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Deselfing: The angry dance of intimacy

 The angry dance of intimacy (Photo: iStock)

Everyone knows someone or has been that someone who once they get into a relationship or marriage, they completely changed. They changed everything from the way they dress, to their friends, to their core values, to where they hang out, and even the activities they do for fun. This is known as deselfing.

Deselfing, is a term that was first coined by Clinical Psychologist Harriet Lerner in her book The Dance of Anger, and has over time developed to refer to the process of giving up core values or important parts of ourselves in order to please someone else or to develop or maintain a relationship. The process of deselfing is in no way a new phenomenon, and although it can occur in both men women or men, it is more commonly evident in women. The process of deselfing can be influenced by a variety of factors, for example if the person you are with is from a higher social status and you fill you need to fit into their lives, or it can be influenced by culture.


Mary Munene, a wife, mother of two, author (Singleness & Godly Pursuit: Marriage Works, God's Way), a Christian blogger (Marriage chronicles by John & Mary Munene) and IT practitioner, says that deselfing can be summarised as: “The prefix de means away. So literally this means away from the self.

Deselfing happens when we make small concessions in our relationships with our spouses, children or others, and before we know it, we are accommodating others and serving them in ways that feel like we have completely lost ourselves. Sometimes it is a conscious step, but most times it is out of a well-meaning space, but with time, the spiralling effects are always negative.”

Mary notes that it is easy for women to deself. “It is intrinsic for a woman to care. Woven in our femininity fabric is our primary nature to care. It is easy for a woman to give and care because nurturing does give a woman some level of satisfaction.

However, the problem comes in when we lose those healthy boundaries and we as women stop doing things we love and are passionate about in order to accommodate others. We support our partners in doing things for themselves but do not ask for the same help. Sometimes, out of fear of causing conflict in the relationship, and the easiest way out, is silence,” she says.

“I think deselfing happens in all relationships. At some point it is inevitable, especially in the early stages of marriage, while transitioning, or when children come in the picture. Deselfing is not so much of a problem as knowing how to navigate through it, without it shaking you. Marriage has no one size fits all formula, but there are principles that are cut across all regardless of the continuum one is on.”

Mary says she has found herself deselfing, but has over the years mastered the art of "catching herself" before things get out of hand, and that having a supportive spouse has also proven to be very helpful.

“Having a supportive spouse who has a willingness to talk together through those emotions has anchored us. To be loved is superficial, but to be loved and known at the same time, is divine. This is how marriages ought to be. Marriages should have a rhythm of giving and receiving, ebb and flow; not self-minimisation and self-sacrifice at the expense of losing yourself.

A supportive spouse goes a long way because this is the person who has seen you at your best and at your worst. A spouse ought to have the ability to hold the space for difficult conversations and emotions while still assuring his wife of his support and love.”

She has advice for those who may be struggling with deselfing.

“Firstly, deselfing is almost inevitable, but one should be able to know when the engines are revving faster than usual. Always try to strike a balance between how you care for yourself and how you care for others. This includes your husband and your children, and this is anchored on self-awareness.

"You cannot esteem what you are not aware of. One needs to know how their emotions are flowing and be able to address them before projecting. Check in with yourself in order to identify how you are feeling and if you are neglecting you needs for others," she says.

“Secondly, ask for support from your husband. Husbands are not good mind readers and silence will not communicate anything. Of course, not being abrasive, or self-absorbed, but communicating what you need in simplicity. From my experience, talking is the easiest thing to do in marriage, and communication is the hardest thing to do.”

Mary says that those in marriage or relationships need to realise that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing.

“Thirdly, note that conflict is healthy. It does not need to get nasty. Speak out when hurt. Speak out when you feel forgotten. Changes are inevitable. Be able to bend, flow, bounce, bend again and flow. Do not be so rigid with the season. Cry if you need to. Grieve the expansion. Grieve the contractions.

"Grieve the changes, but when you are done, dust yourself up, and try to connect to who you are and who you are becoming. If you can journal it down, it will remind you of your beautiful journey too.”


Yvonne Tiony, a wife and mother of three, and author of Raising Children, Raising Hope, says that although deselfing can show up in both men and women, it is most common in women because they are natural nurturers.

“Deselfing happens where a woman stops existing in terms of her dreams, goals, personality and emotions so that her husband or children can exist and thrive. You sacrifice yourself for everyone else,” she says.

Yvonne says that as a woman you must be intentional about not getting caught up in the deselfing trap.

“As a wife and mother, one has so much on their plate and if you are not intentional about creating time for yourself, then it is easy to deself. So be intentional about taking care of yourself as a woman even as you take on the roles you play as wife and mother. Do not lose your identity. You have to be intentional about this, and not only set aside time, but also resources for it,” she says.

“Taking time is all about reflecting and investigating your heart and finding out where you are, and also doing things that you enjoy as an individual away from family. Take a personal retreat. Go to the spa, have a manicure, pedicure, massage, road trip, go to the movies, and hang out with friends.

"Be intentional, and find out what works for you. Take opportunities you can grow as an individual which are aligned with your values, your goals and beliefs as an individual.”

Yvonne says men also have an important role to play especially if they realise that their spouse or partner is getting lost in her role as a wife and mother to the point where she is forgetting about herself.

“As a man you should regularly take care of the children or even offer help with house chores where necessary to afford your partner time for themselves. Also, encourage them to pursue their dreams and goals. As women we should also learn to ask and accept help when it is offered and not die a martyr.

"Having to always sacrifice for others, in this case you husband and children can easily result in bitterness and resentment. When a man goes out of their way to ensure that his wife feels supported, seen and heard, she can thrive,” she says.

Yvonne says another key step to take in order to prevent deselfing, is to invest in friendships that keep you accountable.

“Invest in your friendships. Friends can help keep you accountable especially when you are unconsciously deselfing. Good friends remind you of who you are and help to push you to follow after your dreams and goals.

"Friends who can ask you the tough and hard questions you may be afraid to ask yourself. Avoid friends who coddle you and handle you with kid gloves because they prevent you from growing.”


Paps Wanyugi, CEO of ReConfidence Coaching Solutions defines deselfing as the process where one party in a relationship stops existing, being their authentic self, so that the other party in the relationship can exist.

“It is essentially betraying ourselves to serve the needs of someone else we are in a relationship with. Hence, we become less of ourselves.”

Paps says that while every marriage or relationship requires compromise on some level in order to thrive, not everything in a person’s life should be up for negotiation.

“Although deselfing happens to both men and women, it is more common in women. Women might do it based on the misguided belief that they are submitting or even being humble. Also, it is important to note that the person you are deselfing for might not even be aware of your sacrifice,” says the author and psychologist.

“The process of giving up everything, including one’s core values so that a relationship can thrive can be detrimental to the individual. In a relationship deselfing manifests itself as one party getting all the support on everything they want, and although the party making the sacrifice may do it willingly, it becomes a breeding ground for resentment and bitterness.”

Paps says this bitterness can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

“It can lead to the party who feels oppressed because they feel like they have given up so much of themselves for the relationship to look for a negative outlet and this can lead to keeping secrets, and this can eventually negatively affect the marriage. Everyone in the relationship should be free to be themselves and share their views and thoughts.”

He advises that those in marriage or relationships should be intentional about creating an environment where all parties are free to be themselves, and are able to go after their dreams with the support of the other.

“When everyone in the marriage or relationship feels safe and free to be themselves, this leads to not only a happy marriage, but happy individuals who are able to thrive and grow in every area of their life.”

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