It’s not uncommon in the early stages of a relationship to get caught up in the honeymoon period trying to spend every spare moment with our new boo. For some of us, the honeymoon period settles and gives way to revealing even more of ourselves and integrating, for instance, friends, family and interests. And for some, it feels as if we don’t have time and space for anything other than the relationship, and so we lose ourselves.

The first few times this happens, we think it’s cute and a sign of how devoted we are. We might not see it as a problem that we become subsumed by our relationships. Over time, though, our codependency takes a toll on our well-being and the relationship. 

Even if we’re in what could be a loving relationship, our habit of losing our identity fosters anxiety, overwhelm and resentment. And what’s bloody frustrating is that we can see ourselves doing it. Still, though, we often feel powerless to stop and feel guilty about putting our needs first. 

What causes us to lose our identity in our relationships?

There are two overarching reasons from which all the others spring:

  1. We cultivated friendships, hobbies, interests, a lifestyle, that served our identity when we were single. 
  2. We play the role of the Good Girlfriend/Boyfriend/Partner/Spouse and then become subsumed by our partner and the relationship. 

When we’ve been socialised and conditioned to believe that the pinnacle of success is being in a romantic relationship, we’re highly likely to lose our identity once we’re in one. Our idea of who we are or aren’t will be based to a large degree on being coupled. 

Many humans consciously and unconsciously cultivate friendships, hobbies, etc., that are only truly deemed important when they’re single. Why? Because these are their main source of social connection and play time. They’re activities and people they’re spending more time with because they’re not in a relationship. 

If we only be, do and prioritise certain things when single, we’ll shift identities upon entering into a relationship. 

Farewell hanging out with friends; toodle-oo to practising self-care, including meeting our needs; sayonara maintaining our interests and hobbies.

We’ll switch gears to being, doing and prioritising whatever we associate with being in a relationship. Now we’re about hanging with our partner or ingratiating ourselves with their family and social circle. We like what they like. 

Even though it might seem like we’re just throwing ourselves into our relationship, we’re also driven by fear and anxiety. It’s fear of being alone, that this person will change their minds about us, and conflict and criticism. We’re also deathly afraid of screwing things up hence why we’re trying to be the Perfect Someone.

Although we might not be consciously aware of all of these concerns, our shift in identity is fear’s calling card. Becoming subsumed by the relationship, though, triggers anxiety that will heighten the more we ignore and deprioritise ourselves. We’ve become detached and distanced from who we really are.

We can’t play roles and enjoy intimacy and fulfilled needs at the same time. 

It’s easy to misconstrue our relationship habit of losing ourselves as something ‘good’. We might genuinely believe that we’re being and doing what it take to be in a relationship. Plenty of people think losing yourself is how you ‘catch and keep’ someone. 

What we’re not necessarily aware of, though, is how our mentality, behaviour and attitude reflect what we’ve internalised about what it means to be a Good Girlfriend/Boyfriend/Partner/Spouse. By then playing these roles, it’s impossible for us to be boundaried. We inadvertently foster a codependent relationship instead of an interdependent one so we don’t know where we end and the other person begins.

It’s easy to assume that we only lose ourselves when we’re in an unhealthy relationship with a partner who’s mistreating us. If, however, our default setting is people-pleasing overgiver, we’ll feel compelled to lose our identity. Yes, that’s even if we’re with someone who wouldn’t feel remotely threatened by us being our real selves. 

It’s no wonder we lose our identity in romantic relationships when it’s treated as surplus to requirements once a partner is in the frame. 

On some level, part of us believes that being in a relationship means being willing to give yourself up to meet the other person’s needs.

By believing that this is what a relationship takes, we set ourselves up for pain and resentment because we assume that sacrificing ourselves will lead to the fulfilment of our needs. Side note: It won’t. 

By blending, merging and adapting to fit our partner and our idea of being in a relationship, we stop meeting our needs. Or we become an afterthought that we fit in later. And, of course, they’re not doing the same thing ‘for’ us. Cue feeling overwhelmed and resentful. 

It’s not our job to ‘make’ our partner happy. It isn’t. 

Being a loving partner doesn’t mean sacrificing ourselves to anticipate and meet a partner’s needs or to be what we think the relationship wants. 

Our partner was a grown-ass human being before we came along, and they still are. Not only might we be doing things for our partner that they never asked or expected of us, but we might inadvertently be recreating a dynamic that reflects our parents or one of our other romantic relationships. Is this what we really want? Is this relationship identity, based on fear of rejection and abandonment, truly what we want to bring to this relationship? By playing roles, we put our partners in roles, and it’s a breeding ground for resentment. We’re also recreating the very past we don’t want to be in.

People pleasing not only deprioritises our needs, desires, expectations, feelings and opinions but blocks intimacy.

I know we may have grown up hearing otherwise, but being a loving partner isn’t about cooking, cleaning, ironing, taking out the rubbish, being a sex kitten or being a Perfect Parent, whether it’s to children or our partner.

No boundaries means no intimacy. If we want the relationship to be mutually fulfilling and intimate, we need to be more honest and authentic. We need to reveal the real us who has needs and a life that doesn’t rise and set on our partner’s every move. Part of the reason why we throw ourselves into doing all the things for a partner is that it seems ‘easier’ than the intimacy of showing up. Relying on roles means that we get to avoid our feelings or being honest about our needs. Again, though: Is this identity of having no friends, needs, interests, hobbies, or a life outside of the relationship what we really want to bring to our relationship?

This is also where an honest conversation is very helpful because we can check in about our partner’s expectations. We might, for instance, be putting pressure on us to do all manner of things that they don’t expect from us.

It’s also time to ask ourselves: How can we respond to our partner’s needs and also meet ours? It’s not an either/or. 

In fact, why do we even have it in our head that we’re supposed to be meeting our partner’s needs? This is a relationship, not servitude. We need to show up! Our relationships are co-created. By extension of how we co-create the relationship and interact with our partner, it can serve both parties’ needs. 

Losing our identity in our relationships is a sign that we’ve slipped into playing roles that cater to the past, not who we truly are. The more we align with who we truly are and want to be, the better we and our relationships feel. We reclaim ourselves. 

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
The reason we lose ourselves in relationships and abandon self-care, friendships and having hobbies and interests is that these were things that were part of our single, not relationship, identity.  But a relationship doesn't 
define us. It's critical to our well-being and the health of our relationship that we allow us 
to meet our needs 
and be authentic.
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