more courage to explore our talents and growth.

Recovery

Fortunately, we can recover our lost self. We can escape a narcissist-codependent trap. First, stop focusing on changing your partner. Change begins within. We can waste years lost in this denial. Yet, when we change, often our partner changes in response to our new behavior. Either way, we will feel better and stronger because we've grown in self-respect.

In recovery, you will gain hope as the focus shifts from the other person to yourself, where change is possible. Raise your self-esteem. Learn to express feelings, wants, and needs and to set boundaries. You’ll develop positive habits of self-care. Eventually, your happiness and self-esteem don’t depend on others. You gain the capacity for both autonomy and intimacy. You experience your own power and self-love. You feel expansive and creative, with the ability to generate and pursue your own goals.

These patterns don’t automatically disappear if you leave an unhealthy relationship. Recovery requires ongoing maintenance. Psychotherapy is helpful in healing PTSD, childhood trauma, and internalized or toxic shame. (See Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.) After a while, changes in thinking and behavior become natural, and the tools and skills learned become new healthy habits. Perfectionism is a symptom of shame. There is no such thing as perfect recovery. Recurring symptoms merely present ongoing learning opportunities!

©Darlene Lancer 2018

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