In relationships, we often present our brochure selves in the beginning, making it harder to show up later in the relationship the way we really are. Why do we do this? Sales-pitch ourselves to get the relationship only to find it difficult being who we really are once the objective is attained? There are many reasons we may do this and possibly many triggers behind it as well; however, instead of addressing the why, I want to focus on the how. How do we retain our sense of self in a relationship and what risks can occur if we don’t?
There is beauty when two lives morph and become one, but there are also risks. Sometimes in relationships, it is hard to assess where you begin and your partner ends, especially in the beginning. This may not be something a lot of people care about, especially in the stage of bliss. You and your partner share everything at this stage, do everything together and even find yourselves in a bubble of similarities, which helps you decide early on if you see a future together. Over time, however, you or your partner may examine things from a more critical perspective as you are now becoming a reflection of one another as your relationship deepens and your lives continue to merge.
I imagine this phase like making a new best friend, things are so great in the beginning until someone points out all the ways you are like one another and less like your actual selves. Is anyone to blame for this; that feeling or sense of identity loss to this friendship? Applying this notion to a relationship is often not that different, only with a relationship it sometimes feels a bit more devastating and personal to feel yourself slipping away. To notice that you are not in a reciprocally balanced relationship that praises your individuality. For some, this feeling and awareness can be easily snapped back with conversation and more intentional time getting back to your roots, but for some, the feeling of fear seeps in. Fear that your identity is being taken for granted or even erased. This can lead to feelings of resentment as you replay things you may have sacrificed for your relationship and for yourself. Whether you were feeling forced or even forcing yourself to conform to your partners’ expectations, demands, or simply mirroring their lifestyle, these revelations can be extreme and create feelings of anxiety and even hopelessness.
Finding ways to balance this out starts with knowing yourself. Knowing yourself enough to stand in your truth, set boundaries around who you are, and making sure you’re in relationships that respect those boundaries and truths instead of challenging them.
What is a positive reciprocal relationship?
Relationships that encourage the giving of yourself while your partner respects the boundaries of your need for independence and vice versa. Positive reciprocal relationships value the “I” without disrespecting the “we”. Oftentimes, we partner with people that loved a side of us while we were dating but feel some type of way when that side of us doesn’t go away the moment we get into a relationship. Examples of this could look like: someone who is really social and has a lot of friends of the opposite and same-sex, they love to go out, love to dress a certain way, are spontaneous and adventure-seeking. While this was something that a partner loved at first, this may be the same behavior they would expect you to tame in a relationship. Finding someone who honors all sides of you, especially the sides essential to your own independence, is key to your emotional and mental survival of any relationship you have. Putting boundaries and clear expectations early on will create the foundation of positive reciprocal relationships to thrive.
Respect that your partner has a life and identity to maintain as well
It is one thing to want to retain your sense of identity and not cave on certain aspects of yourself in a relationship, just remember that when it comes to your partner, it should go both ways. As long as the above point is not being violated, be mindful of your need for identity but also granting that space for your partner as well.
When I bring this topic up to my friend in a relationship, there are always conditions to how independent their person can be in the relationship. I hear for example, “I have a lot of guy friends but I wouldn’t want him to keep having female friends if we’re dating.” “I still love going to the club, but he can’t have a boys night with his friends.” These are the two most common ones that I hear and it translates as an ego battle. There are ways to still have your friends and your habits without disrespecting your partner. If that is a problem or recurring conversation, perhaps the problem isn’t on your identity as much as it is trust. That is a topic for another day). But consider all the ways that you exist outside of your relationship; all the different roles in your life: boss, employee, sister, auntie, daughter, friend, etc. These areas of your life should not stop when you are in a relationship and neither should your partners. Define what disrespect looks like upfront and while being who you are, navigate accordingly.
What are boundaries in a relationship?:
What are boundaries and why are they necessary? Boundaries are “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits” (Guide to Psychology). They express the ways we define and maintain our sense of individuality, freedom, and personal integrity in our relationships.
Implementing boundaries that weren’t established early on:
It can be difficult to show up and put all your limits on the forefront of things, but what is the alternative? I’ve found in my own personal relationships, being upfront about who I am and what I will and won’t tolerate puts me at ease in knowing early on I showed up, even if it scares people away. Was it always this way? Nope, but I found that trying to implement my boundaries later in a relationship always resulted in pushback and often resentment on my part. I would typically wait until a boundary wasn’t respected, a boundary no one but myself knew existed, prior to saying something. However, at that point, I’m now catching people off guard and hearing, “Well why didn’t you tell me that from the beginning?” Defensively speaking, my response would mirror the expression, “Because I shouldn’t have had to.” WRONG. In any relationship, time should be spent communicating your boundaries, your emotional limits and, if you know them, your triggers.
Here are a couple of conversation starters I’ve found to be useful as my relationships have matured over the years:
- “So when we first started dating, there were a few things I didn’t mention about myself that I should have, and I thought it was past time I shared them with you to prevent any(more) disagreements or arguments down the line.”
- I know this wasn’t talk about early on, but _________________________________.
It’s not always easy or comfortable to express yourself in certain ways, but not being able to communicate your boundaries and limits will lead to you responding to boundary violations in more retaliatory and confrontational ways.
Responding to boundary violations:
If your boundaries were communicated early on, and you find yourself being tested or find your boundaries constantly violated, this could mean a multitude of things, but how you respond to them is key in owning your space within the relationship. Not all boundary violations are violated out of disrespect, however, respecting yourself enough to be assertive will help reinforce where you stand when it comes to yourself. Reminding someone of your boundaries may be tiresome, however, these are the areas you can’t afford to cave in when it comes to keeping your sense of self. Whatever boundaries you have in place, examine ways to effectively address that is healthy and constructive. In some cases, these can be easy fixes, or they can be an indicator to end things. Only you can judge the nature of your own boundaries and how you respond to them may also dictate the course of your relationship.
Ways to approach a new relationship from a singular standpoint
Taking some time to consider all the things can help you create a singular foundation for how you approach your future relationships and restructure your current relationships. Below are a few exercises that will help start a conversation with yourself around who you are and what it means to protect that in partnership.
What do I really want, who am I, etc. Keep this at the forefront of your relationship so you know and your partner knows. At times you may lose yourself to you and it helps to have someone know you well enough to pull you out.
Become conscious of your own values even if they differ from what some consider the norm to be. Communicate these values or have them written somewhere as a reminder of who you are and what you stand for and what you believe. It is fairly easy to morph into our partner’s viewpoint in a relationship, owning this part of yourself is key to the retention of your identity.
Things to consider:
What’s the worst that can happen by expressing myself? Oftentimes we talk ourselves out of showing up the way we should because of the judgment that may ensue– let’s combat that by preparing for the worst. When you are who you are unapologetically in a relationship there are only a couple of options of possibility:
- You may not be who they want
- They may love and accept you entirely
- You may find room for compartmentalizing rather than compromising
- You can decide to walk away
Either way, if you get to retain who you are, ask yourself if it is a worthy trade-off. We’re often conditioned to be in a relationship in hopes of becoming a wife, but rarely are we conditioned to accept that not being in a relationship for the sake of yourself is more important.
Recognize your own value:
See your inner goodness. When you offer yourself validation and acceptance it becomes an anchor that can not be altered or moved by the views of others. This can be important because how you treat yourself will also teach your partner how to treat you.
Surround yourself with authenticity:
Find authenticity in friendships. Maintain your social life in a relationship. Neglecting your social life and social obligations to yourself, you begin to unconsciously isolate within your relationship becoming only dependent on your partner at times. Make a list of the people in your life whose authenticity you recognize and admire. Express why and figure out ways to get there within yourself. Nurture these relationships, they may be the ones to call you out when you begin to lose yourself.