Finding the “I” in the “we” : three modes of identity merger in close relationships



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Upon entering a relationship, individuals merge their identities with their partner’s identities to form a relational self. This proposal draws from the self-expansion and identity fusion theories to suggest three ways in which the identity merger process can unfold, with individuals either: losing their personal identities (forfeited-self mode), disproportionately influencing the relational self (imperialistic-self mode), or integrating their identities with their partner’s identities in a balanced manner (fused-self mode). I describe seven studies that aim to 1) validate a measure of these identity merger modes and explore their unique effects on personal and relational outcomes; and 2) investigate the nature of these identity merger modes. Studies 1, 2, and 3 assess discriminant and criterion validity of these identity merger modes. Studies 2 and 3 also test the hypothesis that feelings of personal agency statistically mediate the association of identity merger modes with relationship quality and responses to relationship threats and difficulties. Study 4 measures the longitudinal effects of identity merger modes in a newlywed sample through tracking how identity merger modes are linked to responses to relationship conflicts over the course of two weeks. Study 5 tests the causal effects of the identity merger modes on experimentally manipulated threats to the relationship and the partner. Study 6 explores how people’s construals about their partners and themselves differ among the identity merger modes using a reaction time task. Finally, Study 7 investigates more ecologically valid evidence of direction of influence within identity merger modes through assessing language use and verbal communication patterns between spouses. I predict that only the fused-self mode will be associated with positive relationship quality and resilience to relationship difficulties due to high personal agency within the relationship. Those in the forfeited-self mode would experience low agency within relationships and consequently internalize relationship difficulties. Finally, I predict that those in the imperialistic-self mode would respond maladaptively to relationship difficulties.