Friends and media tell us about breakups where people emerge with no sense of self. Who am I now that I’m single? Healthy relationships thrive on both partners being able to maintain a clear sense of self, especially when it comes to their most fundamental needs and desires. Even knowing this, however, it’s still easy to accidentally find yourself giving more to the relationship or your partner than is ultimately sustainable.
We can wear ourselves out in relationships through the best intentions and desire, and so often it’s because we want what a loving relationship promises — love and acceptance — that we’re willing to give up our own independence and perspective in order to have it.
With this in mind, it’s important to ask — how can you maintain your independence while in a relationship?
Know Your Habits, Understand Your History
Even if you have an concept of what an ideal relationship might look like, it is worth a re-examination of your past experiences to better understand how your relationships work. In their book Attached, Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller draw upon decades of psychology research to describe that how we were nurtured as children can deeply affect the way we deal with our adult relationships. Their outline of attachment suggests that we each generally behave in relationships in one of three ways:
- Anxious — preoccupation with being loved back by intimate partners
- Avoidant — concern over loss of independence by being overwhelmed in intimate relationships
- Secure — comfortable with intimacy
Even when we had relatively calm and safe upbringings, how we were treated when expressing fear, distress, and insecurity as children taught us patterns of how we are supposed to be loved. Too little or too much response to those negative feelings required us to adjust our modes of behavior. We may avoid intimacy even if we want it, or we may have subconscious fears of abandonment or betrayal, even with the most trustworthy of partners.
Find Self Love
The vulnerability in expressing need leaves us open to feeling how we deserve to be treated. In early development, that self-image is formed quite clearly. In Attachment In Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, And Change, researchers Mario Mikulincer and Phillip Shaver outline the correlation between attachment style and self image.
In it, they show that our partners can reaffirm our self image by behaving in patterns that are familiar to us, even when patterns are destructive or abusive. However, it is important to not confuse these patterns with stability, nor are they a replacement for growth as an individual. A loving and supportive partner is one who loves and encourages the path to self discovery, both within the relationship and during time spent alone.
Reunite Again And Again
Mindful time apart can lead to a bond stronger than before. Solitude and privacy are so often confused with hiding and secrecy, but it’s only in being alone do we get perspective on our true identity and where our emotions and needs may have changed.
Time apart for self reflection may inform our relationships in ways that even the most thorough and open discussions cannot. Internal emotional changes, new perspectives, and emerging desires are sometimes only apparent with enough time to let them be seen. Surprising or even scary at first, those self discoveries are ultimately gifts for you to share with your partner and deepen your bond with renewed understanding and care.
A lasting relationship cannot be sustained by the fear of what could be lost by being apart. Healthy independence within a relationship allows you and your partner to feel the love gained by being together, and to choose that love again and again.