Think back to your last break-up...Did you feel devastatingly empty, depressed, lost or wonder how you would move forward without this person in your life? If so, you might be prone to losing yourself in a relationship. If you tend to merge with your current partner, assume their likes and dislikes, and take on his or her interests, after the relationship ends, you most likely feel a deep loss of your sense of self.
You might wonder why you do this, how you can maintain your life with and without a partner and may be just starting to recognize a pattern of attaching that doesn’t feel helpful, healthy or balanced. In this post, we review the root of this tendency, what the signs of this behavior looks like, and what you can do to overcome losing yourself in your relationships.
Merging with your partner
Especially if you are anxiously attached (more on that below), you may find yourself quickly merging with your partner in a relationship. This might look like taking up his or her hobbies and interests and spending less time engaging in or even forgetting your own family, friends, and hobbies. In extreme examples, your thoughts, preferences, opinions, and feelings begin to merge with your partner’s. In this scenario, you, at your core, have been transformed by the relationship to the point that you have lost touch with your own unique needs and desires. Surprisingly, this can be a subconscious strategy that is used in an effort to keep a partner close emotionally and physically. It’s an approach that is used for acceptance.
The Role of Attachment Systems
First, what is attachment and attachment theory? Attachment theory was born out of research in the 1960’s from psychologist John Bowlby. He theorized that attachment is an emotional and physical bond that develops in order to create stability and security in one’s world. From an evolutionary standpoint, young that are able to stay close and be looked after one’s parent are more likely to survive. Bowbly found that this fundamental bond first develops between infants and their parents (or caregivers) as a result of the quality of availability, consistency and security the caregiver provides to the infant to physically and emotionally survive.
Depending upon how the parents respond, the infant will develop a secure (parent was consistently available and responsive), anxious (parent was inconsistently available and responsive) or avoidant attachment style (parent was consistently unavailable and unresponsive) attachment style.
Adults who later lose themselves in relationships start as children who were anxiously attached to their parent. They had to learn how to adapt to parental inconsistency to get their emotional and physical needs met. For example, they may have learned to cling to their parent in order to avoid being forgotten about or to be “happy” when their parent was upset to brighten their mood and ensure their caregiver could provide for their needs.
Essentially, these children learned how to adapt, mold, and merge themselves in their earliest, most influential relationship to maintain closeness in relationships and to survive. And its this very response that they learned as a child to get their needs met, which becomes less helpful in their adult relationships. Merging and losing one’s sense of self in an adult relationship can be off-putting and overwhelming to their partner (usually avoidantly attached), who will withdraw and pull away. Adults with an anxious attachment (approximately 11%) worry about their partner leaving, exhibit anxiety around rejection (Mickelson, Kessler & Shaver, 1997), and actively seek reassurance. Because of these tendencies, the anxious partner can be more prone to merging with their partner in an effort to keep close.
Practice Secure Attachment
It’s important to recognize the tendency when in a relationship and where it stems from. Oftentimes, it’s apparent as a relationship unravels because of the deep lack that results in losing yourself so much in another. You might feel depressed and don’t know who you are anymore when a relationship in which you have merged with another ends. People will often say they feel as if they don’t exist anymore without being in contact with that person.
Practicing secure attachment behaviors looks like staying grounded in your own interests, likes, dislikes, and communicating those regularly. Step back early in a relationship - or better yet, before you enter a relationship - and write down who you like to spend time with, note your interests and hobbies, and identify what it looks like when you start to stray from them. Be vocal about what you like and who you are in your relationship. Check back on this list from time to time to see how you are staying true to yourself. Stay firm and establish your own roots as you grow together with your partner. This will help you if you are to go your separate ways and will also help that relationship feel more balanced and secure.
At Center for Shared Insight, we specialize in relationship therapy, especially when it involves attachment dynamics. Our team of therapists can help you recognize your tendencies in relationships and help you stay true to your needs and desires before you lose yourself in your partner. Give us a call for a free consultation and share more about your unique relationship challenges.