07/19/2024

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In her early 20s, Mary Joy aspired to be a female Jimmy Buffett: a free-spirited Florida singer-songwriter who specialized in beach pop and love ballads. When she was 27, Joy moved to Nashville to try to close a music deal. There, she met a low-voiced, smooth-talking urban cowboy, a record producer who swept her off her feet and put a Stetson in her sun-streaked hair. mesmerized, Joy traded her flip-flops for cowboy boots and sat next to him at a rodeo (even though she secretly thought they were brutal). At his urging, she began singing deep country songs. “I’m a fish out of water – almost literally,” she says now. “I’ve spent my whole life in the ocean, and all of a sudden I’m on a horse.” Joey felt the relationship was eroding her personality, but two years after meeting an older, controlling man, she married him. Since then, she has grown increasingly anxious and unsure of herself. “I don’t get depressed easily, but I’m very, very sad.”

Joey’s experience is a textbook example of what happens when we sacrifice our authentic selves to accommodate a loved one. Consider the types of self-reflective questions Dr. Amy Brunell, associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University, uses to assess whether someone is being genuine with their significant other, and imagine how Joey might respond: Are you following your values, needs and preferences, or are you simply trying to please others, get a reward or avoid negative consequences? Do you make an effort to be open and honest in your intimate relationships in order to let others know who you really are? Do you have a sense of self? Self-identity? (It is worth noting that one can feel very authentic, somewhat authentic, somewhat authentic, or not authentic at all.)

Brunel’s research suggests that the more authentic you are with your partner about yourself, the more likely you are to enjoy both a healthy relationship and personal happiness. On the other hand, research – and the experiences of people like Joy – suggests that feeling inauthentic in a relationship can lead to depressive symptoms, low self-esteem and low mood.

This sounds logical – of course, we want to be genuine with the person who shares our most intimate moments – but romance and authenticity don’t always make for comfortable bedfellows. In the initial rush of infatuation, we may incorporate our needs into those of the person we love; in a long-term partnership, when the two become one, we can easily allow our desires to be confused with those of our partner. Eventually, we may even begin to mask our true feelings, not only from others, but from ourselves. “There may be some unconscious self-deception,” Brunel says.

After 19 years, Joy felt she couldn’t pretend anymore, so she left her marriage. She started meeting new people, but it didn’t work out. Joy realized she needed to get to know herself again. “For the next four years, I didn’t date,” she says. “One day, I listed everything I wanted in a partner: compassion, kindness, spirituality, a love of travel and the ocean. I realized the person I was describing was me!”

It’s a funny thing about romance and authenticity: while we often think that true love means finding someone who accepts us warts and all, we may actually feel more understood by someone who believes in our potential as much as we do, says professor Serena Chen, Ph.D., who found a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is co-author of a series of studies on the authenticity of relationships . Your partner sees you the way you want to be seen, sees you as that person, and, what other social science researchers call the Michelangelo phenomenon, helps shape you into your ideal.

It sounds like this may be exactly what is happening to Joy right now. She moved back to Florida, settled into an apartment near the beach, and adopted two rescue dogs. She met a pilot who loved spending time with her on and off the water. A few years ago, she left the pilot at home for three weeks to travel around Europe alone. “I always wanted to do that, but when the time came, I was scared: boarding, I was scared. Landing, I was still scared. When I got to Venice, I finally asked myself, what was I really afraid of? I realized that when I was with my ex, I had developed a deep-seated fear of abandonment. But I wasn’t with him anymore. So I decided to leave my fears there. In my life now, I feel like I’m finally becoming me.”

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