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Because of the book project I’m working on The New I Do, I had heard from Melissa of The Long Haul Project, a young couple who, “on a journey to save our marriage,” have been meeting married couples around the globe and recording their secrets to marital happiness.

So I read through their blog and came upon an interesting post, in which Melissa describes a recent trip she took on her own (my emphasis):

We’ve fallen into gender stereotypes when we’re out together. He always pays at restaurants or the grocery store for some reason, even though we share a bank account and the money is coming from the same source. If anything breaks (electronic or otherwise) I don’t bother trying to figure out what’s wrong with it. I just call for Tom and he fixes it in seconds.

While it’s lovely to have such a smart, reliable husband who takes care of me, I worry that my independence has eroded. I come from a long line of not-so-independent women, and I feel like I’m fighting against a genetic “dependence default.” Traveling on my own reminds me that I’m capable and connects me to the importance of carving out time for myself.   

Yes, I know that woman all too well, the wife whose “independence has eroded.” Mine did, too, because I had given up so much of myself; I just didn’t realize it until my second marriage was in trouble. But, why? It certainly was never asked or expected of me. No one told me to stop doing many of the things I enjoyed, but I did anyway.

When it comes to losing themselves in relationships, women seem to do that best. There are literally dozens of self-help books on the topic. Psychoanalyst Beverly Engel, author of Loving Him Without Losing Yourself, calls it the Disappearing Woman — what happens when women lose track of what they believe in, what they stand for, what’s important to them and what makes them happy just because they happen to be in a relationship with someone they love. Writes Engel:

No matter how successful, assertive, or powerful some women are, the moment they become involved with a man they begin to give up part of themselves — their social life, their time alone, their spiritual practice, their beliefs and values. In time, these women find they have merged their lives with their partners’ to the point where they have no life to go back to when and if the relationship ends.

Maybe that’s why when many women divorce, it feels so freeing. Suddenly, they have time to return to the things they love or find new ones. There’s no one to tell them not to do that, even if it’s their own voice inside their head that’s been telling them. They don’t have to please anyone other than themselves. And, of course, that independence, vitality and renewed passions are exactly the things that make her attractive to someone new.

So why aren’t we doing that in the relationships we already have?

Because we think we’re being nice. Actually, we’re being anything but nice — to ourselves and to our partner.

By tossing away our own passions and interests, women lose their authenticity. “She’ll pretend to agree when she doesn’t really agree, she’ll go along with things she doesn’t really believe in, and if she does that long enough, she’ll no longer know what she feels,” Engel says.

There can be no truly happy outcome to that.

And, the more we give up of ourselves, the less we are the woman our sweetie was attracted to in the first place, says Sherry Argov in Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl — A Woman’s Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship. “The nice girl thinks she’s giving up something to get something better in return. She gives up control over her own life. When the time comes for her to get what she expected, she winds up disappointed. In addition to being empty-handed, she’s depleted.”

We find ourselves in this dilemma because many women have been brought up to see a romantic partnership as the main event of their life, or so argues author and critic bell hooks. How many women do you know who will break plans or give up a favorite activity for a guy? Not that it’s not OK to do that from time to time or for certain situations; it’s just that somehow in the togetherness of coupledom too many women forget to have a life of our own. Instead, we look to our partner to fulfill all our needs — and get frustrated and resentful when he doesn’t. Then we see the problem as something wrong with him, and not us.

Now, we’ve made him the heavy. “You feel unfulfilled because you’re not being yourself, and it’s a burden for a guy to feel like he’s the center of your life,” the late therapist Martha Baldwin Beveridge writes in Loving Your Partner Without Losing Your Self.

Can a divorce be far behind?

But perhaps times are changing; in a survey last year of 5,200 singles, more women than men in a committed relationship said they “need personal space” and want nights out solo.

I can only hope they actually act on it.

  • Have you lost yourself in a relationship? Why?

14 Responses to “Why do women lose themselves in love?”

  1. nathan says:

    It’s interesting. I seem to keep dating women on the opposite end of the spectrum. They are deeply aware of the pitfalls of the “merging with partner” narrative, and have experienced it in the past, and so now they’ve created major walls to intimacy and commitment. Instead of a partnership, they want total freedom and whenever things get too close, they either go off running, or turn up the testing heat.

    I say this as a man who wants to be with a partner who doesn’t give up interests, or friendships to be with me. Furthermore, I’m deeply committed to my spiritual path, and want a partner who either is as well, or is interested in doing so. Not because I do am, but out of a personal motivation. In other words, I’m not interested in merging, or being with someone who feels they have to please me all the time.

    Perhaps there is a generational element here. I’m 36 and have been dating women between 30-40. But it just seems to me like so many of us are out of balance. What you write about above is all too common, and what I am experiencing seems to be getting more common as well.

  2. Melissa
    Twitter: longhaulproject
    says:

    Enjoyed reading this post and thanks for the reference to my blog. I wonder how much of women losing independence in relationships is influenced by the role model we had for marriage in our parents, especially our Mothers? I often feel caught between two words– the type of modern marriage that I want for myself and the more “traditional” model of marriage that I grew up with.

    My Mother built her life around her family, losing herself to such an extent that I’m not sure she ever bounced back from my brother and I growing up and leaving home. Her identity was wife and mother to the exclusion of so much else. I always knew this wasn’t the kind of life that I wanted, but I wonder if that idea of what marriage “should” be is ingrained somewhere deep inside from my upbringing.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles
      says:

      Melissa — Thanks for commenting. Our parents do provide our first model of marriage and so I don’t doubt that model remains ingrained in us. I think it must be more, though, that whole “nice” thing women are taught. I think your struggle — modern vs. traditional marriage — is one many women struggle with; we don’t have enough of a satisfying history of modern marriage (life-work, equal partners, etc.) to feel fully confident in it. We’ll get there one day …

  3. It’s history, not just our mothers. It goes tback forever. Staying yourself and independent is an idea that has a lot of history to overcome.

  4. Don says:

    Your articule is interesting and no doubt true but the exact same perdicument is true for guys as well as women. If you think this only happens to women or even that it happens more to women than men, I think you wrong. Men loose parts of themselves as well. Don

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles
      says:

      I’m sure men give up interests and passions, too. But (sorry to put a but in there!), a good part of the loss for women comes from her caregiving role in the family and the (often) loss/adjustment of career that goes along with it. The idea that you should be marrying your best friend (I have one of those already, thanks; I don’t want to marry her!) puts pressure on that partnership to be everything for her — soul mate, partner, confidante, travel buddy, etc. It’s a heavy burden for one person to bear. Thanks for writing.

    • Jean ( Valley Wildkitten) says:

      I have found that many times, when a woman comes to a blog for men, the men jump all over that woman, label her as a troll, and scold and demean her for giving her opinion, but I won’t do that to the men who come here to this blog to give their male points of view. I will just give my comment and move on.
      Further, I find this article so on point that it’s as if the author interviewed many women, including me, and got our points of view. It is so true what the article revealed. Women do, comply and do as we are told, by anyone and many times, everyone. Yes we do obey everyone, except our ownselves. The article expresses what exactly what I feel, but could not put into words myself.
      Generally speaking, we as women are guilty of depriving ourselves for the sake of our husbands, boyfriends , and others. We even spoil out dads and inlaws, because we have been told to. An example is, we can be in hard labor, uncomfortable, trying to have our peace and privacy, but our husband will want his dad and mom, to stand at our vagina and watch the baby emerge. As an exposed woman, we will want autonomy, but some of us women would actually give in to our husband’s wishes and allow his parents to violate our birth space. Some people will have told us that we are being selfish, if we ask for privacy. Amazing, isn’t it? That is how brainwashed we as women in general are. From what I see, this obedience to others is because:

      1) Women have been put down and scolded by men and so called Christian counselors on the internet, that tell us that Scripture wants us to exalt a man, no matter how sinful he is and no matter how abusive he may be to us.
      2) Women (not men) have that the “people pleasing” trait, that either was taught by our parents or it is inborn in us.
      3) Women are told that if we do not please and kiss up to our husbands/boyfriends and give them anything they want on demand, that they will cheat on us and so kiss up, exalt and bow down. Also if we do not exalt others, that we are selfish.
      4) When some of our men act spoiled, pouty, arrogant, narcissistic, then shut down and get all quiet on us. We are told that we caused this bad behavior and that we need to forget about ourselves while we beg up and worship these men.

      In conclusion, maybe if some wise, strong women could help all weak, brainwashed women to learn how to love themselves, to recognize how foolish we are for putting others ahead of ourselves, to open our eyes and see how others are treating us, take part in “love yourself” therapy classes, and last, but not least, read articles like this one, regularly, that ministers to our downtrodden spirits, then maybe, maybe, we could see a change where women begin to love themselves and not worship a man and others, only God!! Women need help.

      • OMGchronicles
        Twitter: OMGchronicles
        says:

        Jean, thanks for stopping by and for your kind words.
        I do think men can be people pleasers, too (one of my sons is — OMG, did he get that from me??!!??), and I don’t mean the ones who “Yes, dear” everything. Still, I agree many more women don’t know how to speak up for themselves (and it can be in a kind and loving way vs. being a b*tch) and are not good at being direct and setting boundaries.
        You are spot-on about women needing to love themselves first; we are our most authentic when we can embrace who we are instead of seeking validation from others. Just like we need to put our air mask on first in an airplane in case of an emergency before we help our child, we need to honor our health — mental and physical — before we care for those we love.

  5. Gary says:

    As an old-school married guy, it was a sobering experience after 31 years together with my wife to read Ms. Larson’s piece on being “Lost” and see myself at every turn. In fact, you could take each “woman,” “women” or “wife” reference in the article and replace it with “man,” “men” or “husband” and get a picture that is every bit as accurate. I knew something wasn’t quite right all these years but just couldn’t put my finger on it.

    The decisions I made that resulted in my “losing” myself were made unilaterally: Not once did She ask me or tell me to quit being the airplane-flying, motorcycle-riding outdoorsman with a zest for life that knew no end. I just did it.

    I’m trying to change all that now, but find myself buried with a profound sense of guilt if I so much as think about resurrecting the old me. Yeah, I know. I’ve got issues. Fortunately, I know our marriage doesn’t have to end so that I can be “free.”

    I remain a “work-in progress.” Thank you, Vicki, for your insight. You definitely gave me some.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles
      says:

      Hi Gray, Thanks for commenting.
      I hope you are able to resurrect the “old you,” and I hope your wife will be supportive of your efforts. Maybe after 31 years, that’s just what the marriage needs!
      If only we could be supportive from the get-go; but that would require being honest from the get-go, and if we shift priorities and give up passions before even addressing it, we’ll never know. Good luck!

  6. PJ says:

    Women fall into love easily and out of love more easily (see who initiates divorce, etc.). You can’t justifiably talk about women losing themselves in love without looking at the inverse – women easily falling out of love. They seem to fall hard one way then the other & have a hard time committing in the long term.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles
      says:

      PJ — Actually, the studies indicate men say “I love you” first. I’m not so sure women are unable to commit for the long-term; I do believe that after the kids are raised and off on their own (assuming she’s a mom), she feels like it’s time for her, to put herself first. As I wrote in the HuffPo, Why Women Walk Out More Than Men, many women decide they will not put up with their hubby’s “bad behavior” (not my term, but the National Marriage Project’s).

  7. KELLI2L says:

    I have always kept my personality and individuality in marriage, which led to a divorce or two – however, because I kept myself intact I didn’t feel cheated by divorce – just stupid that I didn’t get the partner I needed. Till my last marriage ;-)

    P.S. = I have never felt guilty about divorce, it’s necessary. It’s the only way you can get the life YOU need; and you only get ‘one’ life to live….

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles
      says:

      Thanks for writing, KELLI2L. Funny (not really, but) that keeping your personality and individuality led to divorce. Relationships, of course are about compromise and give and take, and you really do need a good partner with whom to do that. Seems like you found that, more proof that divorce isn’t a “failure.” Good luck!

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