A client of mine -- during our initial consultation -- said the following: "Here's my issue. When I'm in a relationship, I invest so much of myself into maintaining romance and intimacy that I forget who I am as an individual. How can I balance my personal identity with my identity as a couple?
Does this sound familiar? Sure it does. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in one of his writings, points to the paradox of love, something we all struggle with: "Two beings become one and yet remain two".
Why Is It So Easy To Lose One's Sense of Self In a Partnership?
In order to understand how we retain our individual identity while building our partnership, taking a trip down memory lane to recall our early childhood bonds is the first place to start, as it was then that our sense of identity and our ability to form healthy connections with others were formed.
Through our mother's unconditional support of our growing independence, we develop the ability to see her as both our caretaker upon whom we depend as well as a separate person with whom we can empathize. This foundation of independence / interdependency manifests itself in every human bond we make.
However, independent development in childhood may be hindered or less than ideal, causing dependency issues later in romantic relationships. Instead of having a strong sense of Self, one might turn to their partner to strengthen their identity. Consider the following examples of how people compromise themselves in their partnership.
1. Instead of looking to oneself, one looks to their partner to figure out what they need or want.
2. Lacking the confidence to take care of one self.
3. Feeling powerless to make changes, therefore over dependence on their partner sets in.
4. Over pleasing their partner even when if feels wrong.
Maintaining Individuality In A Relationship
Maintaining individuality is critical to establishing a long-lasting, healthy partnership. Therefore, equal efforts between attending to oneself and making the relationship work are necessary.
Personal boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves as individuals in relationships. They protect our sense of personal identity and help guard against being overwhelmed by the demands of others.
Before we can set boundaries, we have to know who we are. Ask yourself the following questions.
1. What is important to me?
2. What thoughts and feelings are worth protecting?
3. What are my values?
4. Which are the friendships I want to maintain?
5. What are my needs?
6. What are the traditions / hobbies I want to keep?
7. Am I always striving for personal satisfaction and happiness?
The "Grown-up" Relationship (I, You, We)
Simply put, a "grown-up" relationship is one in which both partners will feel closely connected while maintaining a strong sense of individuality and independence within the relationship.
Being in a successful partnership does not mean that you "complete" each other, as Jerry McGuire professed to Dorothy. You do not need to love to do the same activities or agree on everything. You need to respect the differences that exist between you and your partner.
Issues around power and control seldom assume much importance in a "grown-up" relationship. A peaceful relationship is not one that is free of conflict; it is when partners deal with conflict in fair ways.
Your partnership should consist of the following components:
1. A high level of trust, mutual respect and friendship.
2. Plenty of room for each person to maintain their individuality. Each person allows the other as much space as they need.
3. Ways to help make it safe for each partner to increase their sense of intimacy and vulnerability.
4. Ways of developing closer intimacy at some times, while maintaining strong individuality as other times.
5. Boundaries which are comfortable for both partners around critical issues such as sex, finances and other family members.
6. Mutual sharing, give and take, trade-offs and occasional sacrifices for the other.
Be yourself. Expect your partner to love you for who you are and love them back.