Staying in Love While Staying Yourself

A lot of couples talk to me about their struggles to stay close to each other in a way that feels vital and intimate. At the same time, they may also complain about a feeling of sacrifice or a way they’re having to compromise and give up certain aspects of themselves to be in the relationship. The reality is that these two things often go hand in hand. The more we give up important pieces of ourselves, the less energy we’re often putting into our relationship. And on the flip side, the more distant we are in our relationship, the more disconnected we may feel from an important part of ourselves. In order to have a lasting and lively sense of connection, we must continually challenge our own defenses that keep us from pursuing what we want in life, and for most of us that includes closeness with a partner.

Bringing someone into our lives calls on us to make space for that person and to consider their happiness as well as our own. However, trouble can arise when our old defense systems get up and running. We may start to hit roadblocks in our relationships that lead us to feel bored, resentful, and longing for a seemingly abandoned sense of self. The good news is, many of these blocks reside in us alone, and we have the power to start breaking them down. When we do, we open up a door to not only feel closer to our partner but closer to who we are and what we want. Here are three things I like to focus on when working with people on their relationships:

1. Identify Your Defenses

No one’s path to finding love is unspoiled. We all experience pain along the way that helps inform how we expect people and relationships to work. From the moment we’re born, we’re adapting to our environment. We start building both our own identity and our understanding of others from how we are seen and treated by our parents or other important caretakers. We learn the best way to get our needs met based on how our parents respond to us and the attachment pattern we form with them.

Unfortunately, not all of these lessons are good ones. An early lack of emotional connection and attunement may teach us to bury our needs or take care of ourselves. Inconsistencies or resentments expressed by our parents can leave us feeling anxious, insecure, or unlovable. Emotional hunger from a parent can cause us to feel drained and hesitant to let someone get too close to us.

Of course, no person (or parent) is perfect. As children, we absorb so much of how our caretakers treat us, treat themselves, and treat their partners.  In trying to make sense of the world, we adopt ways of being that don’t always serve us or represent who we truly are.

Getting to know what adaptations we made and what psychological defenses we harbor can transform our adult relationships. It can help explain our fears around intimacy, our insecurities around dating, our tendencies to pull away, or our desperation toward someone who eludes us. It may help us understand why we react to certain triggers from our partner, why we pick fights about certain subjects, and why we have trouble trusting and staying vulnerable.

Understanding our defenses is work we can do for ourselves, whether we’re single or in a relationship. It’s something we can gain ground on by looking at our attachment history and creating a coherent narrative of our experience. By being open to the ways we limit ourselves based on old adaptations, we can start creating new ways of being that reflect the realities of our present circumstances rather than the shadows of our past.

2. Acknowledge Your Fears of Intimacy

Because we’ve all been hurt in various ways, we all have fears around intimacy. While we may say we want to find love or be in a long-term relationship, we may find ourselves pulling away in subtle and unsubtle ways that don’t even fully make sense to us. Our fears around love can have a lot to do with a fear of being vulnerable and not wanting to get hurt again. Feeling loved in the present can also stir up old memories of not feeling loved in the past. This can create a sort of “identity crisis,” as having someone express love toward us can directly contradict the negative beliefs we’ve built about ourselves throughout our entire lives. 

Even as we feel the joy of falling in love, we often feel a sense of fear at something deep and not entirely understood being challenged. Most of us are not fully conscious of or willing to face these fears head on. Instead, we may start to notice ourselves becoming a little more critical toward our partner or insecure in our relationship. We may feel compelled to pull on them, or we may feel pulled on by them. Whether we’re pushing or pulling, we’re creating a distance that, while probably unpleasant, is actually more familiar to us based on our personal history. We may not realize it, but we’re acting on a fear that tells us we’ll be safer if we don’t let another person get too close.

3. Resist Turning to Fantasy

When we first fall in love, we’re often taking a leap out of our comfort zone, and we tend to be our most open and exhilarated as a result. Because we’re aware that we are one whole and independent person getting close to another whole and independent person, we tend to take more chances and to be generous toward our partner. We may feel like we’re growing in the relationship, both in our love for each other and within ourselves. This growth never has to end, but often, as a relationship progresses, we start to lose a sense of autonomy as well as connection. This can coincide with us starting to see ourselves as an extension of our partner or our partner as an extension of ourselves.

In doing this, we run the risk of shrinking our worlds and closing off more and more. We may fall into routine and stop sharing as many things with our partner in a present and personal way. We may also stop doing as many of the independent things that lit us up and made us who we are. When a couple enters what my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, terms a “Fantasy Bond,” they start to replace substantive, loving actions with the form of being a couple. The practicalities and routines remain, but the liveliness starts to fizzle. 

To avoid this fantasy connection, it’s important to keep taking loving actions that our partner would experience as loving, to continue to be affectionate, make eye contact, and take time to really ask how the other person is doing. It’s essential to keep doing the things that make us feel alive and in love, but to also keep trying new things both independently and as a couple. This includes breaking routines and seeking out the things that light us up. 

All of this may sound easier said than done, but as we explore the ways we’ve replaced real acts of love with an illusion of safety that comes with the fantasy of being one with our partner, the more we can get back to seeing that person separate from ourselves and appreciating them for what they offer to our lives. The result is an equal exchange of love and respect, one that not only enhances the relationship but enhances who we are as individuals.

To learn more about psychological defenses, fear of intimacy, and the fantasy bond, join me for the webinar “How to Go ‘All in’ in a Relationship.”

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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One Comment

Najmul Hasan

Living together is quite common on the Western society. Does this mean that there is no True Love but simply sharing our needs.

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