‘Who will I be if I’m no longer with my partner?’ The tricky business of marriage and identity

November 21, 2018
‘Who will I be if I’m no longer with my partner?’ The tricky business of marriage and identity

Over the course of a long relationship, it’s normal for our self-perception to get shaped by being part of a couple. Here’s some context that will help you work through this complicated aspect of uncoupling.

By Brandie Weikle

We don’t talk about it much, but a big part of the grief that comes with separation and divorce stems from what it does to how we perceive ourselves.

Over the course of a marriage or other long-term relationship, it’s only natural that identity becomes at least somewhat shaped by seeing ourselves as one half of a pair.

I think this may be especially the case with legal marriage.

Just think of the language people use around the topic of whether a couple is going to tie the knot. Questions like, “When are you going to make an honest woman out of her?” and “Don’t you think it’s time to settle down?” go a long way to establish the idea that marriage equals having your life together.

It’s only natural then that we derive a certain level of status from being a married person.

That status comes with a great deal of respect and a whole lot of invitations to dinner parties.

As authors Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson outline in their fascinating book The New ‘I Do’ — Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, pair bonding likely goes back to the Stone Age, but the first recorded marriage happened around 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Back then marriage was far more about basic survival, building and conserving wealth, and establishing heirs than it is today. Yet we still put the “til death do we part” version on a pedestal. Curious given that back then people were lucky to live until the age of 40.

Today we live twice as long and expect both less and more from marriage. Women don’t require men to provide for them, for example, and nobody needs to stoke the fire in the cave while the other chases saber-tooth tigers away from the kids.

Yet on the flip side we seek much more complex and nuanced things from a spouse today: Someone who shares our big life goals during a time when we have more than one path from which to choose. Someone who will share our approach to parenting if we want kids. Someone who respects our desires to have fulfilling work or other satisfying pursuits. Someone who we find attractive and who makes us laugh. Someone who “gets us.”

That’s a taller order, right?

My point is that it’s okay if your relationship doesn’t take you all the way to the grave like you thought it would when you walked down the aisle, or even just signed the lease on your first apartment together.

We can have respect for and even desire a second or third crack at marriage while perhaps beginning to view it in less black-and-white terms. That’s really key to the reframing required to be easier on ourselves when a relationship comes to an end, whether we wanted it to or not.  

Still, even with some broader context around marriage, it’s work to process that loss of identity as a married person. That’s why making space to process these feelings with a therapist, social worker, support group, clergy person or other trusted advisor is really critical.

As is releasing yourself from the guilt associated with letting others down.

We don’t like to disappoint people, and far too many of us are walking around with a heavy burden associated with other people’s perceptions of our marriages. If you find yourself thinking, “But everyone thinks we’re the perfect couple!” trust me, you’re not the first. Plenty of seemingly happy spouses have more complicated things going on behind closed doors.

It may not seem that way when your social feeds are full of #blessed anniversary posts, though, and I think that adds a layer of complication to modern-day breakups. Everyone’s broadcasting their highlight reels on Instagram and Facebook, not so much their moments of marital mediocrity.

But if there’s one thing that becoming outspoken on families and relationships has shown me, it’s that things are very often not what they seem. There are plenty of couples who keep their relationship struggles quiet.

Interestingly, despite my obvious non-expertise on making a marriage last, when I got separated people started confessing their own marital woes. I’d point out that I clearly didn’t have the secret sauce myself, otherwise I wouldn’t be getting divorced. But it was as though having my own relationship breakdown exposed made it safer for friends to confess that there was trouble in their unions, too.

There’s a lot to work through when you’re in the midst of a relationship breakdown. But know this: You’re still you. A complete package. Your wholeness, your importance, does not depend on being one half of a pair.

Sure, you may need to make space to contemplate what you want for your future, of what you really value going forward. But that’s actually a really great exercise. A crisis point like divorce can be a catalyst for person growth. Although the road may be bumpy right now, it will lead you back to yourself.