My couples counselling clients often tell me “I lost myself in the relationship” or “I lost my identity in my marriage”. By the time they are able to clearly articulate this feeling they have often already detached from their partner (but not always).
One of the questions I ask them is “Can you imagine claiming your own identity within this marriage? What would that require of you?”
A life without a self is not an option
Most people will not tolerate a life without a self. A psychological survival instinct will kick in eventually and say “You’ve lost yourself. Get out”. With today’s increasing personal autonomy and options, and a growing sense of the importance of self-identity within the culture at large, few people are willing to sacrifice their sense of self for a marriage.
Interestingly, in my couples counselling practice it is the partner (in hetero relationships it’s usually the man) of the person who lost their self-identity (usually the woman, often tied to mothering) who is often the biggest champion and supporter for their partner re-claiming their identity. Perhaps surprisingly, this encouraging stance is not generally met with much receptivity, and is often met with hostility. Why? Because by this point the lost-identity partner is already fantasizing about a new life, a life free from the self-erasure of their marriage. They’ve already broken the bond and are out the door.
The film “Marriage Story” is an example
Early detection is crucial. In Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story the wife, Nicole, has clearly lost herself in the marriage. (For some interesting discussion on the themes in this film, see my facebook page here). By the time this begins to get explicitly addressed in the relationship it is too late. She is done.
The trouble is that losing yourself in a marriage or relationship happens slowly, little by little. We can tolerate the small compromises one-by-one. We don’t even notice them. But they build until a tipping point is reached.
Starring roles and supporting roles
An insightful colleague has suggested to me that in all relationships one person plays the “star” character or leading role and the other plays the supporting role. I’m not convinced that this is always the case, but it’s certainly true often enough to warrant attention.
Is there a starring role and a supporting role in your marriage? How do you feel about this? Discussing this with your partner is one way to help protect yourself against the lost-identity crisis. All relationships contain asymmetries of some type and it’s up to you to stay current (with yourself and your partner) about your comfort with these asymmetries, and to negotiate them before resentment builds.
If you occupy the starring role in the relationship, you will be wise to give your partner some of the limelight, a share of the power, to make compromises that allow them to feel solid in their own identity.
Protecting your relationship from a “lost-identity” crisis
There’s a particular complicity that takes over many relationships and is typically only visible in hindsight, after it’s too late. The lost-identity or “supporting role” partner will abdicate their own responsibility for advocating for themselves. This abdication is often correlated with low self-esteem, low self-confidence, passive/aggressive strategies for obtaining love, and other unconscious, unresolved issues. The dominant or “starring role” partner is complicit when they ignore or “don’t notice” that their partner is betraying themselves, is living small, is unhappy, and is growing resentful.
The lost-identity partner (unconsciously) believes that if they live small and let the dominant partner enjoy the spotlight eventually it will work out well. The starring-role partner interpretes this as “support” and active willingness (even though it is not), and is shocked when they find themselves blamed for their partner’s loss of self-identity. By this time the whole thing has gone on for so long that much damage has been done, and it can be difficult to recover.
Recovering from losing yourself in relationship
For couples trying to recover from this predicament –
The lost-identity partner must confront their own responsibility for giving their identity away, and recognize the limits of their partner’s responsibility.
The starring-role partner must confront their own self-centredness and complicit denial in the dynamic.
These are both critically important steps, and can be a long process to complete. The role of each partner in this case is never simply about their behaviour in this particular relationship, rather they come to examine deeper psychological patterns of superiority, inferiority, the handling of power, blame etc.
As difficult as this scenario is, when couples are able to work through it they come to the other side at a new level of personal maturity and integrity. If a couple is unable or unwilling to work through it, each individual is likely to repeat the pattern unless they do significant work on the issue individually before beginning a new relationship.
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