You know her. You might be her. The smart, successful woman who, before she had a husband and family, had a million different interests, healthy social life and a firm sense of self. That same smart, successful woman who, after she landed a partner, became a shadow of her former self.
Being in love and in a mutually fulfilling relationship that makes your heart sing and all those other romcom clichés is the stuff of… well, romcom clichés. This ability to immerse yourself in your partner, family and your relationship speaks to the romantic and idealist in us all.
But how deep is too deep? And why is it that women, typically more so than men, seem to lose themselves in love and motherhood? Is it because we are the ones who grow up on a diet of fairy tales about Prince Charming and fervent wishes to meet The One? Because every fantasy white wedding dress speaks directly to the souls of women? Because we are fed ideals of selfless motherhood?
Probably all this and more, starting with biology. Women are literally more sensitive than men and traditionally less independent; a dangerous combination when introduced into the heady context of romance.
In the book, Brain Sex, authors Anne Moir and David Jessel use neuroscientific data to posit that the female brain is simply “organised to respond more sensitively to all sensory stimuli”. Then you factor in historical media messages about love and romance, cultural and familial conditioning, and you have a melting pot of potent indicators.
Gone baby, gone
This loss of identity is so commonplace it, of course, has a name. She’s called “the disappearing woman” – the woman who lives vicariously through the validation that a relationship and family offers.
In her book Loving Him without Losing You, author and psychoanalyst Beverly Engel writes, “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, they 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.”
Of course, motherhood can make the situation far more intense, as a woman’s personal feelings and needs are subsumed not only by her relationship but by those of her baby and family’s.
What’s disturbing is how early on in life this pattern can take hold. Last year a study by the University of New Mexico surveyed over 5,300 high school students and found that romantic relationships were hugely important to the girls’ identities and how they felt about themselves.
The study, aptly titled Caught in a Bad Romance, published its findings in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour. Worryingly, the research suggests that girls suffer more with mental health issues stemming from unmet expectations from failed relationships. Boys on the other hand, says the study, “are more likely to build their identities around sports or other extracurricular activities”, and are therefore far less affected when a relationship fails.
The female psyche, say scientists, is a delicate thing. Women have “thinner boundaries” than men, and this allows us to become deeply and rapidly involved in relationships, leading to the loss of one’s self, says Dr Ernest Hartmann in his book, Boundaries in the Mind.
By and large, transference – seeking the love that we never had as babies or children – plays a very significant role in the syndrome. The popular book Women Who Love Too Much by Robin Norwood sets out substantial research that speaks to this claim. In various case studies, the author demonstrates how one or both parents were either emotionally or physically unavailable, leading to a neediness in the female child.
“Parenting is crucial in helping develop that innate sense of self,” says Dubai clinical psychologist, Dr Saliha Afridi.
“A branch of psychology asserts that it is during adolescence that a sense of self develops. If this is hindered in any way, the person is stuck in a place of role confusion. That stage is followed by the need for intimacy.
“Today, women get such mixed messages about what society expects of them in their gender roles. Even though we have moved further along in our ideas about women in society, some things are still very much the same: girls should be sweet, polite, accommodating — which translates into their adult relationships as them losing their sense of self/identity.”
Cultural expectations certainly have a lot to answer for. Even now, historically conservative cultures still place an emphasis on the dominance of the male personality in a relationship.
“This syndrome is quite common in the UAE, and particularly here in Dubai,” confirms Dr Afridi. “Lots of clients suffer from this loss of identity, especially because we have a very ‘show thyself’ versus ‘know thyself’culture.”
A 2014 study found that young Emirati women were having doubts about studying abroad due to the fear that they would be stigmatised as Western – hindering their chances of finding a husband at home.
But, ultimately, the onus for self-esteem, confidence and responsibility lies with the individual. “Maintaining a sense of self cannot come before having a sense of self,” stresses Dr Afridi.
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Me, myself and I
This lesson of self was a hard-earned one for Salma*, a 33-year-old accountant. “I never thought I’d become one of those woman – someone whose life would come to revolve around a relationship. Now that I’m out of it, I feel like it happened to another person,” she says. What started as a normal friendship, morphing into a romantic relationship, quickly turned into a loss of independence and identity for Salma.
“From the beginning, my relationship with Sameer* was difficult. We liked each other a lot but we had very little in common. I loved travelling, he liked raucous weekends with friends. We both read voraciously, but I was addicted to non-fiction and he liked sci-fi. But we got along well and had healthy, independent lives.”
When Sameer proposed and she accepted, says Salma, is where it all went wrong. Their differences grew more glaring and they argued constantly, about everything from wedding venues to politics. Desperate to find commonality, Salma immersed herself in his interests.
This was also fuelled by a gnawing realisation that this wasn’t where she was supposed to be or who she was supposed to be with. “And I think he felt it too. It’s just that we were at that stage of our lives. All our friends were engaged or married. If not this, what then?” Salma threw herself into making the relationship work, by doing exactly what the experts always advise against: losing her identity.
Invitations to hang out with girlfriends came and went, and eventually stopped altogether. Social events or after-hours activities with colleagues were unheard of. She read the same books he did and took up an interest in motoring shows.
“I did disappear, completely,” she admits. “My identity was too closely tied up in keeping up with my friends and where they were in their lives at that moment.
“It was a cultural thing too. At 28, in the Indian community, you should be married. The problem is when it’s not what you want but you’ve convinced yourself otherwise, so of course you lose yourself and your way.”
When the relationship inevitably burn out, Salma remembers that resonant feeling: no life to go back to.
“My friends had given up on me. I was totally alone for the first time in two years and I had no idea how to reconcile myself to… myself.
“It took me a long time to relearn who I was, what I wanted, what I enjoyed. I remember one night ordering Hawaiian pizza and I had a little mini-breakdown when I realised that I hadn’t eaten Hawaiian pizza for a year because Sameer didn’t like pineapples! It just all hit me at once how I had completely lost myself.”
You absolutely cannot suppress your identity, needs and wants for the sake of someone else, says Dr Afridi. Giving over your life to a relationship in the hope that it will flourish is actually the antithesis of what makes it positive.
Last year a revealing study by the University of California’s Family Studies Centre surveyed 1,500 couples who had been together for more than five years. Among six common characteristics that made their relationships so successful lay two facts: they shared fundamental values and goals and supported each other’s individual interests and activities.
Love is great. Being in love, even more so. And there is absolutely no reason not to live like you’re starring in your own romantic comedy.
But there is every reason to be your own strong, assertive, independent female lead… as Carrie Bradshaw quipped in Sex and the City, “If two souls have only one thought between them, something is very wrong.”
QUIZ: HOW HEALTHY IS YOUR IDENTITY?
• Is it important that others always see you in the best possible light? Do you have a different personality on social media so that people view you positively?
• Do know what you want in relationships, your likes, dislikes and boundaries?
• Are you able to spend time alone without feeling depressed or lonely?
• Do you see your friends or family on your own or always with a partner?
If any of these questions have made you pause, it might be time for some serious self-reflection. “If you don’t have a sense of self, what makes you unique, and how to function as an independent human being – outside the roles that people place on you – then you are going to be unhappy,” says Dr Afridi.
“You will feel unfulfilled and always fear that your life was half lived. At its most extreme, a loss of identity in a relationship can actually be an indicator of borderline personality disorder, wherein a lack of a sense of self results in emotional, interpersonal, and self-esteem volatility.”