By Sara Radin
Lately, I have realized how much of my romantic life has been full of contradictions; for a long time, I craved a relationship as a way to fill the voids of myself and yet, at the same time I was incredibly fearful of real intimacy. I regularly went after emotionally unavailable men who hid behind seemingly attractive exteriors; guys with inquisitive minds, good looks and cool, artsy jobs. But masked behind their long hair and Van’s sneakers were bruised egos and repressed childhood hurts. I recently had two startling yet totally sensible thoughts: maybe deep down inside I knew they would eventually leave and that’s what attracted me to them in the first place. And two, the partners we pick often mirror ourselves. Fuck.
At that time, I attempted to make each guy fit like an outfit that’s one size to small but might just work, but in reality my closet was overflowing with outfits that were all the wrong sizes. I fashioned myself to suit the needs of toxic men, routinely forgetting about my own. I didn’t know how I felt about anyone then, let alone myself. I didn’t know what I wanted in a partner, or for myself. So I let myself get swept up in the idea of someone. I forfeited my power and put off figuring out my personal goals, giving them the steering wheel to my heart. Needless to say, there were a lot of road trips that more often than not, left me lost and hurt.
Back then, I wanted a relationship because I thought I needed a relationship. I thought I needed a relationship because I assumed everyone expected me to be in a relationship. I spent a lot of time letting others expectations get the best of me. Concurrently, I used to be the kind of person who expected too much from the guys I dated while I simultaneously, expected way too little. I lusted for their constant attention, and if I didn’t have it, I was overcome with anxiety and fear of abandonment. I wanted affection so badly, but whenever I finally had it, I felt incredibly uncomfortable. I didn’t know it then that being afraid of losing control in a relationship was the marker of something rather sinister.
I prided myself on being an honesty advocate yet when it came to relationships, I always failed to speak up about my needs. I was scared that saying how I really felt would make them run away. Boundaries were just not in my lexicon: whenever past partners didn’t follow through on things, I let them get away with treating me less than. I constantly gave them the benefit of the doubt; putting them on a pedestal and making unnecessary excuses for them. He’s going through a lot right now. He has a ton of work. He’s focused on his career. Instead of accepting them for who they were, I imagined the partners they could be for me one day down the road. I drafted our fanciful future in my head, instead of paying attention to what was happening right in front of me.
I wasn’t ready for anything long term anyways, so who was I to judge that they were not the perfect person yet?
While I’ve always thought of myself as a wildly independent person (I’m an aquarius after all), I have since learned, thanks to psychotherapy, that I also exhibit signs of codependency and this has caused me a number of relationship and intimacy issues. According to Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”
Kristin Lyons, a New York-based psychotherapist, believes that the condition forms during childhood, often when a child is brought up with are parents who are not emotionally or physically present. As my father was not fully present during my own childhood, this makes sense. Moreover, in the absence of my dad, I grew increasingly more attached to my mother.
Due to these circumstances, people with codependent tendencies tend to lack a strong sense of self, sparking difficult patterns in which they often put others needs before their own. “Codependents find it challenging to identify or ask for what it is they need, demonstrate challenges in identifying or processing feelings, and often report feeling a deep sense of emptiness,” she says. Furthermore, codependents feel responsible for everyone else’s feelings while often abandoning their connection with themselves, which is required to keep us protected.
In relationships, codependent people can have trouble making decisions on their own, rely heavily on their partner’s emotional support, and are quick to surrender to the needs or wants of their partner while abandoning their own feelings or emotional experience. “Codependency in relationships can flare up very young wounds that have not been processed or worked through, making it challenging to have a whole and healthy relationship that feels safe.” Ultimately, codependents can often feel as if they would cease to exist without their partner.
While I took the last year off from dating, which has given me ample alone time to stabilize myself and make strides on my long term goals, psychotherapy has helped me be more conscious of the things I wrestle with from time to time, allowing me to break bad habits and lay the foundation for the life I’ve always wanted.
Examining how I learned to relate to the world has taught me to identify challenging relational patterns and given me the tools to establish a stronger bond with myself. A big part of this process has been identifying how I feel, taking responsibility for my emotions, experimenting with setting boundaries and asking for things I need from my loved ones. Though this experience has been difficult and intimidating at times, I continue to grow more and more independent and assertive.
As I slowly start to open myself up to dating again, I feel better equipped to do so in a way that is mindful and healthy because I now know how to stay present with my feelings, pay attention to who and what makes me feel anxious, and develop more autonomy. Today I feel wholeheartedly fulfilled on my own, and I no longer let expectations define my happiness; moving forward, I will take my time to get to know potential partners slowly, make a conscious effort not to idealize them, and also only keep people around who make me feel safe and secure.
In the process of learning about codependency, I’ve come to realize that life is rarely black and white, and that contradictions and imperfections are nothing to be ashamed of. For me, what matters most is my ability to recognize challenging patterns and my willingness to continue learning about myself. These days, the power of self-knowledge feels limitless and ripe with inspiration.