Being a part of a couple, especially when the other partner is a dominant personality type can cause one to slowly lose their sense of self, of autonomy, and become almost unrecognizable from the person they were when they entered the relationship.
“I don’t recognize myself.” This statement came from a client recently, we’ll call her Bianca. It’s a statement I’ve heard over the years in counseling couples through relationship issues. It’s not a gender specific issue; though women tends to lose themselves more in relationships and men in their careers. Individuals can lose sight of themselves and even lose their identity in long term relationships. Bianca and her partner Scott have been married for 12 years. They’ve got a child together and each has a career outside the home. Since marrying and having kids, Bianca as had so many roles and identities. She’s wife/partner to Scott, Mom to the kids and has her role in the workplace as an employee. All of these make up the whole, but for Bianca, it has left her feeling scattered and fragmented, and unsure of which person is the “real” Bianca.” I know who I am as Scott’s wife. I know who I am as Jordan’s mother. It’s the thought of removing me from all those different contexts that I get scared. I don’t know who I am without them.”
Like Bianca and Scott, you may have started out life with your partner by being complementary to each other, now find you are losing your identity by little bits and pieces , giving away who you are and allowing life to mold you into another version of yourself. Maybe not the one you had in mind. When we’re young we have goals, plans to do and be something in our lives. Then we commit to a partnership, a long term relationship, and things begin to change. Slowly we begin letting go of some of our ideas of who we thought we were meant to be and look at who we are in the moment. We’re a spouse we’re a parent, a student, an employee. These are important roles, make no mistake, but they aren’t the entirety of who you are.
It may have been a desire to fit into your partner’s family, or to feel accepted into his or her group of friends that started the transformations. Those nurturers and caregivers among you will know exactly what I’m talking about. You tend to give away too much of your-self and risk losing your identity and sense of self through caring for others. You give until it hurts, literally. Selfless devotion sounds like a wonderful thing, but I believe there are degrees to how far you let go of who you are to please or care for someone else. Whether it’s a family, co-workers or peer group, you never want to lose sight of who you truly are. You want to be the best, most authentic version of yourself.
You start losing your identity when you find it in others rather than yourself. When you are letting others- your partner, your kids or your job define who you are. It’s an easy trap to fall into.
Looking for that in someone else is co-dependency. We all have some healthy codependency in our relationships but when you’re losing your identity or relying on your partner to show you who you are, that’s not healthy. When you get into this situation, you have lost your authenticity and cannot be a good partner in a relationship. You cannot be a good parent or role model either. You have to stand on your own, individually. If you don’t, resentments and worry can creep in and this feeling of losing your identity can become a real mental health issue for you.
Maintain a relationship without losing your identity is the goal. This takes awareness of this possible issue of losing your identity and planning for ways to stay autonomous, independent and keep a strong sense of identity throughout your relationship and career. When you are aware that this can happen, you can take real, practical, concrete steps to keep your own identity strong. Bianca said she had always sort of looked down upon women who lunched together, leaving their kids behind, took time to go to the gym or go running and kept up their studies, hobbies and educational pursuits even after being married and having children. She now understands that this type of individual growth and activity is crucial to maintaining a strong individual identity.
When you feel like your identity is wrapped up in someone or something else, take a break. Step back and do some soul searching and evaluation of your life. Where is it that you feel like you are missing it? Do some activities and some things that make you feel connected to you. Take some “me” time and assess your feelings. Talk to your partner about how you’re feeling. Is there a way that you can pursue some of the things you always wanted to? What about taking a class or some training? Maybe there are ways that you and your partner can connect and build each other up at the same time.
It’s a real challenge to keep our independence and personal goals when we’re so invested in work, home and family. It can put some added stress on the relationship but will ease the burden for the partner who is struggling. You each should be willing to shoulder a little more of the collective burden at times to help each other to feel important. It ends up with both of you feeling happier and more fulfilled in the long run.
Stuart Fensterheim, LCSW helps couples to overcome the disconnection in their relationships As an author, blogger and podcaster, Stuart has helped couples around the world to experience a unique relationship in which they can feel special and important, confident in knowing they are loved deeply and that their presence matters.
His weekend workshop, Two Days: Seven Conversations has become a popular venue for many to set off on their journey of connectedness. The Couples Expert Podcast consists of weekly provocative conversations offering the perspectives and insight of experts from a variety of relationship related fields. Stuart also offers daily relationship video tips on The Couples Expert YouTube channel and by subscription in Stuart’s Daily Notes. Stuart is happily married and a devoted father of 2 daughters. He lives and works in Scottsdale, Arizona.