Between rom-coms and fairy tales, you may have grown up starry-eyed and heart-thumping with the idea of spending happily-ever-after with The One. No harm, no foul. After all, if people didn’t yearn for connection and commitment, our species would need a miracle to continue.
And thank goodness those hormones that drive lust, attraction, and attachment actually work. If they didn’t, couples wouldn’t have those early days of swooning through a Gershwin musical to catapult them down the aisle. And, when the rose-colored glasses come off, they wouldn’t have the memories of all that made them fall in love in the first place.
What fairy tales and movies ending in lavish weddings don’t tell you is that “The End” is really “The Beginning.” They are, after all, sources of entertainment. They help you escape the doldrums of daily reality and allow your imagination to come out from hiding.
And what they don’t show you is how love passes through predictable stages. They also don’t show you how people consumed with the hope of becoming part of a couple can lose their individual identities while in a relationship.
This “loss of self” can be the most devastating loss in a relationship, especially if and when the relationship ends.
Losing one’s individual identity to a “couple identity” can also be disorienting. When kids leave the nest, when a partner dies, or when the relationship goes through a crisis or ends, you need your own identity.
These unplanned-for moments call upon “who you are” in order for you to carry on with life. And going forward is tough to do if you are shackled to an identity that requires the other person’s presence, opinions, beliefs, and desires to survive.
The key to keeping your identity while in a relationship is tucked in that handy cliche called “Love Thyself First.”
Before you roll your eyes and put down the Hallmark card, consider why this mantra never goes out of style.
In order to love something – authentically, anyway – you have to know it. Likes, dislikes, beliefs, values, talents, quirks – all of it. You have to care about its highest good. And you have to nurture it into a confident embracing of all that defines it and stirs its spirit.
You would do all this for a child. Heck, you would probably do the same for a puppy. And when you fall in love, you do it for your partner. So why isn’t it an automatic assumption that you are doing the same for yourself?
Keeping your identity while in a relationship isn’t about safeguarding yourself in preparation for being alone, it’s about bringing the fullness of who you are to your relationship in the first place.
By being comfortable with who you are as an individual, you have the grounding necessary to build a healthy, lasting relationship with another person.
Here are 5 self-care tips for maintaining your unique and wonderful identity while building a unique and wonderful relationship.
Treasure your friends and families.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a disappearing friend who has found new love? It sucks. Suddenly everything you did together comes to a screeching halt. And when you do get together, it’s never just the two of you doing your ritual “friends” stuff because s/he is along.
Don’t be that person who can’t see past a romance to remember the anchors who kept him/her from drifting over the falls. Make time to be with the special people in your life.
Your significant other needs the same treasure trove of friends and family. Encourage one another to nurture those relationships. Doing so will make the times when everyone comes together that much more special and comfortable.
Yes, you need regular date nights with your partner. But you also need them with yourself.
There are always going to be movies you want to see that he has no interest in. And surely there is a knickers-only golf tournament you want to play in that she will be happy to see photos of.
Take yourself to a patio lunch on a spring day. Go to an art museum and feel your heart swell with appreciation for beauty and talent. Attend an expo on a favorite topic. Pack a picnic and sit by a lake with a favorite book.
If your partner found your company worth having on a date, you should, too.
Learn to love your time alone.
This isn’t about preparing to be alone in the big picture. It’s about nurturing your relationship with yourself so you have more to give — and receive — in your relationship. This extends to the little moments, too — driving to work, working in the yard while your partner works inside, taking a walk by yourself, journaling.
Think of these times as being with yourself, not by yourself. Even that slight shift in perception is a statement of value.
Make self-development a commitment.
Even though you are in a relationship, the only person you have control over is yourself. You hear it all the time, and for good reason. By constantly working on yourself, you bring vitality to your relationship. You also serve as inspiration for your partner, children, family, and friends to do the same.
Keep learning and growing. Take classes that strike your fancy. Keep a self-help book on your nightstand. Journal. Meditate. Consider therapy to unlock any blockages from your past and to give you tools to propel you forward.
Set healthy boundaries up front.
Boundaries are about knowing (and agreeing to) “where I end and you begin.” You can easily tell who has good boundaries and who doesn’t.
Boundaries aren’t about walls, they are about limits that prevent enmeshment and “consuming” one another. Having healthy boundaries starts with a healthy identity and a healthy sense of self. And that starts and is fueled by being comfortable being alone.
When it comes to keeping your identity in a relationship, ask yourself, “If I weren’t in a love relationship with someone else, would I be OK?” The answer needs to be a resounding “Of course!”
Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet offers some of the greatest wisdom about relationships and marriage, including his excerpt from his poem “On Marriage”:– or any relationship for that matter.
“…let there be spaces in your togetherness…
Sing and dance together and be joyous,
but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone
though they quiver with the same music.”
Only by keeping your own identity in a relationship can you work toward wholeness.
Healthy relationships are the product of two people, always striving toward wholeness in themselves, seeking to create something exponentially wonderful together.
This article originally appeared on YourTango.