Have you ever watched someone struggle in a toxic relationship? Ever wondered why they didn’t walk away? What about you? Have you ever questioned why you settled for someone who didn’t love you the same way? Ever asked why you always had to compromise or change, but your romantic partners did not?
The reality is that it’s not so easy to walk away from our intimate relationships, especially when we have codependent tendencies or beliefs. A codependent person bases their entire reality, their very sense of self, on their romantic partner. It doesn’t matter who this partner is or if they’re worthy. That can leave a lot of people vulnerable to abuse and manipulation in their romantic relationships.
Yet they don’t walk away, why? Some of them know they’re in a dangerous place. You may be the same. Why don’t you walk away? It’s because of the huge psychological obstacles that are created by our codependent patterns. To break the cycle, you have to break with the mind-based fears that are holding you back.
Codependent habits are created over time.
The study of codependency is still in its youth. Every day, we learn more about these codependent habits and how we get caught in their toxic cycles. Specifically, we are beginning to realize that codependence is a slow slide. When someone is truly codependent, they learn how to deny themselves slowly over time. Like a poisonous flower in bloom, understanding true codependency requires understanding the root, stem, and bloom of it.
Codependent habits are thought to begin in childhood, with the relationships established between parents and their offspring. Children crave close emotional relationships with their parents and they need a lot of affection and reassurance in order to feel safe. Without that safety and reassurance, attachment issues can arise.
It’s believed that codependence is brought about primarily through an insecure parent-child relationship.
Emotionally neglectful parents can create environments in which their children have to “chase” affection or care. Narcissistic parents too create environments in which children have to make themselves small and perform to receive love and safety.
Here is where the insecurity begins, the idea that love is something beyond the reach of the codependent person. They form their first ideas on being unlovable, on needing to change themselves in order to get attention. An insecure childhood spent with unloving or self-centered parents can’t be the only blame, though. Codependent behaviors are reaffirmed as we grow through life.
After the first cracks of insecurity (and weak self-image) are formed, they become enforced through our peer interactions. Codependent behaviors don’t exist in the family alone. Children are first introduced to the concept of serving someone “above” them through their families, but they learn a new layer to this reality in adolescence.
Adolescent intimate relationships are key in building the codependent behaviors we deal with in adulthood.
Watching the dating dynamics of their peers, adolescent people follow suit. Using the tools (or lack of tools) that have been handed down to them by their parents, they get into their first relationships.
If that sense of self isn’t strong, if self-esteem isn’t high, they chase partners who mimic the dynamics they are most used to. When those relationships become harmful or abusive, their worst beliefs about themselves are reaffirmed. Self-esteem plummets lower and ideas on connection become even more twisted.
This is the stem of toxic codependence, setting the stage for the violent bloom of full-blown codependent relationship patterns that make one more vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.
The final piece of the puzzle comes when, as adults, we trap ourselves into cycles of codependency. Looking back at all our past failures, at the hurts of childhoods in which we felt unloved, we assume that we have to settle for whatever we can get. The codependent person makes a conscious decision to take the love that’s handed to them, rather than the love that’s deserved.
One can see this is the person who opens the door on openly unfaithful partners, or people who make them feel small.
It’s demonstrated even more powerfully in the person who completely changes their identity — even if it makes them miserable — in the name of “love”.
True codependent behaviors don’t occur overnight. They aren’t established after only one bad relationship. If you are a codependent person, you are taught, over time, not to love yourself. You internalize all the wrong beliefs about what a toxic relationship is (and is not) and you don’t surround yourself with a positive enough source of support to know the difference.
The psychological factors that make it hard to leave a codependent relationship.
This build-up helps to create a number of psychological walls that make it hard for codependent people to leave their relationships. Even when they know it’s wrong, many find it impossible to escape. They settle for the misery of codependency. Why? Because their fear, their denials, and their self-loathing keep them there.
What will they think?
Your relationships with other people, and the social connections you value, are an important part of the human experience. For someone who is too invested in that outward validation, though, those relationships can become a psychological obstacle that prevents them from leaving a codependent, unfulfilling relationship.
Consider a woman who is stuck in a highly traditional, conservative partnership. Imagine that this woman has spent her life building a community of women (couples) around her in the same setting. They all go to church together, their kids go to school together. They all lead similar lives.
Now, say that woman wakes up one day and realizes her life is completely unrewarding. She doesn’t know who she is and she feels like she’s getting taken advantage of by a partner who takes more than they give. This woman wants to change her life. But can she? Doing so could mean losing her community, her safety net. What then?
This is simply one example of how your friends and family can become a psychological barrier to escaping a codependent relationship. When you prioritize their opinions and feelings over your own, you make decisions that are in their best interest…not necessarily yours. Inward (versus outward) validation is key to escaping the pattern.
How could I do it?
Like any major change, leaving a codependent relationship is uncomfortable. There’s no escaping that. At some point, you have to have uncomfortable conversations and you have to take action that causes discomfort to all involved. There’s no making it pleasant, and that reality is yet another psychological barrier for the avoidant personality.
People who are avoidant hate conflict. Confrontation with them is terrifying. Much of it is associated with negative previous experiences. Parents who yelled. Partners who punished them for speaking up for their needs. Little by little, they learn it’s not safe to deal with big feelings (or it doesn’t feel nice) so they don’t.
This fear of conflict will keep you stuck in a relationship in which you are always on the losing end. Codependency is built on the backs of partners who don’t think they deserve to take up space. Without that confidence, they can’t take action for themselves, so they roll over and accept the pain.
What will I do?
When talking about codependent relationships, we tend to focus on the partner who does all the self-sacrificing. You have probably seen them painted as doormats, and they are, but it’s not uncommon to also find them incredibly reliant on their partners in their own ways. Specifically, in material and financial ways that make it hard to survive on their own.
Think back to the woman in the example above. She has spent her life sacrificing herself in a highly traditional relationship. Her role is a homemaker and her husband’s role is to go out into the world. All is well until she realizes she is unhappy. She can’t leave, though, because her husband controls all the money and access to the outside world.
Here is built the next psychological obstacle. What will I do? If you are someone who is reliant on their partners, leaving creates the question of existence. You may not know how you will support yourself or your children. Worse, you may have become so accustomed to the toxic dynamics that you can’t imagine your life any other way.
These thoughts, beliefs, and circumstances aren’t just external. They are all rooted first in the mind and the psychology of a codependent person.
How will they react?
It’s incredibly common for codependent people to end up in relationships with abusive people. Some of these partners are emotionally abusive, and some are physically abusive. Others can be combination abusers or even fall into the category of narcissistic abuse. That’s one of the big dangers of being codependent. When you’re a doormat, dangerous people come knocking.
That leads, naturally, to the next big psychological barrier to leaving. If you’re a codependent person who has fallen in with an abuser, you will naturally fear their reaction if or when you decide to leave. Statistically, that’s the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship — when the victim decides to leave.
When you’re a victim trying to leave those environments, you have a lot to fear. You will be scared of how your partner will react to being rejected. Will your life be put in danger? What about your children and your family? Abusers will cross every line, including the ones at your job and with your friends.
People who benefit from others don’t like when those benefits are taken away. Someone who forms a relationship with a weak person wants that person to remain weak, always.
Will I be alone?
There are few fears more triggering for the codependent person than the fear of being alone. This psychological obstacle keeps so many codependent relationships afloat, even when they should be abandoned. Codependent people, believing their needs aren’t as important as their partners, define themselves by the relationships they have with others.
All of this feeds into that fear of being alone. Triggered by low self-worth, a need for external validation, and non-existent self-esteem, they fear that they will never be good enough to fully receive the love they desire.
If you are a codependent person you may imagine that losing a relationship will somehow make you more unlovable in the future. You may imagine that there will never be another opportunity to meet someone who will “settle for” you, when in reality, as a codependent person, you are the one who settles into the backseat of your own relationships.
Who am I without this?
Sense of self is so important in the creation of healthy lives and healthy relationships. One has to know who they are in order to choose the right experiences, opportunities, and people to fill their lives. A sense of self is also crucial in building healthy romantic relationships. When we know who we are, we choose people who complement us and our life goals.
Codependent people lack this healthy and strong sense of self. The backbone of codependence is this lack of self, which leads a codependent person into basing their sense of self on their partners. They design their personalities, their desires, and their lifestyles based on their spouses.
Without a partner, a codependent person may feel that they don’t really know who they are. If you’re a codependent person, you may notice that this is how you end up looking for the next person to attach to. You’re looking for that sense of who you are, and it creates an obstacle to leaving.
You may catch yourself thinking, Who am I if I’m not in this relationship with this person? If this part of my image is lost, doesn’t it destroy the rest? Untangling the self from others is necessary for healing.
What can you do to leave your codependent habits behind?
As big as these psychological obstacles are, they don’t have to be the end of the road. Like any other obstacle, they can be overcome (or gone around) by those who are willing to ask for help and relearn the way they build relationships (and why they build relationships).
- Get professional help: Codependent behaviors are usually rooted in dysfunctional or traumatic experiences. Resolution is easier to achieve when guided by the hand of a mental health professional with experience helping those with similar behavioral patterns.
- Re-educate yourself: Relationships require skills to build and maintain. If you didn’t learn those skills, you’re more likely to slip into bad habits and bad relationships. Reconfiguring your codependency requires learning new ways to connect and communicate.
- Hold higher standards: In order to stop being codependent you have to hold yourself to higher standards. Your toxic partners aren’t going to do that. You have to draw the line for yourself, create strong boundaries, and demand healthier relationships across the board.
If you can find the courage to ask for professional help and to change your behaviors, you may just have a shot at breaking the cycle and doing something better for yourself. Patience will be required, as learning how to hold space for yourself is uncomfortable at first. Hold higher standards and know that you’re worth love you don’t have to alter or deny yourself for.
Codependency is a dangerous way to live. It leaves one vulnerable to toxic and one-sided relationships with poisonous and narcissistic people who take more than they give. Being on the losing end of a codependent relationship is a lonely place to be. Love is given, given, given, but it’s not returned in the same way.
Breaking the cycle is to open the door to new freedom. Healthy relationships, the possibility of being loved the way you want to be loved, all of that can be happy — but not until you stop giving in to the same self-denying and destructive cycles.
Give yourself that gift. Be patient with yourself, and give yourself time and space to heal your wounds…especially those that lie beneath the twisted web of codependency. Softness and compassion are key here, but you’ll never break the codependent relationship pattern without one key thing: a new and refreshed love for self. Embrace the fullness of who you are and what you deserve.
© Practical Growth 2023