Many people stay in self-defeating relationships too long because they are fearful of being alone or feel responsible for their partner's happiness. They may say they want out — but they end up staying. Others may leave but repeat the same or a similar self-destructive pattern in a new relationship. The adrenaline rush that they experience when they feel passionate toward someone can be addictive. For many people, the reason behind excessive emotional reliance on a partner is codependency — a tendency to put others' needs before their own.
Recently, I asked a client this question: "What is it that stops you from getting what you want out of a relationship?" Her answer was: "It's too hard to go through a breakup and to be alone." My response went something like this: "Maybe it's time to examine your fears and the ways you might be self-sabotaging." I find that many people aren't always aware that they may be excessively dependent on their partner to feel good about themselves.
So what can you do if you are paralyzed by fear or unable to risk leaving a relationship that is unhealthy for you? First, you need to acknowledge the anxiety. Fear doesn't go away by itself — it tends to morph into something else. If you sometimes find that you sabotage your own needs in relationships, there could be many reasons. However, codependency symptoms are common for people who grew up in a dysfunctional home—especially if you took on the role of a caretaker.
According to codependency expert, Darlene Lancer, most American families are dysfunctional — so you're in the majority if you grew up in one. She writes, "Researchers also found that codependent symptoms got worse if left untreated. The good news is that they're reversible."
Many people fear getting hurt emotionally and might flee a healthy relationship or engage in some form of self-protective behavior by staying in an unhealthy one. For many people, pain is what they know. Conflict is comfortable. Dealing with an unavailable, distant, or inappropriate partner is their "wheelhouse". A partner who wants nothing more than to be with them and make them a top priority is alien.
Do you find yourself falling into one or more of these codependent relationship patterns?
- People pleasing: You go above and beyond to make others happy. You might avoid confronting your partner about important issues because you fear rejection or worry more about his or her feelings than your own.
- Define your self-worth by others: Do you care too much about what others think of you?
- Ignore red flags: Do you ignore a partner's dishonesty, possessiveness, or jealous tendencies?
- Give too much in a relationship: You might even ignore your own self-care or feel that you're being selfish if you take care of yourself.
- Have poor boundaries: This can mean you have trouble saying "no" to the requests of others or allow others to take advantage of you.
- Stay in a relationship with someone who is distant, unavailable, or abusive — even though you know deep down inside that they may never meet your emotional needs.
The vast majority of the over 300 women that I interviewed for my book Daughters of Divorce, described themselves as independent, steadfast, loyal, and conscientious. They are hardworking, trustworthy, and self-reliant — and pride themselves on these traits. They often feel self-assured and autonomous, confident they can take care of themselves while others can't. The truth is that in spite of many wonderful traits, many of the women I met with found themselves being attracted to troubled, distant, or moody men at some point in their lives — and dismissed "nice guys" as boring.
I sat down for coffee with Haley one afternoon. A beautiful, outgoing, and lively twenty-something, she has found herself in an on-and-off-again relationship for seven years with a guy she just can't seem to break away from. Haley never wants to be responsible for a relationship ending. And when her partner, Tyler, doesn't treat her well, or devalues her love, she wonders why she wasn't worth fighting for. She longs for a boyfriend who offers her love, security, and respect. But she says whenever she runs across a man who could potentially give her those things, she isn't attracted to him. All she knows is the cycle of inadequacy and mistrust.
In a recent Huffington Post article Why Women Stay in Bad Marriages, author Allison Pescosolido writes, "Nothing erodes self-esteem quicker than an unhealthy relationship. Many women remain in dysfunctional marriages because they are convinced that this is what they deserve." In some cases, there is no need to end the relationship. I've learned that relationships can heal if people change. But in order to heal from an unhealthy pattern of codependency, it's important to regain control of your thoughts and make your needs a priority.
Steps to Reclaiming Healthy Love in Your Life:
- Visualize yourself in a loving relationship that meets your needs. If your current relationship is destructive, look at ways you self-sabotage and examine your own behaviors.
- Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about your self-worth. You don't need to prove anything to another person about your worth.
- Notice your negative self-judgments. Be kind and compassionate toward yourself.
- Remind yourself daily that it's healthy to accept help from others and a sign of strength rather than weakness. Counseling, friendships, and on-line resources can be tremendously helpful to supporting you in your journey of finding a happy relationship.
- Don't let your fear of rejection stop you from achieving loving, intimate relationships. Surrender your shield and let others in.
Take a moment to consider that you might be hooked on the feeling that being in love brings pain. If so, you might be self-sabotaging your chances of having a healthy relationship where you can get your needs met. Your fear of being alone or taking a risk, for instance, might be preventing you from finding the love and happiness you deserve. You may be freezing out the opportunity to love someone who can meet you half way. Author Karen McMahon writes, "By focusing on your healing and personal growth you will energetically transform your life and begin to attract others (friends, bosses, companions) who are your emotional equals."
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