The Identity Conversation
The last conversation to be discussed in this series is known as the identity conversation. No longer are we talking about what we think happened or whether our feelings are hurt. Instead, these conversations tend to hit the core of who we think we are, or who we think our partners are. Typical identity conflicts between partners deal with issues of competency, being a good person, or quite literally whether one is worthy of love.
With issues of identity, we tend to think in terms of black and white with no gray area in between. If you’re partner leaves their shoes where they shouldn’t, it’s not because they forgot to move them but because they are fundamentally lazy. Here, the stakes have graduated from being about a single event to a narrative about who the person is.
When these narratives go unchecked, they become entrenched in the relationship. Soon everything each partner does is viewed under the negative labels created for them. And with each failure to have an open and candid conversation, the further we drift apart.
That’s not to say people don’t change for the worse. Many of us have experienced that dramatic shift in our partner’s behavior following the honeymoon phase, leaving us running for the door. Or worse, the slow drawn-out deterioration of the relationship results in wasted time.
What I am describing here is instead an unfair designation about someone’s identity. These conversations often take place well after the honeymoon phase has worn off, at which point enough stumbles by one or both partners have led to negative stories about who they are, without ever having been adequately discussed.
The most important components of this conversation are honesty about our feelings while getting the facts straight about what we’ve seen, without adding our own biases into the equation. We must be free of judgment and ready to listen when we raise the issue, or if the issue is brought to us. There must also be a high degree of trust and safety established so that neither party feels threatened into defending themselves and pointing fingers. Most of this can be achieved by getting both sides to commit to a loving tone and respecting the right of the other to fully explain themselves without interruption.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when both you and your partner begin to develop a sense of reconnection during the discussion. With an appropriate amount of candidness and gentleness in speech, and respect while listening, negative labels melt away. Remember, a truly loving partner who wants the best for the relationship will not recoil when safety has been established. If you feel you’ve done everything you can, but your partner is still blaming you or claiming to be the victim, there is a much bigger problem here.
In fact, I mentioned I would include a brief statement on how to recognize that it may be right to end a relationship. While there are in fact many reasons to break up (or not to), if you have found that your partner is never willing to work on issues that fundamentally matter to you, and your request is reasonable, you should consider moving on. Time is precious. Wasting it on someone who doesn’t care enough to at least try to put in the effort is a real tragedy. Don’t let that be you.
Before ending, I want to emphasize to readers that I barely scratched the surface during this series. If you found my entries helpful in any way, or simply want to learn more, I highly suggest you read Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson and Difficult Conversations by Stone et al. Outside of my life experience, both books were my primary sources for material.