Can’t claim codependence on your taxes
February 24, 2019 12:52 PM   Subscribe

I’ve had a long string of serial long-term codependent relationships with men. My life is getting better slowly with time and I’m realizing how much these patterns are holding me back. I’m focusing a lot on me in therapy right now but I’d like to hear about how healthy non-codependent relationships work and if there are any good books about the topic for bibliotherapy purposes.

I will eventually bring this up in therapy, I just want to get a broad perspective now.

Essentially I feel I’m in a “caretaker” relationship with my partner, which sucks and does not feel exciting or fun. I’m not surprised as I grew up in a turbulent household with lots of younger siblings, was probably “parentified” throughout my child and teen years, and still feel an unhealthy responsibility for the people around me, including my family members and my romantic partners. I have a couple friendships here and there but I’m pretty terrible at making friends (it takes me like a year to warm up to anyone). I spend every day by myself and then with my boyfriend when I get home, rarely see anyone else, and I feel like I’m going nuts. I feel alternately martyred and resentful all the time, no one is “giving back” the unhealthy investment I give to them (which is obviously good but to me, feels awful), and I have no real sense of my own self or life. Some major life events have occurred recently that are giving me situational depression on top of my regular chronic depression and I’m really at a low point.

If you are in a “healthy” relationship, what does that even look like? I am bothered by the fact that I really can’t imagine it. As a result of going to college with a lot of wealthy people I see a lot of examples of high powered couples and friendships where both people really like each other but are obviously very busy and do their own thing. I have no idea how that works but assume it involves trusting people much more and faster than I am able to.

My general issues are... I’m afraid of people. I’m afraid of looking stupid, saying the wrong thing and embarrassing myself. I’m afraid of socializing and try to end social interactions as quickly as possible. I have a lot of social anxiety, obviously. I don’t feel like I fit in anywhere, especially since the kind of people I’m around in my job etc. grew up much differently than I did. I feel weak. I feel sick a lot. I assume most people do not feel like this! Because the outside world terrifies me so much, I always end up retreating into these heavily codependent relationships and not growing.

I’ve achieved a reasonable number of things despite my issues; “achievements” academic and professional have always made me feel validated. Very little else does. I feel like I want equal, respectful love from another person who doesn’t “need” something from me but it will never happen, because I’m a glutton for whatever the opposite of that is. I know about setting boundaries, but I don’t REALLY know, because it’s impossible for me to imagine a relationship with anyone I know not being obliterated by them... which may or may not be the truth. My current relationship is built around 1) me “helping” and enabling my partner, who was helped and enabled all his life by his enmeshed family, 2) both of us managing our own lives and expectations around our inappropriate amount of responsibility for our familes’ happiness. I don’t feel I get the level of commitment or love I deserve; I feel like an outlet for my partner’s disappointment with his relationship to his family. (He’s not violent or angry, it’s just that in situations where he would be TERRIFIED to let them down, he lets me down freely and expects me to “understand.” It’s very hard for me to navigate because I am extremely prone to sidelining my own needs for the sake of others. I know intellectually that “I need to make a sacrifice because someone else is suffering with a horrible illness” or something is distinct from “I need to make a sacrifice because instead of showing love and commitment to me, my partner needs to be utterly available to his parents, who have terrible boundaries with him” are two different things. But to my excuse-making brain, they are the same, and I have no strength or bravery to stick up for myself in reality because it always feels selfish.

I feel like I’m really losing my sense of self and want to spend more and more time alone because at least then I have complete control over my focus. As an example, Partner loves to go out and explore the city where we live every weekend. Sounds healthy! Therapists approve! But I feel suffocated by the fact that I’m never spending any kind of concentrated focus on my hobbies or interests, feel stressed on days I would prefer to relax, etc. I’ve talked about this with him but I find it so hard to actually stick up for my preferences in the moment. He was gone over the last holiday weekend and I spent all three days cleaning the house with the windows open, fresh air, listening to podcasts I like, eating and drinking what I wanted to, and it felt sooooooooooo good. But that is now over and I’m back to feeling stressed at work and stressed at home.

A friend of mine just got a divorce, for reasons that are similar to what I describe above. I think all the time, is it my RELATIONSHIP that’s bad, or just my thought/behavior patterns? I honestly don’t know. I’ve always been the one to break up with my exes because I felt so trapped, but... I often feel trapped because I can’t stand up for myself or assert my independence. I don’t feel whole. And I can tell people don’t respect it. I’m too depressed, down on myself, etc. It’s not compelling or attractive. I’m very afraid that if I act like myself, really LIKED myself, I’d be a horrible and obnoxious person.

I’ve helped my partner with a lot of things: resumes, college essays, helping him realize his parents expectations were messed up, etc. I’ve divested myself if most of those things now as I realize they were inappropriate (at the levels I was doing them). But there’s still a residue. A specific example: I have a long commute. Because of that, I sometimes head home when I still have work to do so I can finish in comfort. But once I’m home, my boyfriend— who can normally take care of himself, never texts me during the day— starts asking me questions about EVERYTHING, like now that I’m home he doesn’t want to figure anything out for himself. I feel trapped at work or trapped at home. And this is a relatively innocent thing that he does, but I do feel like there’s a natural tendency to say “oh, she’s home, now I can rely on her for emotional support about EVERYTHING.” On the other hand, a few years ago when I felt less ambitious and we were talking seriously about our future, I floated the idea of me eventually being a stay-at-home-mom. He seemed really turned off by the idea, seeming to think I’d be more stimulated and challenged by working outside of the home (I’m not a great nurturer). But when I’m actually living that life, building a career outside of the home, either I don’t assert my boundaries strong enough or he doesn’t make enough room for me to focus on my life or both. Probably both. It’s like I’m supposed to take the place of his smothering mother and get fulfillment out of walking him through everything, but also be a high-powered and successful professional. I don’t want to and I can’t; the expectations make me cranky and bitchy and I hate myself. I don’t know how to say “no, I’m not available for that” without seeming mean or mad. I think at this point I’ve done it for so long and we’re so enmeshed that there’s very little I can do to reverse the tide.

Reading this (minor) example also makes me feel like an asshole! Like, maybe everybody does that? I honestly don’t know. My parents had a bad relationship and then divorced so I really don’t know what healthy home life is supposed to look like.

So yes, I’m in therapy, and I will be bringing this up more and more in subsequent sessions. But I would love 1) description of what a non-codependent friendship, life, or romantic relationship look like (what do you talk about? What do you do? How much time do you spend alone, working, etc.?) and 2) books on these topics that I can read to understand myself better and work on all of this.
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Also I don’t really need “DTMFA” advice, I’ve DTMFA plenty of times, this is more about the fact that I obviously seek out this type of relationship and don’t know what a better one looks like.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:53 PM on February 24, 2019

My 25th wedding anniversary is this coming November.

1) We support each other. Little things: I went to the grocery store today, he unloaded the car and put away the groceries. He does the laundry, I put it away. I clean bathrooms, he scoops litter and cleans the litter boxes. Bigger things: he takes care of his own doctor's appointments, manages his family, and is a 50/50 partner with our kids (including knowing their clothing sizes, schedules, etc.). We take vacations together or apart, depending on our schedules and what we're doing with friends. He has his hobbies, I have mine, we have some we share. He is my best friend, so we do spend a good amount of time together but that's more a function of us truly enjoying a lot of the same things (TV, music, movies, books). But, for example, I love the show Victoria and he doesn't. So when I want to watch it, he busies himself in other ways. We talk about politics, baseball (we both love baseball), our kids, what our friends are up to, work, funny/stupid/enraging stuff that happens during the course of a day, our pets, our families, what we're reading, dreams, ambitions, etc. But like, right now, he's just left for band practice and I'm sitting here watching preseason baseball and keeping an eye on a slow-cooking dinner. I have several standing dates with friends every month that he doesn't come to. I do more volunteering than he does. We make it work because we recognize that we have to choose each other, every day, even when we're mad at each other.

Like, maybe everybody does that?

Nope. Not everybody does that, and it is completely okay that you don't want to do it.
posted by cooker girl at 1:53 PM on February 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

This sounds to me like a pretty common dynamic in (hetero) relationships. I think I even saw a meme not too long ago about how men move from partner to partner (rather than spend time being single) because they need their partner-as-mother-stand-in to take care of them. A good friend of mine is in a relationship like this, where she ends up paying for lots of stuff she shouldn't and being a caretaker for a grown man in his 30s who doesn't even have a bank account, but does have a kid (who ends up being used to keep her in the relationship, nobody wants their breakup to also come with the added emotional baggage of bumming some little kid out). Anyhow, the reason I bring this up is that a common thread among these types of relationships is that I think people in them so often have been in a string of relationships prior, and never really figured out how to be alone, and the prospect of doing that (being alone, independent) is another impediment to breaking the cycle of codependent relationships.

People in LTRs obviously spend a lot of time with their partners, but I think in a healthy relationship there has to be room to be alone some of the time too (or with people other than their partner). You have to draw boundaries and enforce them, and let him be responsible for coping with his own feelings. You can't do only one of those; if you immediately renege when he expresses displeasure with one of your boundary-setting decisions then you have essentially taught him that complaining gets his way. You have no (emotional) leverage, which is not to say that it should feel adversarial, but negotiating two people to a mutually agreeable outcome is necessarily just that, a negotiation.
posted by axiom at 1:55 PM on February 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hoooo boy do I feel this question in my very soul. Especially the part about feeling trapped at work, and then trapped at home. It feels like you have no where to go, and it's a phenomenally difficult way to live. Here's the good news. You say: "My life is getting better slowly with time and I’m realizing how much these patterns are holding me back." YES. That is step one. In my experience, it took years beyond that initial realization for things to finally coalesce, but I look back at that as the starting point on some monumental shifts in my life. I feel optimistic for you.

Side note: I do think it's possible to start breaking the patterns while still in a relationship that is perpetuating them. It will be tough, though, and you should steel yourself for that toughness. It seems likely that he will push back, based on what you've described. You will push back against yourself, too. Because it's way too easy to just continue being the person you've always been in the relationship. But if you can start stepping into your new identity and start saying things like: "I really just need some alone time to decompress from work" or "I need you to choose me over your family right now" you might find that he's willing to budge.

But your question was about what a relationship without co-dependence looks like.

I came across this snippet the other day that made my mouth drop open, in a 1978 book called "Notes on Love and Courage" by Hugh Prather. He says: "The person I want to live my life with is the person to whom I can give the greatest opportunity to do with her life what she wants." What shocked me about it was that it was a man speaking about his wife in this way (in 1978 even!). Women are all too often the supporting characters, and it takes a significant rebalancing of the scales to even start inching toward equality in a heterosexual relationship, with all the gendered expectations that come with it.

Which might be why some of the most non-dependent relationships I see in my life are between same-gendered couples. The above gendered expectations just... don't exist, or at the very least, aren't as potent. (These relationships are also non-monogamous, for what that's worth.) It's a whole-hearted desire for the other person to live the life they want. One married gay couple I'm thinking of are currently living three states away from each other while one pursues an advanced degree. In a couple years, they're going to buy a house together and adopt a kid. Because life is long, and a couple years isn't so bad when you've found something worth holding onto.

But that whole-hearted desire has to be mutual—and for women in heterosexual relationships, it probably has to feel at times like you're getting the better end of the deal. You might feel like an asshole sometimes, even, and that's okay! You're already helping your partner live the live he wants. You have to start expecting that he do the same for you.
posted by gold bridges at 2:10 PM on February 24, 2019 [10 favorites]

lazuli made a comment that seems relevant in another thread, with a quote from How To Be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo.
posted by Little Dawn at 2:56 PM on February 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

I didn't read your whole thing and I'm not sure where you live, but in larger cities there are meetings like AA, called "Co-Dependents Anonymous". I would definitely check those out if possible. (Disclaimer, I haven't actually been there myself).
posted by bquarters at 3:13 PM on February 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

One aspect of a non-(co)dependent relationship is that you do not take advantage of gendered expectation of housekeeping (and general life maintenance.) My wife and I moved in together about ten years ago. About nine years and three months ago we had a big series of conversations about that stuff and since then I’ve been actively working on not letting her Just Do Things. Some stuff I am pretty good about - there’s no part of the house I don’t know how to clean or avoid cleaning because she would do a better job. And to be clear I came into it having spent the last five previous years basically living in filth and never having to be responsible for more than a 10x8 room.

Other things she would like me to be better at I am not so good about - I still don’t cook very much because, well, it doesn’t matter why (in our case), honestly! But there’s progress and while I won’t say being aware of what would make her life easier and trying to get better is worth as much as actually being better it’s also distinctly different than just letting her take the reins all the time because I hate cooking and am bad at cooking - I know she prefers the occasionally near-inedible dinner I made for us without being asked to a well-made dinner she had to make for both of us herself.
posted by griphus at 3:22 PM on February 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

you need your own place so badly. I'm sure that's not realistic advice for right this second. but half of the relationship problems you have right now wouldn't burden you this way if you didn't have to leave home or send him out of town just to be alone like a regular free person. they would still exist, but they wouldn't oppress you so much and so constantly.

I mean, I am not saying you have to be co-dependent to share a home with a guy, helps. I understand how it can seem like a good idea to live with a boyfriend if you have to have a roommate anyway, but I would submit that it is almost always not a good idea unless you share a dog or child to look after. but then I am a romantic.

I spent all three days cleaning the house with the windows open, fresh air, listening to podcasts I like, eating and drinking what I wanted to, and it felt sooooooooooo good.

you should feel like this all the time! I know practical answers can't solve every personal issue but really -- you need and deserve your own space. you do not have to sacrifice a room (apartment) of your own to have a boyfriend or a husband. I mean morally, psychologically you don't have to; financially maybe you do. but money's the only good reason not to have both, when you feel like this.

you're very ruthless about pinpointing your imperfections (like: you don't stand up for yourself, so how can he be at fault for smothering you?) but I think in a healthy relationship, you don't pay so brutally for a human error, because the other person is not looking to exploit your mistakes. he isn't looking for a reason why it's ok to ignore your preferences or just not know about them; he's looking to know as much about you as possible, so that he can make you happy.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:38 PM on February 24, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm slightly pressed for time at the moment (well, as "pressed for time" as one can be while still managing to respond to questions on MetaFilter!) so I won't delve into the first part of your question, but I wanted to quickly rattle off some book recommendations for you to check out!

I know someone else has already mentioned it, but I'm repeating How to Be an Adult in Relationships for emphasis. It's one of those books that really did change my life and the way I approach relationships (romantic or otherwise). It includes a lot of mental exercises, mantras (more like self-reminders, nothing too woo-woo), and other various behavior/attitude modification techniques that I found really approachable. They give you a tangible way to start feeling better and thinking differently right away, as opposed to the type of self-help book where you read it and then sort of... just wait around hoping for the epiphany to kick in ;) Both types of book can be good, but this one has an immediacy to the help it provides that I haven't found in most of the other self-help type books I've tried.

This isn't exactly a book, but I love basically everything Ranier Maria Rilke has ever written about relationships; especially his collected correspondences with a German teenager where he gives the young(er) man advice on love, called Letters to a Young Poet . You can buy it as a book, but the link I posted is a digitized copy online. They're practically in the public domain and widely-circulated. His reflections on creating meaning through relation to others, what it means to love (in the full and healthy sense of the word) deeply, etc... I return to these letters quite often, but always find some new insight to take away from them.

An Adult Child's Guide to What's 'Normal' is another one you might find helpful, especially if you're wishing to explore how your childhood/family experiences might have shaped you, but in a way that's less focused on labeling or blaming. It's gentle and a good intro to exploring childhood dysfunction and how you might be carrying it with you as an adult.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also include The Drama of the Gifted Child on this list, as it's one of the quintessential books recommended to adults who are struggling as a result of being parentified children, or because their parents were largely narcissistic or absent, etc. Based on what you said about your experiences growing up, you might find a lot of useful insights in here.

Please MeMail me if you would like more suggestions, I have a whole Amazon list of self-help/mental health/relationship books that I've found helpful over the years! :)
posted by second banana at 5:50 PM on February 24, 2019 [5 favorites]

I know this is sort of DTMFA territory but...have you considered being single? It sounds like you’d benefit from dating yourself for a bit.
posted by Grandysaur at 7:26 PM on February 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

I too would like to recommend that you have your own space where you don't feel trapped or badgered. You don't have to break up to move out. My partner and I are living a perhaps extreme example of this, in that we went from a three-room cottage to two entirely separate houses. Perhaps someday we'll move in together again, but right now it's exactly the right thing, as we both crave that alone time.

Our friends and families maybe think this is a little weird? But, like, it's not their relationship and it's obviously working for us, and I guess nobody thought we were exactly normal anyway, so.

I'd describe us as romantic but not co-dependent, and you're wondering what that might be like day-to-day? Well, we chat at least briefly almost every day and get together a few times a week, sometimes to do a specific thing (e.g. a project around the house or a walk in the forest) or just to hang out / make food / talk / be together. Generally when we spend the evening together we'll both sleep at whosever's place we're at. We talk about... wow, all sorts of things: what happened that day, places we might like to travel, politics, science, families, weirdness we saw online, whatever.

We also give each other a lot of support in the realms where emotional and practical overlap: for example, I can have difficulty starting things and easily feel overwhelmed, so I may explicitly ask for a pep talk or companionship while doing something that has become scarier than it "should" be. I'm definitely way more open about that with my partner than I can be with anybody else! And they're a lot more open about their vulnerabilities with me than with other people.

We don't spend a lot of time explicitly talking about boundaries but even when we're going through some heavy shit together it's pretty clear whose shit is whose, if you see what I mean. Not so much in the sense of "that is your shit so don't ask me for help" but in the sense of "that is your shit and thus there are ways in which I cannot help".

I'm not trying to say that it's all perfect at every moment! We're just as likely to misread the situation or say the wrong thing as anybody else, I'm sure, and although in principle we aspire to build each other up, if we're both down in the dumps about something we can drag each other down instead. But the basic approach is that we are a team.
posted by inexorably_forward at 1:38 AM on February 25, 2019

Here are some examples of how your situations would play out in my non-codependent relationship.

If I had work to do when I got home, I would announce, 'I have to work for [X] hours. I'll be [sitting on the couch/ hiding in the basement/ in our room]. When I'm done, we can [have dinner/ hang out/ go to bed].' I would expect my partner to respect that and leave me alone. If he had to work, he would make the same announcement. We're not perfect at respecting that space, but if we forget and interrupt, the working person would have a legitimate reason to glare at the offending party.

In your first example, if I had committed to exploring the city and instead wanted to stay home, I would say 'I need some time to [hobby]. Can you go with a friend instead/ can we do a shorter trip/ can I have all Sunday free?' Depending the importance of the outing and whether I had actually committed, the solution might vary, but I would expect that we would come to an agreement that would meet my needs. Ideally, I'd put that time on the calendar earlier (before committing to an outing) so I'd know that I have the block I need, and then I could freely choose to spend time with my partner at other points without resentment.

We're very big on announcements in our house. Some recent ones:
-I'm going to sit and read for five minutes and then I'm going to get the laundry.
-I'm grumpy and tired, and I don't know what I need.
-I need an hour to play video games and do nothing.
-I've cleaned the kitchen twice today, and I don't want to do it this time.

It helps us to state our needs out loud in a neutral way and with the expectation that they will be respected. But this presumes a generally healthy relationship.
posted by oryelle at 6:10 AM on February 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

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