The Couple Chameleon

“Who are you and what have you done with my friend?!” How to deal when your mate is morphing into her man…

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
“Who are you and what have you done with my friend?!” How to deal when your mate is morphing into her man…
Corbis, Splash News/Click Photos
Corbis, Splash News/Click Photos

The last time Amanda*, 25, saw her cousin Sarah, 27, she was dating an iron-pumping give-me-all-the-meat CrossFit addict who rocked a mean “Shut Up and Train” tee. And Sarah was the same. She was on a strict protein-only diet, doing the whole tights-as-pants thing and raving about a new abs workout that gave her a six-pack in, like, a week. This is the same cousin who is now, just one year and a breakup later, talking about getting Sanskrit tattoos, going off the grid and moving to Bali with her new yoga-teaching vegan squeeze (who, FYI, doesn’t wear shoes at all). Coincidence? We think not.

“Every time we catch up, she seems to be going through a different phase that revolves around the guy she’s dating,” Amanda explains. “We all joke around about it, but I do worry that she changes who she is a little too much.”

But dating is supposed to be about compromise, right? Well, sort of, says principle psychologist Rachel Voysey. “We expect our friends to make a few changes to accommodate their new partners,” she says. “However, if they compromise their identities over time, they may become resentful because they aren’t who they really want to be.” We’ll be the first to admit that maintaining a sense of self while in a relationship can be hard. So hard. Especially if you’re in that I-wannabe- with-you-all-the-time-even-whenyou- have-morning-breath-and-youhaven’t- washed-the-dishes early days phase. For the Sarahs (doing the changing) and the Amandas (watching a friend), we’ve put together a guide to resisting the curse of the couple chameleon.

The diagnosis

That term we just dropped? Yep, it’s a thing. The couple chameleon changes everything from her looks to her likes and lifestyle every time she starts dating someone new. And we’re not just talking about turning up to a friend’s party in matching denim jackets – that’s sort of adorable. Couple chameleons or partner morphers leave their “single selves” well behind and basically become who they’re dating. Suddenly, they’re really into things they were “meh” about before (Amanda: “I swear Sarah hated kale”) and eliminating the many things they were previously crushing on (Amanda: “Since when was Sarah not obsessed with Instagram?”). “Often, the first thing we notice is that they’re making less time for their good friends and own interests, and are disappearing rapidly into their partner’s social circles, activities and way of life,” warns Rachel.

Another red flag to watch out for is if you see your friend losing her self-confidence and self-respect, adds Dr Jillian Bromley, director of Fernhill Psychology and Counselling. She explains: “If your friend was previously confident and independent, it’s certainly a sign that she might be drawn into a relationship where she is in danger of losing some of her freedom.” And this is worrying. For starters, if your mate’s given up on her interests and on who she is so she can “fit in” with the guy she’s dating, what happens if they don’t work out?

Rachel agrees: “The excitement of their new love life may have her world spinning. But if they don’t keep their eyes on something steady, like who they really are, it doesn’t take much for them to suddenly lose balance and crash if things take an unexpected turn.”

The intervention

We’ve listened to enough Beyoncé songs to know that maintaining a strong sense of self is Girl Power 101, and holds the key to happiness (both when you’re alone or coupledup). If your friend has gone all Optimus Prime and transformed her everything since the appearance of her new beau, Dr Jillian suggests you amp up the BFF love. “Hang in there! Continue being a friend and keep asking her to do girlfriend stuff without the man in tow,” she recommends. “Remind her about her strengths and keep doing the things you used to do together before Mr Charisma came into her life.” On top of that, Rachel emphasises the importance of expressing your observations from a position of care. “Let her know you’re looking out for her best interests, and are checking in to make sure that she’s mindfully making the changes to who she is.” Hey, who knows, she might even be completely oblivious to how much she’s compromised and be appreciative that you pointed it out to her. “However, she may react. Always try to remain open and supportive rather than judgmental or critical,” says Rachel. If she’s not into the discussion, let it go. That way, your friend is more likely to feel she can trust you later if it does start to affect her.

Frustrating as it might be to see your friend in that situation, just be there for her without being too confrontational. “Give her plenty of opportunity to talk about how the relationship is going. Maybe the love and the sex is wonderful and a balance will evolve,” adds Dr Jillian. “Or maybe she will become worried about losing herself in the relationship and seek your help.”

The cure

If you’ve read this far and thought, “Err, hang on a minute, I think I might be the couple chameleon”, then a) hi and b) don’t freak out… yet. Firstly, if you’re worried because you spent all of last weekend watching action movies as opposed to all those cute Korean dramas you enjoy, don’t be. The same goes for your new-found interest in whiskey, politics and Mixed Martial Arts. Learning all about who your new guy is and what he’s into is one of the best things about dating. Hello, new taste in food, booze, bad movies and terrible music.

“Some change, or give and take, is inevitable when putting two separate lives together to make a harmonious one,” assures Dr Jillian. “But think – and talk – about your personal values and goals in life, and make sure that your ideas become part of the change and there is still plenty of opportunity to pursue the things that are important to you.”

However, if you’re actively trying to change who you are to fit in with your partner, that’s a different story. “It can certainly be a damaging pattern to be in if you find you are continuously getting into relationships by trying to be who you think your partners wants,” says Rachel. If you find yourself feeling disconnected from your friends and family, and like you’ve lost a sense of yourself, open up to someone you can trust and let them know how you’re feeling. “Happiness is almost always gained from living life in a way that is in line with the dreams and ideas about what we want to do with our lives,” Rachel tells us. And you know what? A truly amazing partner wouldn’t want you to change a single thing.

My Reading Room

The Ultimate Couple Chameleon: Brad Pitt

When you Google “Brad Pitt looks like”, one of the results from the autocomplete function is “his girlfriends”. So we’re not the only ones who noticed that the A-list actor has a habit of, well, morphing into his other half. Here’s a #throwback of possibly the world’s most infamous couple chameleon.


+Your entire wardrobe has had a major makeover since you guys hooked up. In fact, people don’t recognise you.

+You share a Facebook, Instagram and Twitter account because the both of you post the same stuff.

+His friends love you. And yours? You haven’t seen them in ages.

+You’d go anywhere in the world to be with him. Even if it meant quitting your job and moving out of your awesome apartment (you’ve been dating for a week).

Take Your “Transforming” Temperature

+If someone wants to contact him, they call you because they know you’re always together.

+Your guy doesn’t know that you secretly hate mountain bike riding (his #2 love).You fake it so well.

+The two of you have at least three matching outfits.

+Your taste in music has done a flip since meeting him. He’s introduced you to so many cool bands you genuinely like.