Fleeting side glances and burning cheeks progress into declarations of love, gift-giving, cuddles, and all those lovely things that relationships bring. We’ve seen it in every single romance ever. Hetero boy meets hetero girl, their relationship builds until some great crisis occurs, they have a break and eventually return to each other and become stronger than ever. Somewhere along the line, usually in the end scene which is probably a wedding in someone’s family home/ mansion, you’ll hear something like ‘I can’t live without you’, ‘I need you in my life’ or the classic ‘you complete me’.
While teen us may have swooned at these lines and yearned for the day when someone would recite these lines to us, adulthood has *hopefully* brought a reality check. P.S. the romance structure is super problematic – have a look at Radway’s theory to understand why (and sorry in advance for ruining almost every rom-com ever!)
But needing your partner sounds sweet and lovely, what’s the problem?
Well, before I go into it, I want to clarify. I’m not trying to say that you should be completely indifferent to the person you love, but there is a giant difference between appreciating what someone brings to your life and working to keep the healthy relationship going vs feeling like your life will end if they cease to be a part of it. Not only can this latter mindset be damaging for your self-esteem and mental health, but it can also snowball into behaviours that aren’t very loving at all. Put frankly, happily ever after is going to be difficult if you NEED your significant other or if they need you.
‘I need you’ statements aren’t declarations of love. They’re formations of co-dependent bonds that can very quickly become ropes, fixing you in a very uncomfortable and dangerous position. Trust me, I’ve been there… more than once.
‘Co-dependency can be defined as a mental, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual reliance on a partner, friend, or family member.’
The ropes of co-dependency can look like low self-esteem, loss of identity, and hyper fixation on the other person’s behaviour; you need them, so you look for cues that they’re going to leave so you can try to improve the situations before they do. Co-dependency can also look like possessive behaviour, making condescending comments when you feel like you’re losing control of the other person. It can also manifest as aggression or reassurance seeking and if you have kids, those guys may be used as leverage.
I’ve been co-dependent and it’s not a good look.
As a natural people-pleaser, my co-dependency involves a lot of reassurance-seeking. It also means me going over and above, at all times, in an attempt to keep my partner happy because, in my mind, they need to be happy at all times to stay with me because (hello low self-esteem) I have nothing else to offer the relationship.
As well as reinforcing negative self-beliefs, living like this is exhausting. I often ended up too tired trying to please the other person that I didn’t have time to stop and look if I was getting anything back, or to ask if that person was even worth the immense effort in the first place. It also had a ripple effect; with all of my attention focused on the co-dependent relationship, I ended up neglecting and damaging other important relationships. Luckily, I was able to recognise what I was doing and I’m still in the process of improving the relationships that were affected and showing gratitude to the people who supported me, even without my full recognition at the time.
Codependency is discussed by Marks (2012) in a study on the Codependency Scale. Mark’s recognised four main features of codependent behaviour:
“external focusing (e.g., focusing one’s attention on the behaviours, opinions, and expectations of others);
self-sacrifice (e.g., neglecting one’s own needs to focus on meeting the needs of others);
interpersonal control (e.g., an entrenched belief in one’s capacity to fix other people’s problems and control their behaviour);
emotional suppression (e.g., the deliberate suppression, or limited conscious awareness, of one’s emotions until they become overwhelming).”
Do any of these features seem familiar to you? If so, you might be codependent. It’s important to recognise this in yourself as well as with other people.
Codependent relationships often become toxic if left untreated, so what happens when you try to break those codependent bonds? Luckily, well not really, I have experience from the other side of the fence too!
The typical reaction to attempting to end a relationship with someone who is codependent or narcissistic is that they can enter the ‘if I can’t have you no-one else can’ mentality which can present itself as manipulation, gaslighting, emotional blackmail, and violence. Remember, that you were once very close to these people, and so they have access to your sensitivities and fears. This may be a side to the other person that you haven’t seen before and maybe other people haven’t seen it either.
My fears of sudden deaths and suicide were used against me by multiple partners. They would threaten self-harm or suicide if I made them unhappy, tried to establish a healthy boundary, or when I eventually chose to end the relationship. They did this and, once I submitted to what they wanted, would apologise, explaining that they only did what they did because they ‘needed’ me.
If you break this down, it’s quite a logical response to the situation. If you felt like a reason for your existence (or for a narcissist, a consistent source of validation and ego-boosting) was being removed and even worse, choosing to detach itself from you- how would that feel? You’d be mad and desperate to keep it there.
I am not in any way condoning this behaviour, by the way. I’m still healing from the emotional and mental scars that previous relationships have caused. But it’s important to understand this stuff, even when we ourselves might be the unhealthy ones. This is why I’m writing- I want you to be able to look at yourself or at your current relationship and ask, is that where we’re heading? You might be the co-dependent one or they might, or you both might share these traits. But for the sake of each other, and yourselves, it needs to stop.
One way to improve is, after recognising, to question it. Ask things like what do I/ they actually need in the relationship? When your significant other says that they ‘need’ you and shows disregard for your wellbeing in a way to keep you, what part of you are they desperate not to lose? It’s clearly not you in a relaxed and happy state; as they wouldn’t be threatening and worrying you if that was the case. For me, and the parts may be different in other situations, it was my support, comfort, and validation. As a naturally therapeutic person and a good listener, it’s easy for me to become the unpaid therapist of the relationship. That’s great when it’s balanced and appreciated. Less so when it’s demanded free labour because someone feels entitled to it.
If you’re in this situation, there are some things to bear in mind that might help you.
–Understand extinction bursts
When buying a drink from the vending machine, what do you do if the bottle doesn’t fall? Often times we hit or shake the vending machine. If it still doesn’t fall – you might hit/ shake it with more force until the drink eventually falls or someone comes over and tells you to stop whacking a machine. This is called an extinction burst and it’s a term used a lot in psychology.
‘The definition of an extinction burst is a sudden and dramatic increase in behavior when reinforcement for that behavior has been removed. It is a temporary response pattern and will diminish and then stop as the reinforcement for the behavior no longer follows the voluntary action.’
In an attempt to keep you in a toxic relationship, a person may have these extinction bursts – they will lash out and try whatever they can to keep you. This will continue if you reinforce it. Just like the vending machine- if shaking the machine results in getting the drink at the end, whenever the same issue arises, you’ll shake the machine.
If someone threatens you in any way, get as much distance as possible from that person, keep screenshots/ any type of evidence, speak to someone for support, and don’t do anything you’re not comfortable doing out of fear or guilt. If you’re feeling pressured, allow yourself 24 hours to make your decision, and be sure to ask for advice within those 24 hours.
Remember: nobody is entitled to your time or energy. That is a choice and a gift and because of that, they cannot demand it from you.
Harden your shell
This has been a long learning process for me, as I find it very difficult to be firm with other people and set boundaries. It is, however, a must if you want to maintain a stable mindstyle and avoid toxic relationships.
A hardened shell means having difficult conversations with people. There will be times when you will need to tell someone that they’re coming on too strong, that you don’t feel the same, or that there’s something about them that doesn’t work for you. It feels uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of going forward. If you state your mind clearly and kindly and they react irrationally- spot the red flag and head out.
Hardening your shell also comes into play during those extinction bursts we spoke about. If you have an ex who is demanding that you speak again or harassing you in any way to get you back- bring out the tough shell again. No response is a response. And if you’re beginning to waver, ask yourself – if this person truly loved me, why would they want me to worry in this way or feel guilty about this situation?
I can tell you from my own experience that it is HARD to ignore someone if they’re threatening to harm you or themselves unless they get what they want. It took me a long time (and a lot of post-submission-guilt talks with myself) to understand that I, and you, are not responsible for the actions of someone else.
Sure, the things you do and say will have an impact. It will be upsetting for that person if you choose not to be in their life. But you aren’t alive to serve that person, you weren’t born to fulfill their every need and help them to avoid all of the world’s discomfort. If you don’t want to be in their life anymore, chances are there was a lead-up and reasons for that decision. If they choose to act out, spread rumours, threaten violence, threaten suicide, or whatever they choose to do in their desperation… that is not a reflection on you.
The best thing you can do is endure, find comfort in the knowledge that everyone has their own minds. If they choose to act out, that’s on them and they will live with the consequences. If your friends choose to believe what they say without question, or judge you for the other person’s actions, then are they really your friends?
Emotional manipulation is such a difficult situation, but you aren’t alone and my inbox/email is always open for you to vent/ ask for advice/ talk about your own manipulative behaviour (I won’t judge you for what you’ve done… as we’ve all made mistakes).
If you’re feeling like you need your ex/partner or vice versa then a very important strategy is to get some space.
If you’re in a relationship, you can use this distance to develop your own independence or identity if that’s something that’s being impacted by your reliance on the other person. If it’s the other person, then they have that space to do the same.
If you’re getting space from an ex, then this is crucial for breaking those co-dependent bonds that have, most likely, led to your breakup. Get digital space by removing them from social media (even muting them is useful), removing their friends (unless you guys were close too, then maybe just explain your situation to them and the fact that you don’t want to speak about your ex). To get physical space you can move out, mix up your routine and avoid going to places that they frequent.
I’m sure that this advice seems avoidant but removing an ex from your visual spaces (digital and physical) is essential for removing them from your emotional space. Once you’ve got that sorted and you’re in a more grounded, safe, and stable position, unblock them if you so desire- return to the coffee shop or gym that you once loved – just remember that ‘you cannot heal in the same environment where you got sick‘.
In the space that you’ve carved out for yourself in getting distance, you’re then able to (re)build yourself. Najwa Zebian uses a really beautiful and practical metaphor in her book Welcome Home. She talks about building a home within ourselves in a journey to find stability:
‘The biggest mistake we make is that we build our homes in other people… We invest in other people, and we evaluate our self-worth based n how much those homes welcome us. But what many don’t realize is that when you build your home in other people, you give them the power to make you homeless. When those people walk away, those homes walk away with them, and all of a sudden, we feel empty because everything we had within us, we put into them. We trusted someone else with pieces of us. The emptiness we feel doesn’t mean we have nothing to give, or that we have nothing within us. It’s just that we built our home in the wrong place.’
By building your self-esteem, you reduce your codependency and practice independence. By spending time with yourself, taking yourself out for little dates, you learn what you love, what motivates you, how you feel about politics, and Canadian Geese, and people who walk really slow. You learn how you like to drink tea, and not just one sugar or two, you learn the cafe, the seat, and the view that you like when you’re drinking tea. You learn about what you can and can’t tolerate, what you’re capable of and what you’re not. Over time, you learn how unique and beautiful you are and in that process of learning, you’ve been building and decorating your house within yourself – ready to invite someone in.
Relationships are wonderful. They are beautiful and intimate. They should be safe and fun and exciting. Sometimes they can be problematic and can be dealt with in productive and healthy ways. Others can become toxic and can very quickly become dangerous. It’s crucial for your own safety and the safety of those around you that you educate yourself on the signs.
You may be in a dangerous situation without knowing it. Issues such as coercive control and domestic violence stem from toxic relationships and being able to identify your situation is a crucial first step. Research domestic violence, toxic relationships, gaslighting, hoovering… any behaviours that you think could be red flags, or even the ones you don’t think would be. Writing down your thoughts after an argument or important conversation is useful, even more if you read it back the next day. Chatting to a friend about your relationship can be very revealing too and you won’t be judged by those who love you, I can guarantee that. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, speak to someone third party- relationship helplines, Samaritans, me! I’ll listen to every message/ email you write and hopefully be able to signpost you if needs be. There are many advice services out there. One brilliant resource I can recommend is support from Voices Against Domestic Abuse. This group offers free online training on domestic violence and plenty of support resources- please reach out to them too.
Remember that people are not property. They are living, changing, complex beings. We get close to each other in a relationship, but we never fully merge. Merging is consumption and if you are consumed, parts of you are lost. Enjoy the closeness, inviting people you love into your beautiful, individual home and visiting theirs too.
It’s so much better to have a relationship and to spend time with someone because you want them rather than need them.
Stay Positive, Stay Safe.
Relationship Support Resource List from Itv.com
St Helens Voices on Domestic Violence
The Romance Genre Analysed by Dearauthor.com
‘What is Gaslighting’ by VeryWellMind.com
‘Signs of Hoovering’ by Lonerwolf.com (while I’m never a big fan of the v-word, this article is useful for identifying the signs of ‘hoovering’)
‘You Cannot Heal in The Same Environment Where You Got Sick’ by Reese Anderson
Najwa Zebian – A fantastic follow for building independence and self-love
Reading the Romance, Janice Radway
Effect of Encounter Group Application Integrated with Psychodrama Techniques on Codependency. doi:10.18863/phy.619107
Development and Validation of a Revised Measure of Codependency. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1742-9536.2011.00034.x