Annalisa Barbieri woke up one morning and couldn't find herself. The diagnosis? Loss of Sense of Self. It's what happens to women in relationshi ps, however nice their men. Here's how to stop it happening to you
IT WAS ODD, the first time it happened. I was writing a letter to a friend and I wrote "I feel like my head is exploding, and yet I also feel numb." This took place in the kitchen of my (first) boyfriend's house but I wasn't ill. I was in a relationship. As the years passed and the boyfriends multiplied, further symptoms appeared: out of a relationship I would feel sharp, alive, sexy. In one I would have moments of feeling that my spirit had been dulled. Even my wardrobe would change. From dressing as if I cared, when single, as part of a couple - after the initial buzz wore off - I dressed as if I were part of a care in the community project. One day, on the eve of a relationship breakup, I found myself thinking "Oh well, at least if we split up I'll get 'myself' back." This, surely, was wrong. Weren't relationships meant to make your heart sing?

Dawn broke on what was "wrong" with me after a one-week holiday with a fantastic boy. A fantastic boy and yet still these symptoms of my madness appeared. As the week progressed I turned from an opinionated, feisty young madam into a subdued wimp. I felt overcome by something, and tired... tired all the time. I couldn't decide what I wanted to do with our time, I couldn't make a decision about very much at all. In the past I had blamed this feeling on the boy (prior to this I had been out with a very controlling and insecure individual) but now I couldn't hide any longer from the simple reality that relationships made me go mad and changed me. I felt consumed. Coming home I rang a therapist friend of mine and told her my symptoms. "Did you feel as if you'd lost yourself?" she asked "Yes!" I cried, "yes yes yes. That's just how I felt, and I kept looking for myself but couldn't find me." "That happens all the time to women in relationships," therapist friend replied, "it's called 'Loss of Sense of Self'." LoSS, how fitting, but at last this madness had a name.

Then, like any newly-diagnosed person would, I set about investigating LoSS. First I talked to lots of other women - for the purposes of this article 34 women between the ages of 23 and 41 were interviewed. Was I alone in feeling like this? No. Almost all of them said that, despite being with a great man they had at some time or another felt trapped, stifled or as if they had lost their sense of self. "Oh yes," said a very together barrister woman, "I know what you mean. I always feel more special out of a relationship." Another appealed for answers: "Why does this happen? No matter how much I try, my relationship always engulfs me. I feel as if I have sacrificed myself."

It's important, at this stage, to point out that this piece isn't about men being bastards: far from it, men have their own problems about relationships but that can be investigated another time. This isn't as simple as just being with the wrong kind of man. This is about a gender-specific way of behaving. Suddenly, the old saying "The happiest men are married men and the happiest women are single women" was starting to make very real, big sense. Could it be that relationships just didn't agree with certain kinds of women?

More revelations followed as these 34 women were probed for details of their behaviour in and out of heterosexual relationships (homosexual ones are another ball game altogether) and I talked to psychologists who specialise in this sort of stuff. And out of the jumble of jigsaw pieces, a picture started to emerge about why (some) women misplace themselves when they hitch up with boys and how you can avoid losing yourself to the relationship fairies...

From the beginning, girls are brought up to expect to fall in love, to find romance and for that to make everything all right - look at fairy tales, teen mags, grown-up women's mags, they're all about bloody relationships. This leads to them believing that they are defined by a relationship with a man and that their "worth" will come from being in a relationship. Furthermore, girls develop mentally by talking with others. They don't need to share an activity in order to bond with other women because they are okay with intimacy. Boys are brought up to fear intimacy and be wary of relationships. They develop by doing things with others - playing football, video games, that kind of thing. So they grow up to be defined by outside things: work, sport, mates. As these boys and girls grow up, they take this learned behaviour into relationships.

So when a boy and a girl get together the boy is wary and behaves accordingly. Thus, he will get involved more slowly and not relinquish so much of his "single" life and therefore the things that define him and give him his sense of self - football, work, friends, nights out or just doing whatever he needs to make him feel good. Girls tend not to be so canny, the poor cows. They are much more likely, whether they care to admit it or not, to throw themselves into a relationship. And why not? They have not been taught to avoid them, or to fear intimacy (although Lord knows they should!). So the foundations are set and the early seeds for LoSS are planted.

Then, because women are - generally - more flexible than men, and because of all the reasons already stated, they find themselves ditching the things that made them feel good - flirting, dressing like slags, spending time with their friends on their own and not as part of a couple. Instead they can find themselves forgetting what they like and taking on their partner's hobbies and interests. And so it goes on and, as the years pass, the woman will lose more and more of her sense of identity. All too often there comes payback time, four years, ten years or fifteen years down the line. The woman will "wake up" and get out, often saying she needs to "find herself". Then she will experience feeling alive, exhilarated or empowered again. Until she gets into another relationship...

Dr Jane Ussher is senior lecturer in psychology and research director of the Women's Health Research Group at University College London. Her latest book, Fantasies of Femininity, Reframing the Boundaries of Sex looks specifically at this and explains in far greater detail how little girls are bombarded with fairy tales where the woman needs a man to save her and how this "One day, my prince will come" scenario is carried through into magazines for teenagers and grown-up women. Ussher's top tips for not getting submerged? "If women could get to the state where they could feel happy to be on their own and a relationship was an addition to their lives rather than a necessity, then paradoxically, they'd be much happier. And keep a sense of self, don't turn yourself into someone your partner wants you to be. If you stay 'whole' the relationship has a much better chance of working in the long run."

A second opinion is always a good thing, so I turned to Gabrielle Rifkind, a group analyst and psychotherapist with fifteen years experience. Here a nifty bit of psycho-speak came up: "Women have difficulty with separation and individuation - being separate and yet connected, so that you have two separate selves that come together on equal terms." Rifkind further underlines the danger of women giving up too much and men not giving up enough. "Women are too quick to relinquish the things that make them feel good, while men hold on to them. Because of this women tend to get 'merged' with their partner and go through a loss of sense of self."

Let's not get lost:

the road map

AFTER SEVERAL weeks of submerging myself in this subject I began to understand what needed to be done to avoid waking up one day feeling like a less sparkling version of your former self. 1) Be more selfish: if you need time/space on your own, do it, even if it seems mean. I can barely write this because it seems so American but spending time with yourself is invaluable to recharge your batteries. 2) If you move in together, have your own room so you can listen to your own music, chat to all your friends and be yourself. 3) Keep male, as well as female, friends and make sure you go on seeing them on your own. 4) If you like flirting when you're single, keep flirting when you're part of a couple. If your boyfriend doesn't like it then chuck him. It's important to women's sense of self to have their attractiveness affirmed by men other than their partners. I know it sounds crap but we're brought up to believe that being attractive is important so there's no point fighting it. But the most important thing of all is 5). Have a true sense of who you are and what you like in the first place and stay true to that whether you're in a relationship or not.