NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Growing As An Individual While You're in a Relationship

Many people are afraid of losing their individuality in a relationship so they avoid getting involved until they think they have worked on themselves sufficiently in psychotherapy first.  The idea is that once they have healed the emotional wounds that cause them to fear losing their individuality, they will be ready to enter into a romantic partnership with someone.  This concept is especially common among people who have been hurt in prior relationships.

Growing as an Individual While You're in a Relationship

But this is a misconception: Relationships can provide an opportunity to discover parts of yourself and to grow as an individual.  Also, if you're already attending psychotherapy, you have a chance to make healthier choices when choosing a romantic partner and explore and change unhealthy patterns that were problematic in prior relationships (see my articles: Learning From Past Romantic Relationships and Choosing Healthier Romantic Relationships).

Most people need time to heal from the heartbreak of a prior relationship, and everyone is different as to how much time he or she needs.  But this is different from avoiding relationships altogether until you feel you have changed into the new person that you want to be.  It implies an expectation that there will be a life-changing transformation where you know you have "arrived" and now you are ready to have a romantic partner.  

As a psychotherapist in New York City with more than 20 years of experience, I have seen many clients have big breakthroughs in psychotherapy where their life is transformed in life-changing ways.  But I've also seen clients who have a series of smaller breakthroughs over time in therapy that facilitate positive change.  In addition to the transformations possible in psychotherapy, a lifetime offers many opportunities for change and growth. 

So, why wait until you think you have it "all together" before allowing yourself to be in a relationship--especially since relationships offer opportunities to develop and grow as individuals and as a couple?

Fictional Clinical Vignette: You Can Be in a Relationship and Still Grow As An Individual:
The following fictional vignette illustrates how you can be in a relationship and still grow as an individual and how psychotherapy helps:

After Cindy went through a painful breakup, she began attending psychotherapy to deal with the end of the relationship (see my article: Healing the Heartbreak of a Breakup).

She explained to her psychotherapist that shortly after their two-year relationship anniversary, Cindy's boyfriend, Dan, told her that he wanted to be free to date other women.  Knowing that Cindy would never be comfortable with opening up their relationship to other people, Dan thought it was best that they breakup.  

Prior to the breakup, Cindy had her doubts as to whether the relationship would survive because every time they got closer, Dan would end the relationship briefly and then regret it and ask Cindy to take him back.  Even though Cindy had also been thinking about possibly ended their on again-off again relationship because it was so chaotic, she took the breakup hard (see my article: The On-Again, Off-Again Relationship).

At first, Cindy thought she and Dan were going through one of their cycles of being together, breaking up and getting back together again.  But as the weeks and then months passed, she lost hope and realized that their relationship was really over this time.

Cindy told her psychotherapist that after the breakup, with the benefit of hindsight, she wondered why she allowed herself to be in a relationship that would fall apart whenever they were most emotionally vulnerable with each other.  She wondered if she didn't feel that she deserved better than this, and if she needed to "learn to be in a relationship" before she entered into another relationship.

As a result, Cindy said, she decided to work on herself in therapy first to understand herself and to learn to be in a relationship before she got into another relationship  Her psychotherapist listened empathetically as Cindy spoke to her about her sadness about the breakup and her fear of getting involved in another relationship (see my article: A Psychotherapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative For a Client).

Her psychotherapist responded that she understood Cindy's need to heal from the breakup, which triggered childhood abandonment issues for Cindy.  She recommended that they use EMDR therapy to help Cindy to resolve her current emotional issues as well as her history of emotional abandonment in her family of origin (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy?).

Cindy's therapist also told Cindy didn't need to avoid relationships altogether after she felt she recovered from the breakup.  She explained that Cindy could learn about herself and about how to be in a relationship while being in a relationship.

At that point in therapy, Cindy maintained that she felt it would be unwise for her to begin a new relationship until she learned enough about herself and how to be in a relationship.  She was sure she would make all the same mistakes again that she made with Dan and prior boyfriends.  She felt too emotionally vulnerable to even consider a relationship, so her psychotherapist told her to do what she thought was best for herself and, at the same time, keep an open mind that she might be able to enter into another relationship before she felt she knew how to be in a relationship.

Over the next several months, Cindy was able to work through much of her grief about the breakup with EMDR therapy, and she and her psychotherapist began working on her earlier abandonment issues related to her family.

It was at that point when she met Sam in a writing class.  Although she was hesitant, Cindy accepted his invitation to go for coffee.  She felt the chemistry between them immediately, but she told herself that she wouldn't allow herself to get romantically involved with Sam because she wasn't ready.

After the writing class was over and Sam asked her out on a date where it was clear that he was interested in more than just a friendship, Cindy told him that she enjoyed his company, but she wanted to remain friends because she wasn't ready to get involved with anyone.  Sam told her that he could accept this and told her that he wouldn't pressure her for anything more.

A few days later, in her psychotherapy session, Cindy talked about Sam and how relieved she was that he could accept a friendship.  She acknowledged that she was physically attracted to him and enjoyed his company, but she remained adamant that she wanted to learn to be in a relationship in therapy first before she got involved with anyone.  

Her psychotherapist told her that going out on a date was different from being in a relationship and Cindy might enjoy herself if she went out with Sam--if she was willing to take the risk.  She also told her that many people learn to be in a relationship with the experience of actually being in a relationship.  But Cindy wasn't open to even dating.

During the next few weeks, Cindy continued to meet Sam for coffee and occasionally for brunch.  When Cindy saw that Sam understood that their get-togethers weren't dates, she allowed herself to enjoy their time together more.  

Then, one day, Cindy walked into her local coffee shop and happened to see Sam at a table talking and laughing with another woman.  Rather than acknowledging his presence, Cindy left the coffee shop quickly feeling shaken up.  Surprised by her reaction, she went back to her apartment and sat for a long time trying to sort out her feelings.

Later that afternoon, Cindy saw her psychotherapist and told her about her reaction when she saw Sam with another woman.  She told her how surprised she was that it upset her because she considered Sam to be a friend.  

During that therapy session, Cindy realized that she had developed romantic feelings for Sam that she had suppressed until she was confronted with seeing him involved with another woman.  She told her therapist that she now felt confused about her ambivalence, which she continued to explore in subsequent therapy sessions.

When Cindy met Sam again for coffee to share their writing, Sam mentioned that he happened to notice Cindy leave the coffee shop a few weeks before.  He said he wanted to try to catch her to introduce Cindy to his cousin, but she walked out so quickly that he didn't have a chance.

On hearing that the woman he was with was his cousin, Cindy felt a great sense of relief and blurted out, "Oh, that was your cousin?"

Sam smiled, "So you did see me and you left. I thought so, but I wasn't sure--until now.  Why did you leave without coming over to say hello?"

Cindy didn't respond.  She was annoyed with herself for revealing that she had seen Sam before she walked out of the coffee shop.  Although she was relieved that he wasn't with a date, she wondered if he was seeing someone else.  She knew she couldn't expect him to remain alone.

When Cindy didn't respond, Sam teased her, "Did you think I was on a date?"

Becoming increasingly uncomfortable, Cindy got up and began making an excuse as to why she had to leave, but Sam asked her to stay and to talk to him about what was going on.  He told her that he still liked her and he would like to go out on date with her.

Taking a deep breath and laughing at herself, Cindy let down her guard and told Sam that she would like to go out on a date with him too.  Soon after that, they began seeing each other regularly.

Growing as an Individual While You're in a Relationship

Although Cindy was still afraid to allow herself to develop deeper feelings for Sam, she was able to talk to her psychotherapist about it during their sessions.  Over time, she realized in therapy that she was much more confident and resilient than she ever thought herself to be.

As she dated Sam and their feelings deepened, they were able to negotiate being two autonomous individuals in a relationship.  They spent time together and they also gave each other space.  Over time, she learned to trust that he wouldn't abandon her.  More importantly, she learned to trust herself that she could be in a relationship and figure things out as she went along, especially with the help of her psychotherapist.

Over time, Cindy and Sam shared their observations about each other.  Cindy was often surprised at how perceptive Sam was about her, and how he was able to see things about her that she hadn't realized.  She realized that, in addition to developing her own insights about herself, she could also learn about herself through Sam's eyes because she could trust him and he was insightful. 

From spending time with her and reading her writing, Sam helped Cindy to see the parts of herself that she hid from herself and others, which gave her a lot to think about and talk about in her therapy.

Cindy also shared her observations about him with Sam, and she was glad that he was open to this.  She felt she was healing emotionally in this relationship, and they were both growing with each other. 

Growing as an Individual While You're in a Relationship

Cindy told her psychotherapist that she recognized that her relationship with Sam was much healthier than any other relationship she had ever had.  She liked that they could grow together in this relationship.  She had never experienced this before in a relationship.  She also liked that they were each in therapy focusing on their individual needs while they also met each other's emotional needs.

While she still had some fears of being in a relationship, she realized that she was ready to take the risk that she was resilient enough to deal with issues as they came up.

Many people believe that they must work on themselves in therapy first to learn to be a healthy individual and how to be in a healthy relationship before they allow themselves to enter into a relationship. This is a misconception because, especially if you're in therapy where you can work on whatever issues come up.

You can be in a relationship and still grow as an individual.  You don't have to wait until you have it "all together" before you're in a relationship.  Developing insight into yourself as well as seeing yourself through someone else's eyes, especially someone that you love and trust, can help you to grow.

Getting Help in Therapy
Psychotherapy provides an opportunity to heal and grow (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If you're struggling with a problem that you have been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from working with a skilled licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I am a trauma therapist have helped many clients to overcome traumatic experiences.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.