Rejection and breaking-up are especially hard for codependents — even when the relationship was abusive! It can take longer to get over a breakup, sometimes years, for even a short relationship. Codependents have difficulty letting go. Breakups affect our self-esteem more than it does for people who are secure and confident. This is because breakups trigger hidden grief and cause irrational guilt, anger, shame, and fear.
Many of the issues listed below are true for codependents. Working through them can help you let go and move on.
- If you blame yourself or your partner.
- If you have an insecure attachment style.
- If relationships are of primary importance to you.
- If you have low self-esteem, so rejection triggers shame.
- If you fear this relationship may be your last.
- If you haven’t grieved prior losses.
- If you’ve had depression.
- If you stay in contact with your ex.
- If loss and trauma from your childhood are triggered.
One of the main symptoms of codependency is poor boundaries. Codependents have difficulty seeing others as separate individuals, with feelings, needs, and motivations independent of themselves. They feel responsible and guilty for others’ feelings and actions. Sometimes they blame someone else when they feel guilty or ashamed. This accounts for high reactivity and conflict in codependent relationships.
There may be instances where a person’s addiction, abuse, or infidelity precipitates a breakup. Those behaviors reflect individual issues and are part of a bigger picture of why the relationship didn’t work.
Your ex’s need for space or even to break up may not be a consequence of your behavior, and blaming yourself or your partner doesn’t make it so. The same is true if you were blamed. No one is responsible for someone else’s actions. People always have a choice to do what they do. If you’re feeling guilty, take the suggested steps in my recent e-workbook: Freedom from Guilt and Blame: Finding Self-Forgiveness
Anger and resentment can keep you stuck in the past. Codependents blame others because they have trouble taking responsibility for their own behavior, including a failure to ask for their needs to be met and to set boundaries. They may have been blamed or criticized as a child, and blame is a learned defense to shame that feels natural and protects them from their overdeveloped sense of guilt.
Low Self-Esteem and Shame
Shame is an underlying cause of codependency stemming from early, dysfunctional parenting. Codependents develop the belief that they’re basically flawed in some respect and that they’re unlovable. Children can interpret parental behavior as rejecting and shaming when it’s not meant to be. Even parents who profess their love may alternately behave in ways that communicate you’re not loved as the unique individual who you are.
Shame is often unconscious, but may drive a person to love others who can’t love or don’t love them. In this way, a belief in one's unlovability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy operating beneath conscious awareness. We can get caught in a negative “Cycle of Abandonment.”
Some codependents have a shaming, “I’m defective” or “I’m a failure” script, blaming themselves for anything that goes wrong. Low self-esteem, which is a cognitive self-evaluation, leads to self-attribution of fault and personal defects to explain why someone else wants to end a relationship. For example, if a man cheats, the woman often assumes it’s because she’s not desirable enough, rather than that his motivation comes from his fear of intimacy. Shame can lead to depression. Learning to love yourself can heal shame and improve self-esteem. See my book, Conquering Shame and Codependency.
Relationships are the Answer
In the dysfunctional and insecure family environment in which codependents grow up, they develop strategies and defenses in order to feel safe and loved. Some seek power, some withdraw, and others try to win the love of their parents by adapting to their parents’ needs. Typical codependents keep trying to make relationships work — usually harder than their partner — in order to feel secure and okay with themselves. A close relationship becomes the solution to their inner emptiness and insecurity, and some develop an anxious attachment style.
It’s not unusual for codependents to lose themselves in a relationship, even if they felt independent while on their own. Once in a relationship, they drop their friends, interests, and hobbies — if they had any — once they’re in a relationship. They focus all of their energy on the relationship and their loved one, which helps neither them, nor the relationship. Some couples spend their time talking about it their relationship, instead of enjoying time together. Once it ends, they feel the emptiness of their life without a partner. The adage, “Happiness begins within,” is apt.
Some people intentionally stay connected with their ex on social media, play their special song, look at pictures of their ex. This might be natural in the early stages of a breakup, but after that, it can be an imaginary way to stay connected. However, it definitely prolongs letting go and recovery. If you still stay in contact with your ex, you haven’t broken up, even if you don’t have sex.
Recovery from codependency helps people gain autonomy and assume responsibility for their own happiness. Although a relationship can add to your life, it won’t make you happy in the long run, if you can’t do that for yourself. It’s important to have a support network of friends and/or 12-Step meetings as well as activities that bring you pleasure whether or not you’re in a relationship.
The Last Hope
Losing someone can be devastating because codependents put such importance on a relationship to make them happy. Fear is the natural outgrowth of shame. When you’re ashamed, you fear that you won’t be accepted and loved. You fear criticism and rejection. Codependents fear being alone and abandoned because they believe they’re unworthy of love. They might cling to an abusive relationship in which they’re being emotionally abandoned all the time. These aren’t rational fears. Building a life that you enjoy prepares you to both live single and be in a healthier relationship where you’re less dependent upon the other person to make you happy.
Grieving the Past
Codependents find it hard to let go because they haven’t let go of the childhood hope of having that perfect love from their parents. They expect to be cared for and loved and accepted unconditionally by a partner in the way they wished their parents could have. No partner can make up for those losses and disappointments. Parents aren’t perfect and even those with the best intentions disappoint their children. Part of becoming an independent adult is realizing and accepting this fact, not only intellectually, but emotionally, and that usually involves sadness and sometimes anger.
It’s a psychological axiom that each loss recapitulates prior losses. You may have had other losses as an adult that compound grief about the current one. Once you’ve had depression, you’re more vulnerable to depression a second or third time. Be sure to seek professional help, as depression can delay healing.
Yet often, it’s emotional abandonment and losses from childhood that are being triggered. Closeness with a parent was either blissful or you may never have had it, or didn’t have it consistently. The intimacy of a close relationship reminds you of intimacy you once had or longed for with your mother or father. Either way, it’s a loss. If you were neglected, blamed, abused, betrayed, or rejected in childhood, these traumas get reactivated by current events. Sometimes, they unconsciously provoke situations reminiscent of their past in order that they can be healed. You may incorrectly interpret a breakup as rejection because you expect to be treated the way you were previously.
Our past also determines our attachment style. If we have a secure, healthy attachment style (unusual for codependents), we’re more resilient and able to rebound more quickly. (See “How to Change Your Attachment Style.”)
Grief is part of letting go, but it’s important to maintain friendships and life-affirming activities in the process. Blame, shame, and guilt aren’t helpful, but working through trauma from the past can help you sort out your feelings and know what you feel about the ending of the present relationship. Do you miss the person, what he or she represents, or just being in a relationship? For more on healing, see “Recovery from Breakups and Rejection” and listen to “Breakup Recovery.”
Letting go and healing involve acceptance of yourself and your partner as separate individuals. Usually, relationships end because partners have individual issues with self-esteem and shame, are ill-matched, or have needs that they’re unable to communicate or fill. Shame often causes people to withdraw or push the other person away. Healing trauma and losses and building self-esteem help individuals move forward in their life and take more responsibility for themselves. For deeper work on healing toxic shame, get Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
©Darlene Lancer 2013
Solomon, R. M. (2018). EMDR treatment of grief and mourning. Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 15(3), 137-150.