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Wellness > Sex + Relationships

How to Stay Independent While in a Relationship

You and your S.O. are the perfect match: You share the same hobbies, love the same foods, and may even be in some of the same classes. He or she makes you laugh like no other, and it feels like you get each other in a way nobody else understands. You love spending time with him or her, from sunup to sundown. The two of you just can’t stay away from each other!

But sometimes, you wish you had a bit more time for yourself. You don’t really go to the gym anymore and you haven’t seen your bestie in ages, and you’ve basically stopped trying to catch up on that show you love. You’re starting to miss the person you used to be, but you’re afraid to branch out on your own for fear of hurting your relationship. What are you supposed to do?

If you’re feeling like you and your S.O. are becoming the same person or living the same life, then it’s probably time to regain your sense of self.

Healthy commitment or unhealthy attachment?

While it’s good to be close to your partner, completely losing yourself in him or her is not the best idea.

“There [are] healthy attachments and then there [are] unhealthy attachments,” says licensed professional clinical counselor Jeffrey Sumber. “Somebody with an unhealthy attachment is going to need their partners to make themselves feel better, make them feel loved or make them feel whole.”

Kate Travis, a freshman at the University of Wisconson-Stout, knows what it feels like to rely on someone so much. “I encountered this very problem in my first semester of college,” she says. “My boyfriend was the only person I knew from my hometown that went to UW-Stout, so whenever I felt homesick or wanted a break from stress, I relied on him.”

Sumber says that it’s okay to have someone to reach for when you’re in a time of need, but that the difference between a healthy attachment and an unhealthy one is that in a healthy attachment, we don’t need the other person all the time. For Kate, this realization came the hard way. “It got to the point in which we almost broke up due to him starting to feel like I was too dependent on him,” she says.

What are the signs of an unhealthy attachment? Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist (who goes by Dr. Ramani), says that they occur when we start regulating our needs through the other person in our relationship.

“You eat when he eats, you drink when he drinks,” she explains. “You feel the need to check in with the other person before doing anything, even things that you would ordinarily do without making such a fuss about it, like spending time with friends.”

Other signs of an unhealthy attachment are changing your clothing choices to suit your SO’s preferences, giving up exercise to fit his or her schedule, or even choosing a job or a graduate program in their city so that you can stay close to them. While it’s okay to do some of these things to show that your relationship is important to you, the trouble comes with the reasoning behind these decisions. Are you doing them because they will better you as a person or are you doing them because you’re afraid that your relationship won’t survive if you don’t?

Remember your S.O. likes you for who you are

Ironically, instead of saving your relationship, those very behaviors can lead to its demise. While our individuality is of course affected when we’re seeing someone, Sumber says that losing too much of ourselves can actually make us less attractive to our partners.

“Who you are is inevitably going to grow and change in a relationship with somebody else,” he says. “And yet, it’s your individuality – the parts of you that are inherently you – that the person in the relationship is drawn to you for.”

Your partner started to go out with you because of who you are. Your unusual quirks and the weird things that made you tick sparked something in his or her heart. Completely changing ourselves and who we are to be more like our partners can end up ruining our relationships, because the parts of us that they liked are no longer there.

Recognize the need to change

If you do feel like you’ve gotten too caught up in your partner and his or her life, there are some things you can do to regain your sense of self.

First, you have to be ready and willing to do so. Becoming aware that there’s something you need to work on is already a big step. “It is very common to be totally consumed by a relationship in the beginning,” says Lesli Doares, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Being able to step back and look at yourself as a whole person with goals, dreams, desires and fears of your own is critical.”

How can you tell if you’re too caught up in your partner’s life? Sumber offers a very simple way to determine this. “Something to be wary about is when you stop enjoying being by yourself,” he says. “That’s a really important sign to watch for.”

Ask yourself this question: Do I still enjoy spending time by myself? If the answer is ‘no,’ then it may be time to start separating yourself from your partner. And don’t worry; there are ways to do this without feeling like you’re completely pulling away from him or her.

Speak up to your partner

If you’re feeling like you and your S.O. are becoming the same person, then it’s probably a good idea to talk to him or her about it.

Find a time when you and your partner are relaxed and able to listen, and explain to him or her as clearly as possible that you feel you might be losing yourself because of the relationship. Explain that you feel as if your lives are becoming one, and that you’d like to get some of your old self back.

“Having a conversation about what’s important to you and why (and how you would like to make room to include your partner) is a good way to take ownership of your needs and keep the relationship in mind,” says Doares.

Make sure to frame your words in a way that expresses your concern while keeping your S.O.’s feelings in mind. Try using “I statements” so that he or she doesn’t feel blamed or accused: “I feel like I don’t take time for my favorite hobbies anymore,” or “I need some time each day to do an activity that I love on my own.” Starting your sentences with “I” puts you at the center of the conversation, and avoids putting your S.O. on the defensive.

Communication is at the heart of every healthy relationship. “Being able to talk with your partner about expanding your activities – both together and apart – is important,” Doares continues. “If you cannot have this open conversation, then there is already trouble in the relationship.”

Your partner should be supportive and willing to help you individuate yourself to make the relationship better for you both. If they are not willing to support you, or to even have this conversation, then it may be time to reconsider whether this relationship is the right thing for you.

Take small steps toward being more independent

If you’re feeling uncomfortable about distancing yourself from your partner, then it’s a good idea to start off with baby steps.

Are there any times during the day when you and your partner are not in contact? If so, do something you enjoy for yourself. Make a your favorite snack, watch that new show you’ve been curious about or take out your iPod and shuffle that old playlist. Do something to take your mind off your partner. This will help you be more comfortable with spending time by yourself, without feeling the need to text your S.O. every other second.

Once you’re okay with having alone time when you’re naturally away from your partner, you can start to actively create times when you and your S.O. will be apart. Dr. Ramani suggests creating “ground rules,” such as making sure to exercise alone or refusing to have your S.O. pick you up from class, to help establish boundaries. “Sometimes, this is a good time to start taking a new class or joining an organization, because that becomes a built-in group of people with whom you may have a shared sense of purpose,” she explains.

Rachel Petty, a sophomore at James Madison University, found that setting boundaries worked for her. “My boyfriend and I each do our own things,” she says. “He’ll watch football with the guys and I’ll have a girls night in. It gives us time with our friends and a little break from each other!”

Taking time away from your S.O. will make you treasure the time you do spend with him or her. And think of all the interesting stories you’ll be able to tell about your day! You can’t do that if you and your partner are attached at the hip 24/7.

Reconnect with friends and family

As you become a part of your partner’s life more and more, your relationships with other people may fall by the wayside. It’s really important for you to maintain your sense of self by having your own friends and seeing them regularly.

“Making sure you have time to do the things that make you who you are is key, but so is carving out time to call your folks and your friends that you’ve known since childhood,” Sumber says. “You need to stay connected to the people that will, in the end, be there for you if this relationship fails.”

Reach out to friends you haven’t seen since you and your S.O. started dating. Call your parents and other close relatives, too. “The most important people all need to find room in your relationship,” says Doares. Plus, keeping in touch with your family can help you feel like you have a solid identity that isn’t dependent on your partner.

If you recognize that most of your friends are mutual friends with your S.O., then you might want to try adding some new friends to your social circle. When you take the initiative to do some new activities on your own, whether it’s joining a book club or taking a cooking class, make an effort to get to know the people you meet. Having friends who share your hobbies will not only make them more fun to participate in, but it will also reinforce the sense that you are, indeed, your own person.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Learning how to separate from someone you’ve become so attached to can be difficult. Sometimes, it’s a task much too big for us to do alone.

It’s always a good idea to get help if you need it. Dr. Ramani says to definitely reach out to close family members, like a parent or a sibling, whom you really trust. “Start there, because those are the unconditional people that had your back even when you weren’t showing up because you were being so dependent on your partner,” she says. Explain to them your situation and ask for their help by saying something like, “I got too deep in this, and I really need to start getting out.”

If you’re in so deep that you’re thinking of making serious life choices (like getting a job or moving to a new city) based solely on your S.O., then you may need to see someone who’s trained to help in situations like these. Dr. Ramani recommends visiting a counselor. “They will help take you through the step-by-step process of gaining more independence and autonomy,” she says.

Reach out to your school’s counseling center and meet with someone to help you through this. And if you can find a support group, then join it! It’s great to talk with others who can share your experiences (and hold you accountable to becoming better). You may even make a new friend.

There are also great books that you can read to learn about how to create healthy attachments in your life. Sumber recommends Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson, which provides templates for seven conversations to have with your partner to create a stronger, healthier emotional attachment.

It’s easy to forget ourselves when we’re caught up in the hormones of new love. Thankfully, we can take a step back and regain our footing if we stray too far off the path. “It’s wonderful to spend time with your partner, as long as it feels balanced, where you can also have time for yourself,” Sumber says.

There’s nothing wrong with connecting with another person. It’s one of the most essential parts of being human, and it’s a very beautiful thing. But it’s important to remember that you are also a beautiful person, and your individuality is a tremendous gift. A relationship should complement you, not complete you. Don’t let go of the things that make you who you are; that’s what drew your partner to you in the first place.

Jaya is a passionate wordsmith who spends way too much money on books. Eventually she decided that to become a writer she should probably stop reading so much and actually, you know, write something. She hopes that her words make a lasting impact on readers.