Saying Goodbye to Codependency

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Reader’s Question

I intensely associate places, things, ideas, etc. with the person I was with in a relationship. This makes it very difficult for me to cope after a relationship ends.

I know that strong emotional memories are common, but it seems that mine are amplified. I still have trouble driving down the streets or near the area where I lived with my ex-girlfriend, although that relationship ended years ago. I have absolutely no feelings for her, it’s just those memories that are so strong, and I associate the emotional feelings with them. I went through a period of depression when I could only lie down, sleep and watch mindless TV, just to keep going. I couldn’t go to work because it reminded me of her; I couldn’t travel down certain roads, watch certain shows, etc.

Just recently, I came out of a relationship of a couple of months, and even though I have accepted the fact that we are just friends, I had to leave my apartment. I found that just driving there reminded me of her and the emotions I felt; I could feel her sitting on the couch next to me, making a drink in my kitchen. I had to pull certain bands from my collection of music, because just hearing them would remind me of her. I had to get rid of many of my things, and completely cleanse my life of her footprint in it. In this case, I still am somewhat friends with her (although I am not good at switching from relationship to friendship; I don’t know how to switch modes). I do realize that we are only meant to be friends, and have completely accepted that fact, but I still go through depressive states — unmotivated to go to work.

I tend to fall deeply in love very easily; I am very devoted; and I love to love the other person. I so enjoy waking up and falling asleep next to someone, and sharing my life with them. I may be “codependent,” and I really don’t want to be.

My question is a bit of a two-parter… How do I not allow myself to become so in love with a person, to the point where I become dependent, and it rips me apart after a breakup? And, how do I allow myself to move on from a relationship without having to erase every trace of that person, and move away from anything and everything I associate them with? I can’t keep doing this in my life. I need to be able to move on in a healthy way, and I literally can’t afford to uproot myself every time. I want to be able to separate those memories from objects and from things I do.

Psychologist’s Reply

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Your question may be a two-parter, but the answer is pretty much the same for both: stop being codependent. Codependency can be defined as an excessive dependence upon a loved one by a person who looks to external sources for fulfillment. It is exemplified by inadequate or lost identity, neglect of self, and low self-esteem. Especially at the beginning of a relationship, codependency can be fun and fulfilling but, as you’ve discovered, it quickly becomes difficult and heartbreaking. Thus, I think you are wise to want to get out of that habit.

Part of the problem we have with codependency is that our cultural ideal of romantic love — a relationship in which two people are fused into one entity (the couple) — actually promotes codependency. Thus, many people believe that is how relationships should be, but that is not the case. Relationships should enhance your world, not limit it. Healthy relationships are ones in which you share your life; the relationship should never be your life. And that is where I think you need to do some work.

Codependency is when you lose yourself in the other person. Thus, for example, instead of remembering that you like certain bands because you enjoy their music or attended their concert with friends, you associate them only with your ex-girlfriend. This needs to change, because the key to changing codependency is finding yourself. In order to do this, you may need to remain single for a time while you get reacquainted with yourself. Learn how to set personal and vocational goals that are just for you, spend time with friends, develop hobbies you enjoy, and most of all, set boundaries on how your needs will be met. Couples in healthy relationships find ways to meet both people’s needs. They tell each other about their day instead of spending every moment together. In other words, find ways to enjoy both the relationship and also yourself.

If you start being mutual rather than dependent, you will quickly learn how to grieve a relationship that ended, instead of eliminating it. You may still feel a great deal of sadness when remembering the good times associated with that person, but you will also remember that there were times that had nothing to do with her. The apartment you shared may have had your ex in it but it also will have had your friends and family too. The route to work may be associated with an ex-partner, but it may also be linked to times when you simply enjoyed the view alone. In other words, all your emotional eggs will not be one basket. Thus, when one basket breaks, you’ll still have a lot of other baskets from which to choose.

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