Have you ever believed that you could love someone enough to fix whatever is wrong in their life? Do you have the ability or tendency to deny and rationalize away the obvious believing that your love is powerful enough to change the object of your affection? If you answered yes to these questions you may be a relationship codependent.
Codependency is a loosely used word many of us have heard though few of us know what it means. In general, codependency is the relationship that exists between everyone and everything; a positive and necessary function of the human experience. But we rarely hear the word used in that context. When someone is referred to as codependent it usually indicates a disorder. In this article I will narrow it down ever further by focusing on a specific type of codependent disorder—relationship codependency.
Relationship codependency, also known as toxic love or the “White Knight” syndrome, is a debilitating psychological addiction to painful, frustrating, and unequal relationships. Those who suffer from it often seek out relationships with others who are unstable and irresponsible to satisfy their compulsive need to help, nurture, or control others. Before long they become enmeshed with the object of their affection and addicted to the hope, beyond all evidence or rational, that the person will change. I suffered from the crippling disorder for many years.
Those who have this addiction are often unaware that they have it. They do not understand that the chaos and pain that is so prevalent in their life is the result of their own dysfunctional behaviors. They do not see their responsibility in creating a life filled with heartbreaking confusion and disappointment.
In the early 1980’s I was married to a man who was a covert but incorrigible drug addict. My died-in-the-wool belief that “love conquers all” (the mantra of the relationship codependent), and my staunch determination to fix him kept me coming back for more, no matter what he put me through.
One day I accidentally found a syringe that he had hidden high up in a kitchen cabinet. There had been many signs of his relapse that I reasoned away or denied, but this one was too obvious to ignore. And because he had led me to believe that he was clean and sober, the shock of seeing that needle sent me spiraling down into the depths of despair. He had not been home when I found the evidence so I spent the next few hours alone, manically alternating between despondence and fury. When he finally walked through the front door I rabidly lunged at him, wildly brandishing the evidence in my hand. Starkly contrasting my unbridled behavior he remained unflappably calm. He quickly offered up one of his usual lame excuses, self-assured that I would buy it. He had no reason to think otherwise; he knew that I wanted so badly to believe everything was alright and was therefore easily convinced.
“I’m not using. Don’t be upset—please believe me. I just craved the feeling of the needle but I didn’t do any drugs; I only shot up water.”
The evidence spoke for itself. Any way I looked at it the thought of him sticking a needle in his vein was sickening and disturbing. On the other hand I wanted to believe what he was telling me. To not believe him would have destroyed my entire world. So I put my feelings of devastation aside and immediately shifted into codependent mode. I reminded myself that I was much stronger than he was. He had a serious problem; I did not. I would be alright—it was him I had to worry about. I could fix this.
I willingly accepted responsibility for his failure. Instead of questioning him, I questioned myself. Perhaps I hadn’t proved my level of devotion. Maybe I had not tried hard enough to keep him happy. I promised myself that I would love him even more than I had before and work harder to show it, believing that once I proved how much I loved him he would never have the desire to use again. At the time that mindset made perfect sense to me. That is the way a codependent thinks.
The relationship codependent is always looking for the potential in others instead of accepting them as they truly are. They see people as works in progress—projects that they feel compelled to take on. The more challenging the project, the more attracted to the other person they are. They believe that they are rescuers, that they are doing something helpful. They are not in touch with the pathology that underlies their perception.
Before long the codependent becomes emotionally dependant on their partner and obsessed with their problems and needs. It is a parasitic relationship; the codependent feels like his survival depends on having the other person in his life. It is an addiction in every sense of the word; the other person becomes the codependent’s drug. It is an obsession that consumes his every waking thought. The hopelessness and depression that result only make him cling tighter to the other person. He may smile for the world but inside he feels like he is dying. He begins isolating himself because he does not want others to know about the secret life he is leading.
Part two of this article, to be published on October 4th, will discuss the childhood origin of codependency, the processes needed to heal from it, and what life after recovery looks like.
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