I say I want a relationship, and I do. I’ve never had a truly healthy one and I’d really like live inside one, to know what it feels like, to grasp the joy and meaning of it, the growth and intimacy.
Given my real and true longing for this, it’s a little puzzling that I’ve never had one. It’s also strange that it’s been over a year since I’ve been in a serious relationship at all.
Or is it?
You know how sometimes you have flashes of insight that take you completely by surprise? That lay you flat with the force of their truth and power?
I had one of those the other night. It was so powerful it felt like a punch to the stomach.
I realized that as much as I want a relationship – as much as I ache for it, dream about it, yearn for it – there’s another part of me that feels a different kind of way about it:
It’s fucking terrified.
Yes, I intellectually and emotionally do want to Be With Someone. But in that moment I suddenly knew in my bones, in my cells, that a part of me is absolutely petrified of getting into a relationship … because I’m scared I will lose myself.
That I will lose myself.
I lost myself in my last serious relationship, and almost didn’t recover.
This is not uncommon. Many, many people – both women and men – list “losing myself” as one of the main reasons a relationship failed, or for their profound unhappiness.
In my research on top problems when it comes to sex, dating, and relationships, a lot of people talked about it as a primary issue in their relationships:
- “The fear of losing myself when I’m in a relationship. Like stopping my dreams/plans for someone and conforming to what I think they want me to be like.”
- “Being attentive to my partner’s needs without sacrificing my sense of self.”
- “[L]learning how to sit with myself until a relationship fits naturally into my life rather than rearranging my life to fit a relationship.”
- “I invest all of my time into the happiness of the other party such that I lose my humanity.”
- “Not knowing who I am anymore.”
Those last two really get me.
Now, in a way I love that this fear is a part of me, because it’s partly a reflection of just how awesome it has been having myself.
I don’t want to lose myself because I love myself.
I don’t just mean in that healthy self-love kind of way. I’m still learning how to do that.
I mean the little things.
I love going to the dollar store and lingering happily in the hair and beauty products aisle, treating myself to things I know I’d enjoy pampering myself with. I love watching I Know What You Did Last Summer on a random Wednesday with friends because I know I’ll laugh and maybe bite my nails and definitely giggle at those 90s outfits tho. I love picking out exotic cheeses at the store just for me, making dinners I know I’m really going to enjoy, with yummy splurges like the dark chocolate soufflés at Trader Joe’s (seriously, people, they taste just like restaurant lava cakes. Get them. Now.).
I do also mean in the healthy self-love way. In the way of forgiving myself for mistakes, for reminding myself that even if I forget a phone call or let someone down or snap at someone unfairly, I’m still not a bad person. That even if I don’t publish my blog post at EXACTLY THE RIGHT TIME or I give someone the silent treatment for a while or I forget someone’s birthday, I don’t have to be perfect.
I’m doing the best I can.
I’m better at this now than I ever have been, which means I’m more comfortable in my own skin than ever. I wonder if that’s partly because I’ve gotten to spend so much time by myself, with myself.
I don’t know.
My mother had Borderline Personality Disorder. She was extremely high-functioning. She never beat me or did anything egregious. But I learned to bow to her shape. I folded myself into the origami of what she wanted, to take care of her feelings to the detriment of my own. I was trained to grovel, to give up my own sense of identity if it ever seemed to piss her off, to walk on eggshells to make sure her feelings were taken care of. I was always, constantly, consistently, neverendingly on guard against “making her mad.”
Since this is how my nervous system was patterned, of course this dynamic showed up in my romantic relationships – we all recreate our family of origin issues in relationship.
Thus there’s a part of me that, in relationship, has constantly been afraid the other person is mad at me, or will be. I have self-censored what I said or did or how I acted or who I was with, to make sure it didn’t piss him off.
This isn’t just about a culture of patriarchy where women are oppressed. It’s about the small, young part of myself that wants to be loved. It’s about the hyper-vigilance that was part of my survival tool kit as a kid. There was a part of me that truly believed that if I made my mother angry, she would stop loving me forever. I would be completely alone, unloved and unwanted.
Now, of course, I know better. I’ve done my work. I’m woke to the pattern and conscious of its consequences. I’m know where it comes from and what its utility was and how it isn’t useful anymore.
But that doesn’t mean that little girl inside me will be comfortable when I need to say “no” to a new partner. It doesn’t mean she’ll feel OK doing something I need to do for me that I know will cause conflict with my partner. It doesn’t mean things will go well just because I know myself.
My point is this: my biggest fear when it comes to getting into another relationship is not unjustified. I’m scared that I’ll again make my partner into my mother, psychologically speaking.
I’m frightened of repeating the pattern of sacrificing myself for another. Of erasing the boundaries between what makes me, me, and what makes him feel OK.
I’m not sure how to retain my selfhood while remaining connected to another.
I’ve never done it.
I’ve rarely seen it done well.
I used to run a discussion group called Sex, Dating & Relating. One night, I made the theme Staying Grounded in Relationship. I wanted to talk about this (relatively common) phenomenon of losing oneself in a relationship. I wanted to see how others handled it.
First we went around and shared a time we’d “lost” ourselves in relationship. Both men and women shared; both men and women had experienced it. They talked about going on camping trips when they weren’t really into camping. They talked about staying in all the time with a partner when they were actually really social and wanted to go out. They talked about changing, subtly, over time, without even realizing it, until they barely recognized themselves.
They talked about resenting their partners despite the fact that they themselves were the ones making these choices, over and over.
Then I had everyone close their eyes and take a few deep breaths to ground in their own essence in the moment. Their own core. Their own self.
Silently, I asked them to name three things that help keep them grounded. Maybe meditating. Maybe hiking. Maybe baking while listening to oldies. Maybe going to the beach, walking on sand in bare feet with nowhere to go except into waves.
Whatever it is, I told people, let your intuition guide you. Let it give you the list. This won’t come from your head. It never does.
When they opened their eyes, each person shared one item from their list.
People said things like exercise, spending one-on-one time with their dog, painting, singing.
They said kneading bread, taking improv, going salsa dancing, having deep conversations with close friends.
They said time in nature, time alone reading a book, time songwriting, time in the bath.
After we had all gone around, we took another breath. We shared a moment of appreciating the simplicity of the question, and the power of the answers.
Then I remarked, almost on a whim, that wouldn’t it be great if when we first got into a relationship, we shared our list with our partners? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were actually partners in keeping one another grounded? If we colluded in each of us retaining our own identities? If we recognized that the issue of losing oneself in relationship is a very real one, and that we committed to supporting each other in retaining our sense of self?
Later, one of the discussion members shared with me that that very night, he had told his new girlfriend about the exercise, and that they’d done it.
It was one of the most gratifying moments of my life.
I believe it is my purpose to share both the best and “worst” of myself in order to serve. That it’s only by me getting intensely personal that I will help inspire the healing, growth, learning, and transformation I so desperately feel our world needs.
I don’t have this particular one worked out yet, but that’s exactly why I’m sharing it.
I have tools, of course, and plenty of support and people who love me. I have faith in a higher power that can make anything happen, including helping me stay me in a relationship. And I have some small sense that in a truly good relationship, there’s a way for each of the parties to grow into even more of who they are, instead of losing themselves.
I’m just not there yet.