How To Fall In Love Without Losing Yourself
Proven ways to stay healthy in a new relationship—even if you’ve had codependent tendencies in the past
Daring to fall in love—especially after you’ve lost yourself in the process once before—is a courageous act. And if you are prone to codependency, you must be vigilant about protecting yourself and preserving your energy in a new relationship.
Before realizing I was prone to codependent behavior myself, I lost my sense of identity in all of my romantic relationships. For me, a new love was equivalent to an overflowing schedule, detachment from friends, and decreasing interest in my hobbies. More love meant less me.
Losing your sense of self in a relationship sparks a unique brand of pain. Slowly, insidiously, your social circle shrinks, your alone time whittles away, and you neglect the passions and hobbies that were once so important to you. These subtle injuries to your innermost self pass, often unnoticed, over time. You become a stranger, even to yourself.
When your relationship ends and you return to yourself — perhaps after months, years, or decades of being lost — you feel the pain and displacement of an empty identity and wonder how you got here.
The opportunity for love that causes most people joy and excitement might cause you worry and anxiety. You may wonder, How do I avoid the patterns of my past? How do I fall in love without losing myself?
When I healed sufficiently from my own heartbreak, my heart opened to the prospect of romantic intimacy. Instead of excitement, though, the thought filled me with fear. I had never been in love without losing myself before. How could I ensure that this time would be different?
Luckily, I had spent years studying this very question. I had led hundreds of clients through the process of self-affirmation and guided them through the joys and fears of new love. Using specific mindfulness practices, visioning exercises, and coaching tools, we can bolster our sense of self and stay grounded in the face of new love.
Why Do We Lose Ourselves When We’re Falling in Love?
Scientists have documented the chemical and physiological effects of early romance ad infinitum. Falling in love floods our system with dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for the brain’s reward and pleasure center, as well as the hormone oxytocin, which produces sensations of “contentment, calmness, and security.” In the early stages of a relationship, our bodily chemistry practically mandates preoccupation with our partners.
In healthy relationships, partners eventually settle into a comfortable balance of togetherness and separateness. But sometimes, a preoccupation with our partner becomes a defining characteristic of our relationship. This can be explained by a number of factors:
- Codependency. Codependency is defined as an unhealthy or excessively emotional reliance or psychological dependency on our partners. Characterized by a dysfunctional relationship with the self, codependent folks over-focus on others’ needs and under-focus on their own. They have trouble asserting themselves, difficulty setting boundaries, and they play the role of “martyr” or “savior” in their relationships. Underlying codependent behavior is the subconscious belief that we must manipulate or control others into meeting our needs.
- Anxious attachment. Our attachment styles are determined early in life by the stability of our relationships with our primary caregivers. Anxiously attached individuals generally had childhood caregivers who were inconsistent in attending to their needs. As a result, those who are anxiously attached seek constant security from their partners and perpetually feel that they’re not receiving enough intimacy. Fueled by insecurity and a negative self-concept, they repeatedly anticipate rejection.
- Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). For some, getting lost in others’ emotional worlds is a commonplace occurrence both within and without romantic relationships. HSPs’ brains demonstrate stronger-than-usual activations of “regions involved in awareness, empathy, and self-other processing,” which leads to greater sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment and to social stimuli.
- Limerence. Limerence is “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.” An obsessive state generated by biochemical processes in the brain, limerence generally fades anywhere from 6–24 months into a relationship.
None of these factors — codependency, anxious attachment, limerence, or being an HSP — are lifelong sentences to a lost self. We may be impacted by all of these traits and go on to find balanced, fulfilling relationships that allow our inner selves to flourish.
Realizing that we have a tendency to lose ourselves in our relationships is an opportunity to combat unhealthy habits and enjoy a new way of life. Our challenge is to maintain a sense of self while embracing the joys of falling in love. To erect fluid, healthy boundaries without letting fear turn them into walls. To be conscious of old patterns without becoming hyper-vigilant and letting fear cloud our journey. To stay open to intimacy without becoming amorphous in the process.
There are practical steps you can take to maintain a firm sense of self and stay grounded in the early stages of a love relationship. Combining somatic and psychological approaches, these tactics bolster your sense of identity while keeping you grounded in the present moment. Underlying these practices is the premise that investing in a strong and individuated sense of self is ultimately an investment in the health of your romantic relationship. You cannot have one without the other.
Identify What It Feels Like To Lose Yourself
For me, being lost in someone else is a physical and psychological experience. I liken it to sitting in a dark movie theater while enraptured by a film. The music plays, the bombs burst, and the film reaches its dramatic conclusion. Suddenly, the screen darkens and the lights come up. For the first time in hours, I remember that I’m not the movie; I’ve been watching a movie. I am the audience.
This is exactly how it feels to return to myself after spending an extended period of time lost in thoughts about someone else. In a metaphorical and literal way, I’ve been the audience to their “movie”: their world, their story, their feelings. When I return to myself, I realize I’ve lost touch with my own body, thoughts, and desires.
We lose ourselves in relationships when these moments of homecoming become less and less frequent. The first steps in breaking this destructive pattern are to 1. develop language to describe this feeling, and 2. make a habit out of naming it when it arises.
Conduct a Physical Grounding Exercise
When our minds begin playing runaway train, the most effective and expedient way of returning to ourselves is a physical grounding exercise. Tuning into our bodies re-centers us as the locus of our own experience.
You can deploy a grounding exercise anytime, anywhere. You can do one while you’re sitting across from your partner at dinner, while you’re riding together in the car, or while you’re having sex. They are short, simple, and inconspicuous.
To begin, take a full, deep breath and notice how the air enters and exits your lungs. Feel the pressure of your feet on the ground and your body on the chair or bed. Spread your awareness to the furthest reaches of your body: your toes, your fingertips, your scalp. I enjoy having a mental mantra to accompany my body scan. I say to myself, “I am here.”
Whereas we may have been occupied with our partner before, grounding exercises are a physical reminder to re-center our own feelings. They are as much benefit symbolically as they are physically: a concrete return to the self.
Recollect All That Is Important to You
In the throes of early love, you may feel compelled to prioritize your blossoming romance over your other hobbies or relationships. At first, your interest in this unfamiliar and exciting connection might override your interest in the tasks of daily life. However, if you are prone to losing yourself in relationships, it’s critical that you maintain a healthy balance among your many priorities.
I like to use Paul J. Meyer’s Life Balance Wheel exercise to keep my priorities in perspective. I create a wheel to represent the different “slices” of my life, and rank my current degree of satisfaction with each slice on a scale from 1–10, 10 being “Most Satisfied.” In past relationships, my “Significant Other/Romance” slice was often at a 9 or 10, but other slices — namely, Career, Health & Fitness, and Friends/Community — were lacking.
Conduct the Life Balance Wheel exercise on a regular basis to ensure that you’re nourishing every aspect of your life — not just romance. In raising our satisfaction with other areas of our life, we’re able to bring a happier, more grounded version of ourselves to our relationships, effectively raising the satisfaction of those relationships as a result. Our priorities are harmonious, not competing.
Identify and Challenge Idealization
Idealization is “a psychological or mental process of attributing overly positive qualities to another person or thing.” In the “Honeymoon Phase” of new relationships, it’s not uncommon to idealize our new partners. In this phase, we might “be prone to ignoring red flags,” “magnify our similarities,” and “minimize the differences.” In other words, we’re less likely to focus on our partner’s flaws.
Feeling positive about our partners isn’t a bad thing. Licensed marriage and family therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw points out that “the good memories in the beginning [of a relationship] create a foundation for getting through the curve balls life throws at us down the road.” However, clinging to an idealized image longterm — despite our partner’s demonstrable flaws — makes it more likely that we’ll lose ourselves in our relationships. After all, it’s much easier to lose ourselves in a “perfect person” than an “imperfect” one.
If we believe that our partner is near-perfect, we’re less likely to measure up in comparison. Especially for codependent or anxiously attached individuals, an increasing degree of attachment often corresponds with a decreasing self-concept. Unfortunately, these attitudes often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Studies have shown that “people who feel over-idealized may feel like they have more power in the relationship, so they may be less willing to put their partner first.”
Notice when you put your partner on a pedestal. Keep an eye out for common idealizations like:
- “Stacey is flawless. I can’t imagine a more perfect partner.”
- “I just don’t understand what someone as amazing as John could see in me.”
If you’re prone to idealization, keep a mental list of your partner’s shortcomings — not to create animosity or fuel arguments, but to remind yourself that they, too, are imperfect and flawed. Likewise, keep a mental list of your own positive qualities that you can reflect on when your self-image feels threatened.
Remember: You and your partner are exploring this new territory together. You are on equal footing.
Transform Fast-Forwards into Right-Nows
When I’m in the early stages of love, I sometimes catch myself in fast-forwards: mental movies in which I imagine my relationship years in the future. In the past, I’ve caught myself wondering at what type of father my partner would make, wondering how our careers would align, etc. — all in the first few weeks of a brand-new relationship.
Fast-forwards are totally natural as intimacy develops between two people. After all, many of us seek partnerships with individuals with whom we can eventually build a life. However, premature fast-forwards can be a warning sign that you are projecting unrealistic expectations onto your relationship.
If your relationship is brand new, you probably don’t have all of the information you need about your partner to make an informed decision about your future. Clinging to a fast-forward might mean that you ignore information that disputes this projected future; for example, you may be slow to acknowledge qualities that would normally make you skeptical at your partner’s parenting capabilities.
Codependent or anxiously attached individuals commonly rush the early stages of a relationship, eager for the sense of security that comes from a committed partnership. However, premature fast-forwards disable you from experiencing the slow blossoming of growing intimacy. You must keep an opened and unbiased mind during this information-gathering stage.
If you catch yourself indulging in premature fast-forwards, keep yourself grounded by transforming those fast-forwards into right-nows. Redirect your daydreams about marrying your partner to thoughts about the party you’ll attend together this weekend. Instead of thinking about what you’ll name your kids or what city you’ll move to, recall some steamy intimacy you recently shared or brainstorm where you’d like to go out to dinner this week.
I’ve found the “Stop!” technique helpful in refocusing my attention. A simple tactic common in cognitive behavioral therapy, the stop technique encourages you to say “STOP!” when you catch yourself in obsessive ruminations. I like to imagine a red stop sign that blocks my way to future thoughts. I then redirect my mental attention elsewhere.
The best advice is often the simplest, and in this case, the rule holds true. The best way not to lose yourself in your relationship is to take the relationship slowly — more slowly than you’re accustomed to.
If you have a history of codependency or anxious attachment, it’s likely that your relationships have formed more quickly than others’. You may have come to associate intensity with intimacy.
If this is the case, your expectations for a blossoming relationship might be different than your partner’s. Within weeks, you may expect to spend every weekend with your partner, spend holidays together, or meet his/her parents. I recommend resisting the impulse to rush because:
By going slowly, you can develop a steadily increasing degree of intimacy that feels comfortable for both parties. As I mentioned above, every person has a different conception of how long building a relationship “should” take. A slow build allows both partners to become comfortable with increasing intimacy over time.
If you rush, you might miss critical incompatibilities between you and your partner. Red flags, imperfections, and disagreements reveal themselves over time. Going slow helps you digest new information and react accordingly.
If you rush, your relationship might not feel sustainable. If you crowd out your hobbies and interests with too much partner time, you might quickly feel imbalanced or lost. Moving slowly helps you slowly integrate your partner into your lifestyle instead of substituting your partner for something else.
Meet All of Your Fundamental Needs Without Exception
Have you ever caught yourself saying phrases like this in the early stages of a relationship?
- “Don’t mind the laundry; I’ll do it tomorrow.”
- “Let’s order takeout; I can go to the store next weekend.”
- “I should get my 8 hours of sleep, but staying up with you is too much fun!”
- “I can’t really afford this trip, but I’m too excited!”
Sound familiar? Here’s the deal: if we sacrifice our needs at the beginning of a relationship, doing so can quickly become a rule instead of an exception. Like all habits, this can be a difficult one to break.
As Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs describes, we cannot reach self-actualization until we tend to our basic needs: food, shelter, sleep, etc. In this regard, basic self-care is a necessary pre-requisite for a strong sense of self.
To hold yourself accountable for maintaining your basic needs, make a list of your non-negotiables: the activities you must do to feel healthy and stable. Mine are:
- Eight hours of sleep each night
- Daily shower & hygiene
- Good-for-me meals
- Apartment clean before leaving for the day
- Weekly trips to the grocery store
- 12-step meetings
When we invest in our own health, we invest in the health of our relationship. The partners who are best for us will want us to take care of ourselves. In fact, the healthiest partners find a commitment to self-care attractive!
Do Not Break or Reschedule Plans to Suit Your Partner’s Schedule
Calling out of work to drive your partner to the ER is one thing; bailing on your girlfriends’ movie night to go out to ice cream with your boyfriend is another. When our love relationships are exciting and new, we might be tempted to prioritize them above else. Don’t.
Every time we break or reschedule plans to accommodate our partner’s schedule, we imply: “time with my partner is more important than everything else, including my own needs.”
Remember: Focusing energy on yourself will not harm your relationship. In fact, it will benefit your relationship by allowing you to show up healthily, happily, and strong.
Communicate to Your Partner How S/He Can Support Your Individuation
Sharing with your partner your commitment to maintain a strong sense of self is not an admission of failure — it is a statement of vulnerability and strength. Though you are ultimately responsible for maintaining your own identity in your relationship, your partner can be a valuable ally on your journey.
Setting boundaries with your partner is one way of opening a dialogue and conveying your needs for space, time, and support. You might explain that you would like to take things slow. You might set boundaries around how often you see each other or communicate the pace at which you’d like to take your sexual relationship.
Perhaps you request that your partner demonstrate greater interest in your passions or suggest that you and your partner spend more time with your friends or participating in your hobbies.
If you’re used to “riding shotgun” in your relationship and letting your partner direct the show, this may feel awkward at first. Proceed anyhow. This is an invaluable step toward individuation and balance. Remember: You are your partner are on a team. As you build your relationship together, it is your responsibility to directly communicate your needs.
Trust Your Journey
As I wrote in “When Healing Becomes Perfectionism”,
The final stage in my [codependency recovery] journey was to trust that my many hours of healing had made an impact. I thought back to the hundreds of incremental steps I’d taken — the boundaries I’d set, the self-love I’d shown, the healthy relationships I’d built, and the revelations I’d had — and the subsequent results I’d seen. Every reminder of my progress sparked a wave of relief. Every reminder was a taste of freedom from my cage of brokenness. I was rediscovering self-love by way of self-trust.
With intention and action, humans can create incredible change. Even our most deeply-embedded habits are mutable. We can recover from codependency. We can alter our attachment styles from anxious to secure. We are capable of forming healthy, balanced relationships that celebrate, instead of bury, our authentic selves. Developing and maintaining a strong sense of self is like working a muscle. The more you practice, the easier it gets.
The funny thing is, you can have your cake and eat it too. You can be in a wild, loving, romantic, out-of-this-world relationship and maintain a vibrant, lively, unique sense of self. The two are not at odds. In fact, in order to have one, you must have the other.