Many people stay in self-defeating relationships too long because they are afraid that they’ll be alone or that they are responsible for the happiness of their partner. They may say they want out but they end up staying. Other people may actually be successful in leaving the relationship but inevitably repeat the same or similar self-destructive pattern in a new relationship. The adrenaline rush that they experience when they feel passionate about someone can be addictive. For many people, the reason behind excessive emotional reliance on a partner is co-dependency. This means that they have a tendency to put other’s 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?” His 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 often realize that my clients aren’t always aware that they may be overly dependent on their partner in order 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? The first thing that you need to do is acknowledge it. Fear doesn’t go away by itself. You have to stare it in the face. Fear has the obnoxious tendency 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.
Research has shown that most American families are dysfunctional in some way, so you’re in the majority if you grew up in one. As strange as it may sound, for many of us, conflict in relationships is comfortable because pain is what we know. For those people for whom this is true, the fear of getting hurt emotionally may cause them to flee a healthy relationship or engage in some form of self-protective behavior by staying in an unhealthy one. 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 a foreign concept.
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 a partner’s 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.
Many of the people who I work with describe themselves as independent, loyal and conscientious. These individuals 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 these wonderful characteristics, many of these people find themselves being attracted to troubled, distant, or moody partners at some point in their lives.
I sat down for a session with Spencer* one afternoon. An outgoing and lively twenty-something, he has found herself in an on and off-again relationship for seven years with a woman he just can’t seem to successfully break away from. Over the course of my time working with him, I have learned that Spencer never wants to be responsible for a relationship ending. And when his partner, Emily*, doesn’t treat him well or devalues his love, he wonders why he wasn’t worth fighting for. Spencer dreams of a girlfriend who offers him love and respect. But he says whenever he runs across a woman who could potentially give him those things, he isn’t attracted to her. All he knows is the cycle of inadequacy and mistrust.
Author Allison Pescosolido writes, “Nothing erodes self-esteem quicker than an unhealthy relationship. Many [people] 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. In my work, and even in my own life, I have 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 online resources can be tremendously helpful to support 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 attached to 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 example, may be preventing you from finding the love and happiness you deserve. Maybe you’re blocking out the opportunity to love someone who can meet you halfway. 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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Photo courtesy iStock.
This post previously published on TJWalshTherapy and is republished with the permission of the author.