Separation and Merger

In a prior post on neediness, I discussed some of the ways intolerance of needs shows up in relationships.  Another way to approach the issue is to think about the degree of  separation you can tolerate between you and your loved one.

When I was a young man and everyone my age was dating and forming new relationships, it used to bother me when my friends got involved with someone and suddenly became completely unavailable.  They’d spend every spare minute with their new flame.  You know the type of couple I’m talking about — the ones who seem joined at the hip.  A certain amount of preoccupation with a new romance is natural, but when two people can’t bear to be separated and abandon older friendships, they’ve merged identities.  On some level, they are no longer two distinct people.  Only when you’re really separate do you feel need, longing, desire, jealousy, etc.

Maybe one of them will adopt the interests and opinions of the other person and adapt his or her personality to fit.  Some people believe this is the only way they can be loved, that it’s not possible to be authentic.  It can also be a way to merge with the loved one, to fuse identities so there will be no experience of separation.

One of my patients, a young gay man, used to change his speech patterns, political viewpoints and style of dress whenever he became involved with someone new.  He was a true chameleon, with very little sense of his own identity, and merged with each new partner.  At the same time, he made sure never to appear demanding, instead showing himself completely amenable to whatever the other man wanted.  At heart, he feared that to expose the needy self he despised would mean rejection.  He hated his own needs and felt sure that, if they were revealed, his partner would hate them, too.

This young man stands at the extreme end of a spectrum:  each of us can bear differing degrees of separation.  At the other extreme are people who can tolerate that experience no better but instead avoid relationships altogether.  Fusion at one end, isolation at the other.  Where are you on the spectrum?

Finding Your Own Way:

If you’re currently involved in a relationship, make a plan to do something on your own (discuss this with your partner first; don’t simply announce it as a done deal).  Try to choose an activity you’d actually like to do but that might be out of character, something that challenges the rules of your relationship.

How do you feel about taking this step?  Anxious?  Excited?  How about your partner?  Do you receive encouragement or resentment?  Is he or she afraid that you might meet someone new?  It would be even more helpful if your partner also stepped out of character and tried something new, so you could confront your own anxieties about separation.

Or maybe you already have your own separate spheres — interests or relationships outside the couple that don’t include the other person.  Do these areas stir up conflict?  Any underlying jealousy or resentment?  If these turn out to be areas of conflict, it could be a result of inconsideration or inequity in your relationship, but it might also touch upon issues of needs and separation.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I agree with Marla, I’m in a distance relationship and we see each other in the week ends, but we talk a lot, we share thigs and ideas by mail!
    This situation seems ideal to have a personal sphere AND a relationship…! And I think that this separation will keep on being an important aspect for our relationship, when we will live together!

  2. It sounds very much like co-dependency issues that I face working with alcoholics. Co-dependents are so busy looking after someone else’s needs that they neglect their own needs. All their attention is on the alcoholic who, by the way, they resent.

  3. It’s now 2012 and I don’t see any current comments, but I can definitely relate to being a chameleon. I “dumb down” when necessary, agree to things I don’t really want to do, resent having to do things like housework, like a child, get bored EXTREMELY easily, I just moved to be near my kids and fight desparately to hide my feelings of wanting them all to myself. I have no friends down here and my therapist (and kids) tell me how important they are, but I don’t want any drama or having to “get my toes wet” again risking drowning. I have lived vicariously through everyone I’ve ever been close to including two husbands and a long term boyfriend and all those relationships fell apart. The two husbands apparently felt a need to be with someone “on the side”; I guess they were buying time to get up enough courage to divorce me. I even took flying lessons to impress my second husband (he was a helicopter pilot). Have you ever flown a plane by yourself and barely gotten off the runway before you had this panicked feeling you had no idea where you were at and still had about 2 hundred miles to your destination (never mind about the whole trip back!)? I was scared spitless every time I was in the cockpit whether or not I had an instructor with me! Does any of this sound familiar? My therapist gave me three diagnostic tests to take awhile back and I was shocked at how I scored as a “Borderline” because I NEVER get angry (I guess because I fear rejection too much). I’ve always just been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder and ADD. What a combination, huh! The worst thing is you can’t medicate a personality disorder; you’re stuck with it and you just have to work as hard as you can to stay above its currents and luck out finding a therapist who can deal with you. Tomorrow I will have my first session with my therapist with a specific agenda of dealing w/ the Borderline thing. I’m ticked he wasn’t the one to suggest it. I had to bring it up and ask for specific treatment. Well, I could go on (as I am in the beginning stages of writing a book – and I don’t know where it’s going yet) and this is becoming a book in itself. Hope to all of you and keep working hard. I can’t imagine the hells you have all endured throughout the years! My heart goes out to you!

    1. Hi Lynn, this was a very early post on my website, right when I started developing it. I definitely relate to much of what you say. As for the borderline thing, I wouldn’t take the labels too seriously; we’re all on a spectrum, and you’re an individual, not a category. Not all people who struggle with borderline-type issues are the same and get overtly angry.

  4. I experienced enough separation and collapse of intimate relationships as a child to ruin any prospects for long-term intimacy. I’m now 10 years divorced and live with a 79-year-old roommate and my elderly dog. I don’t date or go out, in fact I avoid spending too much time socializing. Despite this isolation I maintain some close friendships and still get seared by the minefields that are human relationships.

    1. I see you’ve been looking around the site today. I’ll have more to say about some of your other comments.

  5. I do the exact same as that man you described. It goes on for months until I suffocate in my own anxiety and paranoia, and eventually do something drastic to get out of it, which results in a nervous breakdown. That is how it is, when you have no identity of your own. Once you find someone who can close that gap– like a crescent shape that has finally found its missing piece and locked it in place– you feel complete and don’t want to let go. And when that piece is ripped out, you’ve never experienced a more horrifying pain.

  6. I find the chameleon story astonishing. I am, what I’ve called myself, “A metamorph,” adopted from Star Trek (yes, I know, lame). Chameleon is perfect also. I used to view it as a positive thing, and, in the dearest and most important of romantic relationships of my life, was encouraged; we both were “chameleons” and thought we found the safest home for that. Unfortunately, it was our painful downfall, especially as we both came to realize that chameleon doesn’t work. Also unfortunately, he thought it just didn’t work in our relationship; I hope someday he sees like I do, that it doesn’t work, period. It created the most horrible dependency as illustrated in this article.

    The more I learn about dependency, the more I realize how it is deeply imbedded in my soul; I read this article thinking, “What is he saying? Of COURSE I should be sharing every activity! That’s the most enjoyable!” but quickly realizing how toxic that is, and was, for me. In reflection of my parents, my dependency is deeply rooted from not only being dependent on them due to their controlling nature, but also, reflecting it in learned behavior from my very dependent parents.

    Anyways, this was probably much more of a selfish post meant to help me reflect; but, hopefully it is meaningful to at least one person in need of some shared pain and healing.

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