Is it possible to figure out what you want out of your life while in a committed relationship? My boyfriend and I started dating when we were 16, when we were still young and impressionable. Now, we're both 24 years old, and while we are very much in love with one another, we're both feeling as though we do not know ourselves as individuals. And while we want to figure ourselves out while being together, we have tried — though not very successfully — and it hasn't quite worked so far. So, is it possible to figure yourself out while in a relationship? Or is it best to just cut ties despite the love you feel for another and take time out for yourself, alone?
— In Love but Confused
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Dear In Love and Confused,
Wow. Your question really hits home, and I'll try to answer it with the wisdom of my experiences and those of my friends.
I, too, asked this question when I was 24 after having been with my boyfriend, my first love, since I was 18. (Not quite as long you.) I had the 20-something equivalent of the seven-year-itch. I'd never been with another person, I'd moved in with the boyfriend at a young age, and although we had different things going on (he was older and had a career that he loved and I was in college), I felt that there was a big world out there I wasn't exploring so we could be together.
In my case, ultimately, the decision was easier because my restlessness had to do with wanting to having other sexual experiences with people. I loved him, but knew that if I stayed with him, my curiosity would get the better of me. Although it was one of the toughest decisions I had to make, and there were many doubts and tears, I didn't regret my decision to break up with him and move on.
Having said that, I also know people who have remained with the people they fell in love with as teens who are leading happy and fulfilled lives in which the experiences they have separately add to the relationship they have together. The relationship, for each of them, is a place where they not only share experiences that expand their sense of self (they travel together, volunteer together, have similar hobbies), but where, after they do their own thing separately (with their own set of friends, their own travel adventures, etc.) they can come back to the relationship without the other person feeling left out or intimidated by their partner's separateness.
This is where it can get tricky. What experiences contribute to that feeling of "individuality" as you refer to it? There are things you might not be able to discover while in a committed relationship — in my case, it was experiences with other people. Or let's say you want to travel abroad. Unless your boyfriend can do that with you, you might have to spend some time apart. Will you both be OK with being apart and being monogamous? Would you be able to take a break from your relationship, and the monogamy, with an agreement to be back together and see how it goes? Maybe counseling could help you figure out what it is exactly that feels missing, so you could experiment before you "cut ties" with this person you sound like you're really in love with. (I'm curious about what it was you tried and wasn't successful.)
Whether you met when you were 16 or 25 (or 35, 45 or 55!), the challenge of maintaining your individuality in a couple will remain. I know some people who met at ripe old ages who are in stifling relationships that end up being excuses for not exploring who they really are. You definitely have a challenge, but one that's not insurmountable. The question is, how creative can you be, how honest can you be, how flexible can you be? Try out everything you can, and if at the end of the day, you decide that the only way you can find yourselves is to be apart, maybe you can make a pact to meet up again at a certain age and see if it works?
Not losing yourself in a relationship is something everyone — of all ages — experiences. I have a feeling you two can be honest with each other to try everything out to see what works best for you. If you were meant to be together, it will all work out in the end. Good luck, stay present with what you're feeling, and be honest with yourself and your boyfriend.
— A Buddhist