So I’ve arrived: I am twenty-six years old, in the supposed “prime of my life”, with a graduate degree, jobless, and in the midst of a full-blown existential and/or identity crisis.
I’m no stranger to the feeling of not having an identity. Events in my life have forced me to bend and mold; I am a chameleon. My identity has always been shaped by where I am, and who I am with. In a particularly intense session with my therapist, when I explained that some might call me a “commitment-phobe” (although that’s not a word I would use for myself), she asked if I am afraid of losing myself. I agreed, instantly, but then pulled back: “But I don’t even know who I am, really.”
Over the past ten years, I have been in five relationships that lasted longer than one year. With each of these men, I was a different person – not only because I was changing and growing, but also because I believed that they each required a different version of me.
I decided to ask these men, including my current partner, for three words to describe me or our relationship – good or bad. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I figured it would become clear to me once I’d heard back from everyone.
Unsurprisingly, my first boyfriend did not respond. I can’t say I blame him, the request reeks of narcissism and a ravenous ego. His response, of course, was the one I was most interested in, because I couldn’t think of words to describe us. I was, perhaps, least myself with him – I tried too hard, I was too self-conscious, and I had no idea how to be in a relationship, and I often didn’t want to be. I hated feeling like my mental state was in his hands, like everything he did and said weighed more in my mind than my own words and actions. I became obsessive without really knowing why, and felt a surprising amount of relief when it was over.
Second: “Sexual, stabilizing, connected,” he said. Stabilizing?! My relationship with him was probably the least stabilizing experience I had ever encountered. We were certainly connected – by our mutual destruction of each other! We were tumultuous partners, exalting in our reciprocal tortures. I felt simultaneously inadequate and esteemed. The sex was astonishing, his affection was intoxicating, and his criticisms were agonizing. With him, despite my best efforts to display nonchalance, I was inwardly meek, easily manipulated, and eager-to-please. When I finally displayed my spiteful side, he forced upon me the most shame I’ve ever felt, and our eventual demise created a wall so thick, it has yet to be demolished.
Third: “A contagious laugh/sense of humor, an electric personality, and a kind soul,” he responded. I’m touched, and also not surprised that his response had nothing to do with our relationship; I can hardly think of any words, myself. He always did think too highly of me, and with him, I could feel that way about myself. I was radiant, driven, and strong – or, to put it less flatteringly, I played the role of “too good for him”. It was easy to feel better than him, because he offered me something I hadn’t experienced before: unblinking adoration. He provided safety after the Second’s disaster, and allowed me to exact a strange sort of revenge on the gender that had so tormented me.
Fourth: “Unguarded, connected, adventurous,” he offered. These are accurate, of course; he is ever astute. His generosity and love lit something in me that I didn’t know I had. I felt like becoming a better person for him. I even allowed myself to picture a tentative future with him, clinging to real or imagined hints that he felt similarly. And although the slow realization that it will never happen has left ugly traces of resentment on my memories, I still love him for weakening the wall and giving me a definition for “love” that sticks. With him, I was my ideal form – a less neurotic, less insecure, more composed version of my authentic self.
Current: “Sex, hard, mundane (which he then changed to ‘routine’, when I reminded him that mundane means dull).” I can’t help but laugh. Convinced my request was a trap, he went ahead and said the bad things anyway – and that is one of the things I admire about him. Sure, from my perspective, two out of three of those things are not good, and it took every ounce of restraint not to ask, “What the hell are you doing with me, then?” But that’s for him to ask himself. I know why I’m with him, and I know that we’ll end. And of course, he is the only one who says anything bad – because we have not yet created rose-tinted memories, and because he met me when I finally started to become real. With him, I don’t hide my neuroses. I don’t hold back my anxieties. I am pigheaded and irrational and, I’ll admit, often boring. So of course it is hard, because I do not try to be better for him. In fact, sometimes, I find myself playing up this “damaged” role, because he allows it; it is comforting to feel supported and cared for while playing the worst version of myself.
I’ve found surprising gratification in this little experiment. With each passing relationship, it seems that I become more and more “myself” – whatever that really means. But questions remain: why must I form my identity around my lovers? Who am I when I am completely alone? By jumping from relationship to relationship, am I losing myself, or am I finding myself? If it is true – that to find ourselves, we must lose ourselves – perhaps it does not matter, the finding or the losing. Whoever I am will find me, if I ever stop running.