This blog is dedicated to the topic of how to be a good partner, while remaining a whole person.
I think about relationships a lot. I think about how they work, and about how they fall apart. I think about the expectations and assumptions that society places on men and women, and how those expectations and assumptions can undermine our best efforts at forming and maintaining relationships that actually work.
Who we are in relationship with our partner becomes, in a way, an aspect of our identity. To some extent, the same could be said of all our important relationships. Before we become partners or spouses, we are siblings,friends, employees, etc., and each of those relationships is unique; each of them intersects our core identity – who we are in relationship to ourselves – in a particular way, and reflects a particular combination of our interests, talents, and other aspects of our identity. Simply put: we relate to different people, and to different categories of people, in different ways, and the relationships we have with important others have an impact on how our core identity -- and our ability to have relationships -- develops.
Pair-bonds – whether by marriage, civil union, or some other form of partnership – are complicated. By definition, when we are building a life with someone, we each bring with us a lifetime’s worth of who we are: our quirks of personality, our preferences, friendships and family experiences, as well as our values and hopes and dreams for the future. We are taking two whole lives that were previously separate, and merging them into a coherent whole. This is where self-knowledge (understanding our core identity) becomes crucial. If we don’t stay in touch with who we are at our core, we run the risk of collapsing ourselves into the role we play in relationship to our partner. The core identity becomes overshadowed, and we lose touch with who we are as people.
Think I’m over-dramatizing? How many women have you heard say something like, “Once I got married, and especially after we had kids, I just fell into the “mommy” thing, and sort of lost myself. I don’t really know who I am anymore.” Such a loss of contact with our identity can be reflected in something as simple and straightforward as how we dress and present ourselves, or something as subtle as the life goals we think are attainable. And men are not immune!
Having a relationship with yourself isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Of course, you know the easy stuff, like your favorite color, the kinds of foods you like or dislike, or the leisure activities you enjoy; but what about the tough stuff, like values, beliefs, fears, insecurities, and secret dreams? How compassionate are you? Are you resilient? How do you communicate about sensitive or difficult topics? How do you respond when you’re in emotional pain? What are your basic beliefs about sex, love, children, money, and how good relationships work?
In short, how has your core identity been shaped by the relationship experiences you’ve had with friends, family, and romantic partners? How will you incorporate who you are, and who you most want to become, into a relationship with someone else? (Someone, by the way, who's trying to do the same thing!)
Next week, I’ll start talking about the social legacy of marriage, and how it has undermined the kind of marriages most of us say we actually want.