My client, Alexandrea, has a story that speaks to a not uncommon relationship problem. Read it, and see if it rings any bells for you.
Alexandrea knows she has a lot of love to give. She longs for a relationship that fulfills her and to which she can give her all. In her pursuit of this dream, she has jumped from one relationship to another. She is quick to commit, but things fall apart before things ever seem to normalize. In our sessions, Alexandrea has identified some key elements of her relationship patterns.
These are very common for people who tend to lose themselves in a relationship:
- Complete immersion in the life of her partner.
- Loss of individuality, confidence, and even elements of her personality by becoming her partner’s chameleon.
- Need of another to feel complete, which results in giving up who she is.
- Dependency on her partner’s opinion of her have a sense of self.
- Desire to please her partner, no matter what, even when it felt wrong.
Do any of those sound familiar? You would never think of Alexandrea as a shrinking violet. She is a smart, interesting woman with a great job and friends. She loves to play piano and is a real outdoorsy person. But when she is in a relationship, she never seems to sit down to play and only takes out her kayak or goes for hikes if those are things her current partner is into. If he is all about wine tastings and theater, then Alexandrea is too. If he approves of her clothes, behavior, humor, cooking – whatever – then she feels good about herself. If he is critical or aloof, she doesn’t know which end is up, who she is, or what to think. She realizes that in some real way she loses her very self within the identity of her current boyfriend, and loses touch with her own inner compass.
People like Alexandrea are often drawn into relationships with narcissists. (For more info on narcissists see my blog on the subject: Too Good to be True: Some Facts about Narcissistic Personality Disorder) However, any kind of partner can unwittingly become Alexandrea’s ubermensch. It is not necessarily the fault of the partner, in other words, that this loss of self happens to some people. There are inevitably underlying issues that play their part. Do any of the following fit you?
A person likely to lose him or herself in a relationship may…
- Avoid self-reflection. Do you find it difficult to look critically at yourself? On the flip side, do you find it challenging to nurture and approve of yourself? You may be looking for someone else to do this for you.
- Have unresolved relationship issues from the past, with a previous partner, parent, etc. This is a complex topic, but you will know if it is true for you. Perhaps a past relationship left you feeling unfulfilled, under-appreciated, or unable to attach in a healthy way. You now repeat patterns as you seek to remedy those past hurts, but it’s not working.
- Lack self-confidence. If self-confidence or self-esteem is hard for you, due to any number of underlying reasons, the close presence of a strong, confident partner may be just the nudge you need to let yourself become subsumed.
- Feel powerless. It may seem counter-intuitive. Why would someone who feels powerless want to give up that much power by becoming immersed in a partner to the detriment of self and autonomy? Because it feels normal….
- Be prone to co-dependency. Co-dependency is another huge topic, but suffice it to say, co-dependent behavior and mindset lead comfortably to the kind of relationship where one partner seems to disappear.
- Lack relationship skills and knowledge. This is not taught at school. The only “teachers” are parents and other significant people in our lives. If your relationship models are faulty, you may well feel at a loss about how a healthy relationship is supposed to look. For example, did you know that there are 3 separate parts of a relationship: you, your partner, and the relationship itself. If you only focus on your partner, you’re missing two thirds of the equation!
- Be unable to communicate. You can obviously communicate, but you may not know where to begin when it comes to getting relationship needs or desires met. Maybe you feel guilty or afraid to even have needs or desires (see “lack self-confidence” above), and thus focus only on those of your partner.
- Be unaware of needs, wants, and requirements in a relationship. Some people –maybe you—are unaware that they have needs, wants, or requirements. Or that they have the right to have them.
Yes. It is possible to reclaim yourself! It is important, too! First, if any of the bullets above resonate for you, address them. If necessary, seek help and support, professional or otherwise. While you’re at it, here are a few more tips on how to hold onto you while being in a relationship.
- Keep up relationships with friends and family. Invite your partner sometimes. And sometimes friend and family time is just for you.
- Stay active with your interests and hobbies (even if your partner doesn’t want to join in).
- Pursue your hopes and dreams. Do you really want a partner who would deny you your hopes and dreams? Go for it – you do you.
- Do not revolve your life around your partner’s life or issues. Interest and support: yes. Total involvement to the detriment of your life and issues: no.
- Do not try to “save” your partner. You can’t. (Consider why you chose someone who needs to be saved….)
- See your partner as a real person with positive attributes, idiosyncrasies, limitations, and flaws. Ask him/her to return the favor.
- Say no to what you don’t want.
- Set personal boundaries. If it feels wrong, it is wrong for you and you know it.
- Make yourself a priority and take time for you. A partner who loves you will be glad you do.
- Know that you and only you are responsible for your happiness. Just as you can’t make it okay for your partner, your partner can’t make it okay for you. Only you can do that.
It is NOT selfish to demand your rightful place in a relationship. Giving is wonderful and, in fact, vital in any relationship. But so is being yourself. In the end, you want to be loved for who you are, not who you are trying to be for someone else.