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I have a girlfriend whom I love very much. She is very intelligent and has a warm, caring personality. However, one thing I noticed is that she is somewhat reluctant to have her own opinions on a lot of topics. Sometimes, I just want to hear what she thinks and it's hard to do, without her leaning on the opinions of her family or other friends. I want her to develop her own identity in a sort.

When I talked to her about it, she says she is afraid that being too opinionated may affect how her social circle sees her, and she may be judged negatively. I noticed she has on more than one occasion, abandoned plans we made because there are "family issues" or her family needs her. I tried to convince her that having her own thoughts is a good thing, and she should not be afraid to display her own individuality. If she wants to turn down what her family is asking for, it's fine for her to express that. Having reasonable boundaries is healthy. I love my parents, but I also maintain my own preferences.

I tried to reason that while family support is important and I support a healthy family, she and I will need to live apart as a family foremost. However, she doesn't seem to fully accept what I say and sometimes discussion turn to accusations / arguments. What seems like healthy independence and personal boundaries to me, seems like rudeness to her. If cultural aspects matters, I am from United States and she is from Eastern Europe - former Soviet Republic.

  • How can I help my girlfriend to find her own identity and learn to express herself more freely?
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    Also, I think those are two different issues you've raised here- the first one being that you'd like to encourage your girlfriend to stand for her own opinions, and the other one being that you'd like to tell her that she doesn't have to do everything her family and relatives ask for. I think it'd be best to have two separate questions to address these two points, as these are different issues. Would that be okay for you? – avazula Jul 9 at 5:46
  • I'm guessing that "for Soviet Republic" was a typo of "former Soviet Republic", so I edited it that way. Please roll back if I'm wrong. – DaveG Jul 9 at 12:46
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You can not change your girlfriend. You can only be there for her, if she herself want to change.

Yes, you can stress her, until she change for you. But this is manipulative and can not result in a healthy, happy partnership. (see "Edit" for details)

Boundaries are an important thing in this. Your boundaries, her boundaries, your boundaries as partners.

Your boundary is to accept her opinion to support her family. But your boundary is too to support this behavior not more like you can stand, or you want to do for your girlfriend. You could say: No, I have worked 1234 hours today for others, now is 1 hour time only for me.

Her boundary is to not support her family more than she can stand. If she became issues because she supports them more, you are there to help in "first aid" and talk with her, to find the reasons of this issues. The main argument here is: She can not help the family, if she herself is not healthy and fit!* To have the power to help her family long term, she has to look at herself and her own needs. This is the point, where you can support her, if she agrees with it.

*(healthy and fit means for me: her body is healthy, and her mind is fit, i.e. she feels good most the time, has no pain, is well adjusted/mentally stable and has enough sleep, eats well and so on)

If you both are aware of your boundaries against others (you are not your girlfriend, your girlfriend is not you or her family), you can work together for boundaries between both of you and all others. This "both of you" grows with time and intimacy. It is the transition from "children of our families" to "our own family" (possible "parents of our children").

The bad thing - and it is this one which make us all act strange sometimes - is: You can not guarantee, that she will act, like you want it. It could be the case, that she could not find her boundary "against" her family, so you have to decide, if you can stand this or have to leave her. Also there is the possibility, that she can not stand your expectations in her, and leave you. And all the other uncertainties a live with more than one person brings with it...

If your boundaries are overstretched or violated, then you should talk about this honest and about the consequences too. But you should not use the possible consequences as bargaining chip to force her. If you do so, we are back at the point "manipulative". Only talk about consequences, if you honest are determined to do them.

Long in short:

How can I help my girlfriend to find her own identity and learn to express herself more freely?

Help her to find her boundaries (mental, in health and ethic/conscience), respect them and be there when she reach out for help.

Edit:

Like Tim explained, there are some experiences, which would change a person effectively. But in a healthy partnership and generally no where one person should plan to change another person by such dramatic experiences!

Manipulation (for example see "gaslighting" or "toxic relationships") alike should be no way for a healthy relationship/partnership.

Because the OP has interest in help his "girlfriend be more expressive of herself and develop own identity", I do not associated this question with the above mentioned ways to change persons.

Second Edit / Sources:

I am myself was the girlfriend.

I am a very empathetic person, and it is sometimes hard for me, to differ between my feelings and this of someone I am very close with (partner, parents, close friends).

There was a point (when I "had" my partner for about 3 - 4 years) when I realized, that I have trouble with defining a border between my needs and the needs of my parents. Sometimes I had an opinion, we (my partner and I) had act accordingly this opinion, and after that I realized: I am not happy with this decision! So I learn to look more at my needs, and to differ between my own wishes and this of my surrounding.

My partner was there, if I were unhappy with a situation and supported me to find the reasons. He has not looked for faults (not by me, not by my parents), only "What can you do next time?" and "How can I support you next time?". Because of this I have tried some ways and found this one I can live a good life with.

The second "source" for me were visits in a self-help group (because of another reason, but some interesting insights into "being human"). My main insight was: I am not responsible for the mood of other people. And I could not make other people responsible for mine. Moods (of others) are like the weather, I do not have the duty to change it, because I can not! (With constrains it is likewise for my own mood). Before I have this insight, I do not even know I feels responsible for the mood/luck of my parents/partner/friends, but I have done.

  • Accepting this answer as I feel the message "help others by first looking after yourself" is what I am looking for. Thank you! – Anthony Jul 14 at 22:21
  • I think, the core is to find a balance between own needs and the wish to help. – Allerleirauh Jul 15 at 7:21
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It takes about one minute after reading the question to realise the almost staggering amount of power behind the dynamics at play in this situation.

The very first issue here is how old the both of you are, how long the relationship has been going on, how serious it really is for the long term (if you're definitely planning it to be for the long term), how invested you are in the matter, how intimately you know her and her family and how intimately you'll eventually be allowed to know all of them, whether or not you're already considered to be close to the family ("part" of the "core" or actually on the fringes) and how much you know of the inherent history of the family and the circumstances / environment in which she grew up.

Not to be rude or anything, but I don't agree with "avazula" that the girlfriend standing for her own opinions on the one hand, and not having to do whatever her family asks of her on the other, are two separate issues. I don't think people's minds work in that way, the one being separable from the other.

You already have a good indication of what you're "up against": "What seems like healthy independence and personal boundaries to me, seems like rudeness to her." You state "If cultural aspects matters" - I have yet to see when it wouldn't.

As far as I'm concerned, you're actually doing exactly the wrong thing by reasoning and arguing about all of this with her. It's almost inevitable that her security has thus far greatly lain with her family, and still does. You're attacking her "comfort zone" and the source of safety she's absolutely certain of.

One thing that springs to mind, is whether you actually want her to achieve reaching her "own identity" and "learn to express herself more freely" for her sake, or for yours. For example, you're trying to compare her situation and personality with yours and your opinions about it: "Having reasonable boundaries" and "I love my parents, but I also maintain my own preferences". Here's another concern: "she doesn't seem to fully accept what I say and sometimes discussion turn to accusations / arguments". You demand from her to have her "own opinions" as far as her family or tradition is concerned, but not when it comes to her opinions regarding your opinions? Again, not to be rude or anything, but this is one of the distinctive traits of your culture.

If you're the sort of person who takes another as much into consideration as yourself, the only avenue to follow is create for her the same environment of safety and security and acceptance than she now has with her family - which'll mean a lot of selfless temporary (at least) sacrifice of your own opinions.

Once you've reached that point, she'll experience an environment in which she can freely have her "own opinions" and find her "own identity", although it seems a little arrogant for you to think that you're the one to decide / determine what that identity would be. That is, if the aim is not that she'd actually be echoing your opinions.

Whatever's going on here, you're really trespassing on anyone's privilege to behave towards their own family as they've experienced since childhood and are comfortable with. It doesn't seem as though there are anything negative about their relationship, such as abuse or manipulation or whatnot, it simply doesn't suit you.

It might help you to take a long, proper look at your own attitude in this situation.

Background to this answer :

I've been involved with three Eastern European immigrant families about three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the one family's two boys - one aged twelve and the other ten - of which one was a high-functioning autist. The three families immigrated with the intent to collectively relocate in their new country for a joint purpose.

Over a period of five years, after having been one of their first contacts with "civilian" life - i.e. not officials and work related contacts - and the nature of contact with an autistic boy, I've learnt a lot about those people's mindset, particularly how close-knit the families are, how protective they are of each other - especially the parents towards the children - how much they value their family bonds and culture and how difficult it was to start assimilating in a new culture and it's social patterns and nuances - which made them even more protective of each other, even in terms of the three families guarding over each other. The thing that particularly bothered them, was people considering their culture backward - especially not being more carefree about their family bonds - and occasionally trying to convince them to "convert" to the western culture, as it were. Much of what the OP wrote, is representative of the attitude of the westerners towards them at that stage: you're rather naive, primitive and artless, we insist on teaching you real sophistication and enlightenment. In actuality, those people had human qualities which were far superior to their detractors', specifically the commitment, compassion and dedication of all of them towards the autistic boy.

Beyond that, I'd rather not expand much on having had a school acquaintance who (whilst at university) persuaded a girl whom I'd become acquainted with, to become his (first ever) girlfriend and almost unhinged her emotionally, had I not stepped in after about three months. Although she was of the same culture, actually having attended the same primary school than we had, his tactics with "grooming" the girl to his mould, are comparable to that of the OP and the author of another answer here. He apparently thought (parts of his thinking somewhat step-by-step identical to another answer here, the general similarity is almost impossible) that the right way to go about it, is applying his postgraduate engineering principles and rather callous self-imagined superior logic to a human relationship, training her like a dog to heel his step and become a disciplined housewife. I might add that after this failed "relationship", he eventually lured another girl into his web and achieved exactly that.

I think it actually takes somebody who has never been in a romantic relationship (and wouldn't ever consider it), having close to zero social skills and steering a rather bumpy ride through the world of neurotypical human beings and not so human beings, to realise the situation into which people are far too often manipulated and chained.

PS: I've just remembered a cherished expression that my former school acquaintance has often uttered - always theatrically pretending it to be said in the high art of jest (complete with fake facial expressions): If I wanted your opinion, I would've given it to you. Meanwhile, I knew him well enough by far to be fully aware thereof that it isn't jest, at all.

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I was in an almost identical situation. I will not describe the details in my case, since they were almost identical to what you already explained.

What I did: during the discussions, we got to the point when she stated that she wants to improve. What followed was pretty much similar to this:

  • I asked her for more details, where she notices a problem;
  • one of her points (there were several) was that she was comparing with me (I have education and general culture larger than average);
  • I DID NOT give her advice what she must do to be like me;
  • I asked her about what she wants to to do in her future, how she wants to grow;
  • I pointed out that she cannot grow in all "sciences", arts and everything, at least not all at the same time; that she needs to prioritize;
  • she gave some thought about it - probably several days, I do not remember the details;
  • she decided to grow her knowledge in the area of cooking and family health, healthy food and so on - perfectly suitable for a young woman planning to have a family;
  • based on that we agreed that the most simple and accessible ways to accomplish her growth were to read books and study videos on the internet - suitable to her purposes;
  • she was even lucky to find a cooking course organized by a cook of a respected restaurant in the city - which she attended happily.

The end of my story:

  1. (+) She accomplished her goals, to increase her knowledge and experience in the areas of interest for her.
  2. (+) She found the easy way to further increase her knowledge in other areas as well (books and so on...).
  3. (-) She found herself to be "superior" to me and she left.

How to help my girlfriend be more expressive of herself and develop own identity

In your girlfriend's case it will not help (directly) if she follows cooking classes. But there are countless books about relationships - with family, colleagues, strangers...

That is the first step she can do - find some statements about what has a chance to work. Based on knowledge, her self-confidence will increase, helping her to improve even faster.

I recommend for the beginning:

  • Barbara and Alan Pease - most of their books
  • Dale Carnegie - How to win friends and influence people
  • anything about transactional analysis - the science of interacting maturely with people
  • and many others

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