What happens when two individual lives morph into a singular existence? Experts discuss how to escape the dreaded couples’ identity trap.
Ask yourself this: who’s that one friend you always think about alongside their partner? Or the couple you couldn’t ever imagine splitting up? Is it possible you no longer think of them as two separate individuals, but instead view them as one unit? Of course, it can be argued that relationships are indeed their own entities, but there’s a shift that’s felt when the line between two people who’ve chosen to come together, and two people who’ve morphed into a package deal, becomes blurred. This is the tipping point that constitutes what we’ve dubbed the couples’ identity trap.
“In a relationship there are three key parts,” says Neil Wilkie, behavioural psychotherapist and founder of The Relationship Paradigm. “There’s the ‘you’, there’s the ‘me’ and there’s the ‘us’. And my view is that those are three very different things, and that for it to be a good relationship, all three need to be nurtured. If a couple starts to be what’s called ‘fused’ together, or become co-dependent, then the ‘you’ and the ‘me’ starts to get mixed into the ‘us’ and that’s not healthy, particularly if one of the individuals has unfulfilled needs.
“Imagine you’ve got two stones. The ideal relationship is where the two stones are laying flat on firm foundations that are touching, or even overlapping. A co-dependent or fused relationship is either where one is on top of the other, which means one person is being squashed by the one on top. Or if the stones are standing together but leaning against each other, it means if one leaves then the other one falls over, so it creates a very unhealthy, physical, psychological and emotional situation.”
If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s possible you’ve fallen victim to the couples’ identity trap. In other words, whether consciously or subconsciously, you’ve begun showing up in the world as a wholly intertwined version of a couple as opposed to two different people who are walking through life side by side.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s anything as drastic as you completely abandoning the person you were before you entered into your relationship. But there’s definitely something that happens along the way that begins to chip away at your individuality. This can occur in varying degrees and manifest itself in a multitude of ways.
For Sandra Obeng*, 29, who’s been with her boyfriend for 14 years, it started when she began prioritising his interests over her own. “When you’re in a relationship you feel like you have to think about the other person. So, I spend a lot of time thinking: What does he like? What does he want to do? What are his interests? And then you mould into what that person is, and you kind of lose who you are because you feel like in a relationship that’s what you should do.”
She continues: “As I’ve grown up, common sense has kicked in and I get that you don’t have to change your whole self to be with somebody. But I do still get lost in that sometimes – thinking ‘don’t be too much of an individual’. It’s about finding the middle ground and I think I do struggle with that sometimes.”
Emma Daniels*, 33, who also met her former partner at a young age, similarly struggled to find that balance. “My ex-husband and I met as teenagers and got married when we were 18. We were considered by family and friends to be essentially one unit,” she tells Stylist. “We never really did anything separately and had no real interests that didn’t involve one another. This included spending time with friends and family, our hobbies, the children – everything really.
“When he left me I learnt very quickly how damaging it is when people within a couple don’t have separate identities. Friendships became very difficult as people had been so used to it being the two of us so they felt as though they had to choose. Family relationships were strained as well because all they’d ever seen was the happy front of a united couple. I also had no idea what my own areas of interest were as everything I had done in my adult life had been done with the other person in mind. I had never even been on a train alone until I was 25! It took a lot of figuring out to find things which I felt comfortable doing on my own.”
In Sarah Dean’s case, it’s reached the point where people have stopped inviting her to social events if they think her boyfriend is unavailable. The 39-year-old says, “I tend to find when people are making plans, the question is always ‘What are you both doing?’ Or I’ll have a friend say to me, ‘I was going to ask if you wanted to do something the other day but he was at work so I thought you might not have wanted to’. And I just think to myself, well I’d still have done it, I’d have still liked to go.”
It’s one thing accepting that you may have too strong an attachment to the person you love, but it’s an entirely different predicament when you’re faced with disentangling from it in a way that doesn’t negatively affect your relationship. This is especially true if several years have passed and your current state of living has become the norm. But, though it may be a tricky one to navigate, it’s certainly doable, according to relationship counsellor and psychotherapist, Lindsay George.
“Focus on being the best version of yourself. Focus on your needs and the things you want to do for you, that make you happy. And then it’s about having that conversation with your partner and letting them know you really want to do these things because they’re important to you, and getting their buy in. Because ultimately it’s taking you away from them, which potentially could be seen as a threat if they have an insecure attachment style, meaning that they want to spend every waking moment with you, which clearly isn’t healthy. So it’s about having good, strong boundaries and recognising where yours end and theirs start.”
Echoing George’s advice, Wilkie ends with: “Find out what gives you joy and fulfilment and then find the same for your partner. See what similarities and what differences there are, and see where there is overlap and where there’s potential conflict. Then look at the relationship and how it functions and whether there is fusion between you both or whether you can differentiate from each other. And if there is fusion, explore why that’s happening. Who’s got the unmet needs in that, and who is needy in the relationship for their own self-belief.”
* Some names have been changed on request