Keeping Your Own Sense of Self in a Long-Term Relationship

One experience many people value in an intimate, long-term relationship is the chance to form a bonded union that stands as a sort of third entity beside and in addition to the two individuals who comprise it. The pleasures of being a “couple” are not unique to our species, of course: birds do it, bees do it, and some of them, such as swans, do it for life with virtually no divorce rate. What does seem to be unique about long-term human pairing, however, is the feeling of losing one’s self in the spirit of the dead, or of losing one’s self in the Other.

In the early stages of courtship, during the period of deep infatuation and passionately engaged hormones that psychologist Dorothy Tennov called limerance, we often want to lose ourselves in what we generally call love: it feels so good to lock eyes with the beloved and vanish into mutual bliss that we may “cocoon” together for weeks or months, paying no attention to voice- and email messages, letting magazine subscriptions lapse, riling our friends and colleagues, neglecting our jobs and even some of our cherished duties and rituals.

But limerance appears to be inherently, biochemically, time-limited. If we are in regular personal contact with our beloved it may only last a few months before it gradually begins to fade; if we are in a long-distance relationship and see our beloved only now and then, absence can make the heart grow fonder and limerance may last a year or even more. But as a kind of hormone-driven fantasy, the “love” we call limerance does indeed end.

Frequently, when limerance dies people find they actually have little in common with one another apart from the now-vanished chemistry, and the relationship also dies, sometimes gracefully but often in a flurry of disappointment, hurt, and accusations that “s/he has changed.” This is one reason people – especially young people still learning what they want in love – sometimes bounce from one hot romance to another. Then, after we get over our wounds from being left or from leaving the fantasy that did not work out, we head for the next opportunity to “fall in love” again.

Occasionally, however, limerance opens the doors to genuine love: the slowly evolving, mutual, intimate, trusting, deep-seated affection and regard in which we hold an Other that is based on knowledge over time of who the person really is. People who have a good sense of themselves and of their personal boundaries often thrive in such a love, finding that the mutually supportive partnership enables them to settle into a peaceful or joyous rhythm in which their lives include individual work, pleasure, friendships, and fulfillment along with a deepening experience of shared commitments with their partners.

For people who are less sure of who they are, becoming lost in the Other or in the spirit of the dyad is either not at all an attractive proposition or one that is all too attractive. On the relatively positive side they may long or be grateful for an Other in whom they can disappear as a way to leave their identity-compromised lives behind. They may seek to submerge themselves in a partner’s identity, defining themselves as “John’s husband” or “Mary’s wife,” molding their tastes, desires, and opinions to those of their partner, and taking comfort in having someone to belong to. In their case, the “one + one” of relationship does not really equal three because at least one of the two original individuals is not fully a one at all but rather a fraction. When the person in whom s/he has submerged goes away or dies or is otherwise unavailable, the fraction is at a genuine loss for a functional identity, having had no fully-fledged identity to begin with. S/he may become quite lost, anxious, or depressed, or seek solace in some distraction such as alcohol or other drugs, compulsive sexuality, or whirlwinds of busyness, none of which brings happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, or contentment.

On the more negative side, such a person may stay adamantly separate from any partner: the fear of disappearing can be too terrifying to permit her or him from becoming deeply committed in a relationship at all. Instead, the person may feel too rigid to bond intimately, which is really the flip side of the same coin.

The simple way to keep your own sense of Self in a long-term relationship is to have a solid sense of yourself beforehand. But for many people that is far easier said than done. A course of psychotherapy designed to enhance self-awareness can be helpful but is likely to require at least one weekly meeting over the course of several years. Meanwhile, anything you can do to remind yourself of who you are – such as staying in touch with close friends, taking daily periods of meditation, keeping journals, and checking in with yourself on a regular basis can help. This last suggestion deserves a small clarification: in order to “check-in with yourself” it helps to spend 10 or 15 minutes at a time, at least once a day, in a quiet place without distractions; to close your eyes and listen to yourself breathe for a minute or two, and then to allow images or sounds or recollections of people, places, and things that matter deeply to you to arise into your awareness. These people, places, and things are not you, of course, but like landmarks on a journey they can make it easier to locate the Self, you really are.