As codependents, we lose ourselves in relationships, unaware that losing our Self is the greatest despair.
When the relationship inevitably ends, it’s devastating, because we are lost. We lack autonomy because that task wasn’t completed by adulthood. The struggle to achieve it is typical of codependent relationships.
Often there are power struggles, characterized by repeated, unresolved arguments, either about a single recurring issue or numerous trivial things. Many of them boil down to the question of who has control, whose needs will be met, or how intimate they will be. Intimacy problems are a common symptom of codependency.
Avoidance of intimacy and the vulnerability that occurs when we open up is a way to maintain control and autonomy. We fear that closeness makes us more dependent on our partner and exposed to being judged and hurt. These outcomes aren’t necessarily true but hearken back to a traumatic or dysfunctional childhood when being vulnerable and dependent was unsafe. Some people feel unsafe both in and out of a relationship. The more we’re threatened by closeness and autonomy, the greater is the conflict in the relationship.
How We Lose Ourselves
We lose ourselves gradually in small imperceptible ways. It can start with romance, when it’s normal to want to please our loved one and spend much of our time together.However, emotionally mature adults don’t drop their activities, give up their lives (they have a life), or overlook improper behavior of their partner, despite strong physical attraction.
1) STAGES OF CODEPENDENCY
Many codependents do fine on their own, but once in a relationship, the stages of codependency take hold. When there is “chemistry,” they overlook negative indicators that might be a warning not to get involved. It’s actually true that feel-good chemicals in our brain start to alleviate our emptiness, so that we want more of that drug. We don’t want to lose those good feelings. Hence, we become increasingly preoccupied with and dependent upon our loved one. The desire to please can lead to obsession, denial about our partner’s behavior, and doubt about our own perceptions. Boundaries become blurred so that we don’t say “no” or set limits on what we’re willing to do or what we’ll accept from our partner. Not only that, confusion arises between what our partner feels and our own feelings. We feel responsible for them, too. If he’s sad, then I’m sad, too–as the Barry Manilow song goes. If she’s angry, it must be my fault.
We’re confused (or never really knew) what we believe, what are our values and opinions. We may not have noticed this until we got involved in a serious relationship. In the middle stage of codependency, we give up our hobbies, outside interests, friends, and sometimes relationship(s) with our relative(s) to be with our partner. Usually, we do this willingly at the start of a relationship, but later may do so to comply with our partner’s wishes. Although our choices seem desirable or necessary, we’re not consciously aware of the price we pay: Our Self!
2) DISEASE OF A “LOST SELF.”
This is why codependency is a disease of a “lost Self.” Because our identity is referenced externally, we prioritize our relationships above our self, not occasionally, which would be normal, but repeatedly. In important relationships, we dread losing our connection with others or their approval. With our partner, we sacrifice ourselves over and over in small and big ways―from insignificant concessions to giving up a career, cutting off a relative, or condoning or participating in unethical behavior that before would have seemed unimaginable.
A pattern of compliance develops and new norms are established, like the gradual restrictions on Jews in Nazi Germany. Over time, we build up guilt, anger, and resentment that’s often silent. We blame ourselves. Our self-esteem and self-respect, if we had any coming into the relationship, are whittled away. We become anxious and depressed, more obsessive and/or compulsive. We slowly give up choice and freedom until we feel trapped and hopeless, while our depression and despair grow. We may develop an addiction or physical symptoms. Eventually, we can become a shell of our former self.