Before I get raw and vulnerable, allow me to define for you what it means to be a codependent.
A codependent is a person whose self-esteem and sense of self (even their entire reality) relies primarily on external validation. In relationships, specifically romantic relationships, codependents tend to attract partners who somehow fall short of being able to fully care for themselves; perhaps they are addicts, self-harmers, narcissists, emotionally unstable, or they also struggle with severely low self-esteem. Basically, a codependent will attract a partner who seems to need help so that the codependent can assume the role of "caretaker," providing them with a sense of purpose and control (of course the attraction/selection process usually feels unconscious).
Hello, my name is Marissa, and I'm a recovering codependent. At my present age of 31 years old, I can admit I have probably been single for a collective 6 months since I was 18 years old. That's right - I've been in serious, committed relationships for the past 13 years, with rarely more than a breath to segregate one from the next.
I can still recall my first meaningful relationship - the first time I fell in love. When there were obstacles between me and my then-girlfriend, my first instinct was to "fix" them... to fix her. And so I'd spend my days journaling to understand the things that didn't make sense, the hurt I felt when I was blamed in ways I didn't deserve. I analyzed and over-analyzed and analyzed some more. I made it my mission to figure out the intricate workings of my girlfriend's mind so that I could be her knight in shining armor, rescuing her from her pain and her sadness (at the same time ensuring she would need me).
A decade later, as I exit my most recent relationship (the most significant one I've had) with a woman I've spent the past year and a half with, I feel prompted to take a good, hard look at myself, at last. Why? Because I've been too busy analyzing and diagnosing my girlfriends for all of these years to address my own baggage. I've filled up too many notebooks. All the while, I've held this "martyr" view of myself--that I've given more in all of my relationships than most people would... that I've exhibited an incredible amount of patience... that I was the calm one, I was the rational one, and that my intentions have been for the most part, completely pure.
Well, it's time to rewrite that story. It's time to own my shit. The cold, hard truth is that I have a very difficult time being alone. I mean, I'm an introvert and I very much enjoy having alone time. But that time's been much more fulfilling with my phone vibrating with text messages from someone who adores me. Being by myself has been more tolerable with the mental tape running through my mind that says, "You are in a relationship. And you're going to next see your girlfriend on Wednesday at 8pm." I mean... what is the point of life without another human to cuddle with and have sex with and drink morning coffee with and hold hands with and argue with and make up with? This has literally been my brain.
Clearly, there is much more to life than romantic relationships. There are beautiful sunsets and the sound of birds in the trees. There's the feeling of sand beneath your feet and the scent of fresh linen and I swear to god if one more person tells me to meditate... but why has it felt so impossible for me to appreciate any of these things while being single? When my therapist asked me this question during my last session, I felt some crazy resistance in my body, and that's how I knew this is precisely the shit I need to be working on.
"I'm not sure," I answered. "I grew up with a twin sister so maybe that's why I'm codependent in all of my relationships - because I grew up being used to having another person always by my side?"... "Or maybe it's because my parents were pretty overprotective and so I didn't have a lot of independence as a child or teenager. I didn't develop a strong sense of self as a young person because I was sheltered."... "Then again, it could be because I didn't have a lot of confidence in school, nor was I considered a 'cool' kid, so maybe I'm still internalizing a lot of that shame to this day, allowing it to affect my self-esteem and make me feel inadequate."
Regardless of the cause, I am taking a good, hard look at my patterns. I healed myself from an eating disorder in my early 20s and wrote a book about it - a major feat. But I still have not stood fully on my own, without a crutch. Instead, I've taken too much responsibility for other people in an attempt to earn approval and recognition, and to control my own fear of abandonment. I have not been assertive. I have not set proper boundaries. I have been all too indecisive. I have loved - hard. But at the same time, nearly all of my relationships have involved a good amount of drama, intensity, challenging power dynamics, and me crumbling in the end, under the weight of expectations I could no longer meet. Time and again, I have lost my perspective and my identity while riding the violent roller coaster of love.
And so... what now? Well, I'm doing the work. I'm reading the books, I'm watching the talks, and I'm continuing to work with my therapist to help me overcome my codependent tendencies. It's been just a few weeks but I'm already feeling freer - beginning to understand that I have value for who I am, not only for what I am able to give. I deserve to be respected. I deserve to feel safe. I deserve to take care of myself and trust other adults and future partners to do the same. In fact, not trusting other adults to care for themselves can actually deprive them of their independence and keep them stuck.
Another big one - I am entitled to have limits. Limits are not a line in the sand. Limits don't say, "My love can only go this far." Rather, limits allow me to love myself as my first responsibility. Because that is what adults have to do. Because I owe that much to the people around me. I came across this quote by mental health professional Carl Benedict, and I'm making it my morning mantra: "I will no longer be a people pleaser. Instead, I will be a people respecter, including respecting my own needs and feelings." Because if we consider those around us with more regard than we consider ourselves, we are living with a kind of stubborn resistance that benefits no one.
As I type the final lines here, I'm observing myself in my private space. It is quiet. My heart is beating. A candle is flickering on the nightstand beside my bed. I am thinking about all the love there is in the world... between lovers, between strangers. The perfume of my former girlfriend lingers in the air (I sprayed it earlier as I was packing up the final box of her things). A train rattles underground, into the distance.
I aspire to surrender to the transience of all things. For today, I commit to this journey - to setting realistic expectations for myself in all of my relationships; to tolerating the void until I can truly appreciate the silence; to finding a sense of "home" that does not require the arms of another.