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Finding the True You in Your Relationships: Does It Even Exist?

We all want to be “ourself” in our intimate relationship with our partner.  Sometimes, we want to find ourself.  But most of us want to be our real self, not some fake self.

(That excludes, of course, online- and other fakers who purposely present fake pictures of themselves to gain some advantage, sexual, monetary, or egoistic—they just want an ego boost.)

But do we have a “real self”?

One of the greatest sociologists of all times was the late Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 

In his book, Goffman argued that we have no real core self.  Rather, we have many selves, all of which are real and all of which are responsive to situational demands.

In his view, we are always acting in various roles.  We adapt ourselves to these roles.

Thus, we may have a lover role, a father or mother role, a sibling role, an at-work role, a role for spectator sports, a role for active sports, and so on.

To Goffman, life is theater.  We cannot escape the theater because we are like onions, not artichokes.  There is no core—just various layers.  Underlying the roles is—nothing.

We are our roles.

You may or may not agree with Goffman, but certainly he had one point that is valid for our intimate relationships.

We often feel like a different person in each relationship.

Sometimes, we adapt to our partner—changing ourself better to suit what we imagine our partner wants us to be. Other times, we try to shape our partner—trying to change the partner to better suit ourselves. This “dance” between adaptation and shaping molds for us a unique relationship with each possible and actual partner.

Sometimes you are in a relationship, and you know whether it is working. But other times, you may find yourself puzzled as to whether your relationship is working, or sort of working, or not working at all.

In these instances, it sometimes is useful to remember Erving Goffman and his work.

If you assume that each intimate relationship puts you in some kind of role (reminiscent of the theater story in the theory of love as a story), then ask yourself a three simple questions:

1. Do you like who you are in the role you are playing?

Are you happy with the role and who you are in that role?

Because this is a case where the theatrical production is your real life.

Is this a role you can imagine playing over a long stretch of time, or is this a role that may be good for a few weeks or even months, but that you then will tire of?

2. Do you like who you are becoming in the role you are playing?

Is this relationship bringing you closer and closer to being the person you want to be?

Arthur Aron has suggested that love involves a partner helping you to become the person you want to be.

Even if there is no one unique person you want to be, is the person you are becoming someone you want to be, or are you moving further and further away from the person you ideally imagine yourself being?

3. Do you and your partner seem to fit into the same play?

In the theory of love as a story, I talk about the importance of being with someone who fits your story.

But another, “Goffmanesque”, way to conceive of relationships is as a play.

Are you in the same play, or are you constantly trying to figure out what your and your partner’s roles are in the play, or what the play is?

Do you fit together into a single play, or are you kind of faking it, each of you in your own play trying to pretend that you are both actors in the same play.

Whether or not there is some underlying true self, you need to find in your intimate relationship not only a partner who “works” for you, but a “self” that works for you—a role that feels like you are who you want to be and one in which you are becoming more and more who you want to be.

If you feel like you are moving further from a self you want to be, you need either to restructure your relationship, to seek outside help, or even to consider finding another one.

What’s right for you?

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