Staying independent in a relationship can be harder than you might think, especially when you've been together a long time. Even though you may start out with strong identities, it can be easy to feel like you start to mesh personalities with your partner as time goes on. And on the one hand, that's natural — you're sharing experiences, spending time together, and you're bound to pick up a few quirks or a new way of looking at things. But it's all about balance.
"When we are in a relationship, it is important to have a sense of self and independence, while integrating lives with your partner," Dr. Danielle Forshee, doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, tells Bustle. "This can be a difficult balance to achieve — similar to the difficulty in achieving a work-life balance." But even though it may be difficult, new research shows just how important that balance is.
A study published in the Self and Identity journal found that "couple fusion", where couples absorb each other's behaviors, could make relationships stronger, but that it could also lead to major relationship problems. Although previous research had looked into identity fusion within groups, this one of the first attempts to study it within couples. The researchers studied 171 newlyweds from the first six months of marriage through for three years, tracking their identity fusion and also their attitudes toward their partner and their relationship.
Not only did the researchers find that it was common to develop new personality traits as a result of sharing experiences with a partner, they also found that people who felt more merged with their partner had healthier relationship behaviors. They were more likely to disregard negative aspects of their partner's behavior, rather than looking for problems. They were also more likely to handle conflicts more constructively, with healthy communication. So not only is this fusion a bonding technique, it also can help the relationships run more smoothly.
But it's not quite that simple. Personality fusion is a tricky balance, and the authors also noted that it could lead to one person feeling a loss of identity — feeling too drawn into the relationship or overshadowed by their partner. When there was this kind of fusion imbalance, the authors found that the fusion could harm the relationship, leading the partner who felt overshadowed to be less secure and on the lookout for negative behaviors in their partner, seeing the relationship with a hyper-critical eye.
Finding balance in a relationship can be difficult, but — as this research shows — it's crucial that you and your partner both feel heard and valued. Feeling like you're part of a team and experiencing a certain level of identity fusion can make your relationship stronger — but, if one person is too dominant, it can do exactly the opposite. It's an important reminder that communication is crucial and that both of you need to be receptive to each other's needs. Relationship bonding is great, but not if it comes at the cost of your individual identity.