Woman with disconnected body parts is playing soccer, hula hooping, holding a test tube, and reading.

How I Became My Whole Self in a Relationship

Why do we diminish ourselves in relationships?

Some self-help authors think it’s all about a lack of self-value and self-confidence. They write books about having happy, fulfilling relationships, emphasizing the key to that happiness is recapturing your independence. The universal success of such books means a lot of people fear losing themselves. It’s a challenge we with multiple sclerosis must face on a daily basis.

What defines you?

What makes you, you? The list is a long one. Your passions, interests, friends, likes and dislikes. The cadence of your speaking voice and the way your mind works when you solve a problem. The freedom to express these facets that make up you is necessary for your health. But as a person with MS, how many times have you pushed yourself down and let the disease take front and center?

I used to conduct my relationship with MS in the same way I did with husbands, partners, friends, and family members. Thinking back, it’s easy to see where I suppressed myself in the presence of louder, needier, or more manipulative personalities. I did it a lot. Whenever I tell people about that part of me it is often met with surprise. You’re such a strong person, Kim, I can’t imagine you playing the doormat. Or gee, you’re more complicated than I realized. But if I am to recapture my independence, I must look back at these relationships. When did the compromise begin? At the start of my disease course—or does it go back much farther? Was it something I lost or something I never had?

My struggle for independence

My struggle for independence is a work in progress. It always has been. Generally speaking I haven’t really lost it despite no longer working full-time at a brick-and-mortar business. It’s an odd thing to say considering that was a huge change that involved my worth as a contributing member of society. It happened by necessity rather than choice, a result of my inability to meet deadlines and the ever-increasing difficulty in learning new things and retaining them. The ultimate cost of that kind of employment was a positive shift in judgment. I stopped evaluating myself through other people’s eyes. There is more than one way to contribute and for me, the places I’m best suited to dwell in are literary expression, volunteerism and advocacy. That discovery made me gain ground. But I did lose ground in other areas.

Romantic relationships are quite possibly the most complicated kind. Intimacy works best when its participants are whole and confident and eager in their quest to communicate. And yet the glue is mutual need and commitment. We are attracted to what we desire and come together based on that want. Intimacy turns want into need. We tolerate the other’s quirks as the connection deepens. It’s a balance that is hard won—and so easily thrown off kilter by trouble.

Equal partnerships

I’ve never been in an equal partnership. The reasons are many. But when trouble hit my relationships and threatened the machinery, the first thing that came clear was that it was definitely not trouble in paradise. If you and your partner never get pissed at each other then you aren’t being honest with each other, either. So when you get hit head on by MS and you need a level of communication, compassion and understanding that was never there in the first place, chances are you are going to work extra hard to keep the peace by pushing down your new-found terror, pain, and worry. Guilt takes over.

What’s crazy about it, though, is that whenever I found myself in such a place, I discovered that I was the stronger of the two. I backed off, I maintained my not-neediness. In our communication, my partners were always the weak link. The quality of communication (and therefore, intimacy) can only be as good as its worst communicator. Weak people are easily threatened, so the strong person makes the adjustments. That was always me. One day near the end of my second marriage, I asked my husband to play a list game with me. I rattled off ten things about him, ten shining qualities he possessed that I admired and loved. Then it was his turn. He scowled and grudgingly mumbled one, something about when we made fun of certain clueless politicians. That was it. For him, the relationship had died long before, it’s just that this was first time he took me along to the cemetery to pay our respects. I didn’t even know it was sick. I had based my love for him on gratitude. Not intimacy, not the kind of connection I’d held so dear in my disease-free youth. But I could get that back. And I wanted to.

The opportunity to start over again

The upside of having a relationship fail is the opportunity to start over again with somebody else. The first person I courted in a new relationship was myself. For the first time I lived in my anger and pain, found the language to express it, pursued self-affirming work and interests, and found the joy in all that growth. I’ve been in a relationship with a guy for three years now and the best part of it is the new me. I’m whole, unapologetic, and guilt-free. I still diminish parts of me for this guy, too, but that’s a compromise I’m willing to make. I get a lot of what I need from women in my life. Guys just aren’t as flexible as I am, nor as introspective. I don’t feel diminished by it. It’s just that as the strongest communicator and deepest thinker and feeler of the two, I gladly assume the role of leader in these things. It suits me just fine.

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