One of the biggest challenges we face as codependent thinkers is our relationships, all of them — friends, romantic, familial, work relationships and our relationship with ourselves. And particularly our most intimate relationships, our romantic ones, because codependency is a relationship issue — it’s about how we relate to ourselves and the world around us.
For most of us, this habit of codependent thinking and people pleasing began at some point in childhood or our teen years where we learned the lesson that we are not worthy of love just because we exist. So, wise childrens that we were, we set about attempting to prove our worth, value and lovability to everyone, including our romantic partners, from the place of not believing in our inherent value as mammals.
We learned not to trust ourselves and instead to trust someone else’s opinion of us over our own, often spawning a lifetime of people-pleasing from our insecure attachment.
Some scholars and relationship science nerds suggest that we spend a lifetime trying to heal our attachment wounds through dating and romantic relationships.
When the wound within us is “I am not worthy,” when we didn’t feel worthy, seen or attuned to in the eyes of our parental attachment figure (whoever our caretakers were, does not have to be bio parents), then as adults our inner children are often driving the bus emotionally, seeking constant external validation. So we seek that approval, love and care wherever we can get it — at work, through material wealth and prestige, through codependent attaching to our friends, and absolutely through our most intimate connections, our dating or romantic relationships.
Let’s go over five of the biggest issues or challenges for us in dating or romantic/love/sex relationships from our codependent thinking.
Remember, these habits can show up in all our relationships, not just romantic ones:
I didn’t realize my own insecure attachment until maybe a decade ago. It was life changing to see how I was showing up in relationships either clinging from my anxious attachment or pushing away vulnerability and receiving love from my avoidant attachment. If you recognize codependent thinking as a habit of yours, I’ll encourage you to learn more about attachment theory so that you can start to shift towards more secure attachment in every area of your life.
- Chameloning — aka losing yourself or giving yourself away and becoming someone you’re not to try to people please
From our codependent thinking, we believe we need to be everything to everyone, we believe that is our job to keep everyone happy with us, and to keep everyone happy in general. We become these masterful manipulators without realizing it. We learn how to scan a room or a date or a friend to try to read their minds, to assess what everyone else wants — and what we want them to want. And attempt to give it to them whether they actually want it or not.
This often looks like hypervigilance, which is part of the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight. We get habituated to scanning the world for danger, and learned to chamelon to try to get ahead of any potential danger by being different, by code-switching, by being strategically inauthentic.
While this was a brilliant strategy for us as children in our families of origin, when we continue to chameleon as adults, we move further and further away from living an authentic and intentional life. This once-brilliant protective habit is part of why I hear my clients say all the time that they don’t even know what they want or like. They’re just so used to going along to get along, to people pleasing and shape shifting that their true desires are just a blur.
- People pleasing
In chameleoning we change who we present ourselves as. In people pleasing we change our behavior. We do and say things that we don’t want to do and say. We go along to get along in an attempt to keep other people happy based on what we believe they want.
In interdependent relationships, your partner wants you to want what you want and wants to hear that from you, and vice versa.
Conflict isn’t a problem because you trust one another to find the loving middle ground between your wants, to flow with each other, and never to people please or fake it, because interdependence is based on radical honesty, which often means not people pleasing the people we love, which is always a kind choice.
People pleasing life looks like this: a date wants to watch a movie I didn’t want to watch — I say sure while also grumbling inside, and so my inner children start on in, “I never get to do what I want to, it’s always their way, I don’t matter, I have to keep them happy or I’m unsafe but ugh I don’t want to.” And of course resentment builds inside me!
Chronic people pleasing keeps us in the codependent habit of valuing others’ wants, needs and joy more than our own. We come to believe that our wants and desires don’t matter which follows logically from believing that you don’t matter.
This continues to convince us we don’t matter which keeps us feeling trapped in cycles of chronic people pleasing, keeps our relationships shallow (both an avoidant and anxious technique), and it keeps us swirling in resentment. When resentment was modeled for us in childhood, it becomes normalized.
As someone who doesn’t really experience resentment anymore, life is so much better. I don’t make others’ thoughts and feelings and actions about me. Instead, I am anchored in myself and have an embodied sense of self. They make their decision; and I make mine. I set boundaries and I know it’s not about them, but about me taking care of me. They set boundaries and I recognize it’s not about me either. And when someone crosses my boundaries I speak up because people pleasing by staying silent and seething just doesn’t work for me anymore.
- Staying in a shitty situation:
There are so many reasons why we stay in situations, and I don’t just mean those that reach the threshold of being called abusive, we tend to stay in relationships and connections that are just not good for us, that feel more ugh than yay. Ones where we are doing all the growing and changing and aren’t being met, where we’re doing all the emotional and other labor and aren’t being met.
Some reasons for that include:
- We don’t value ourselves.
- Again, not victim blaming, just sayin it because it’s true — it sure was for me! We don’t believe that we can have good things, real love, to be really seen and cherished and cared for, so we take the crumbs, the scraps, the person who says “I want to date you” instead of asking ourselves if we really want to date them.
- We dont value ourselves enough to realize that we deserve better than a relationship where there is constant fighting, name calling, negation of our feelings, lousy communication, no sex, no intimacy, where we aren’t being loved the way we need to be, where we are doing most of the labor — domestic, emotional… on and on.
- We just continue to put up with it because we learned to be really good at swimming in dramatic seas, living in chaos, and being unhappy or not having joy has gotten so normalized that we just keep on keeping on and don’t pause to say “I matter enough to me to leave a relationship that isn’t working for me.” We often don’t trust our intuition or discernment enough to acknowledge in a real way that a relationship isn’t working for us, so we stay in it instead of risking being wrong and making a mistake in leaving.
It’s also important to name that we may not be able to see the shittiness for what it is, because there can often be gaslighting that goes along with a crappy situation. There absolutely was in the abusive relationship I was in. In short: gaslighting is when someone convinces you that reality is not reality, that you’re not sane and that what you think is real is just not.
When there is gaslighting in a relationship, we get convinced that there either isn’t a problem or that we alone are the problem and so we stay because why would we leave if we are the problem.
- Sunk costs effect.
- When you’ve invested so much time and energy in a relationship you don’t want to leave because you’ve sunk so much into it already.
- Fear of being alone or believing there couldn’t be anything better out there for you.
- Low standards for yourself and how you deserve to be treated, which can go along with gaslighting or not, it can also be part of your own story coming into the relationship.
- We also stay for structural reasons (economic, social, religious, fear of violence for leaving someone abusive or unkind, fear of losing community).
- People pleasing we don’t want to disappoint others — which can sound like “our parents would be so upset if we split, or “what about the kids.”
- Fear of ‘failure.’
- Fear of change and uncertainty.
- Narcissistic abuse.
- As a clinician, I want to say that while IG makes it sound like everyone and your mother is a for reals diagnosable narcissist, it’s actually a very small percentage of the population that truly has narcissistic personality disorder. Some degree of narcissistic traits are more common and worth noting because codependent and narcissism often go together. The codependent wants to focus on someone else and the narcissist wants attention and the narcissist will play all kinds of mind games to keep you locked in.
- Not seeing red flags/settling/ignoring your intuition because having someone say “I choose you” is more important than you choosing them:
- When someone picks you, it feels amazing. Especially when you’ve not felt chosen in life, by your family of origin, because you’re from a marginalized community, because you’re queer or trans.
- Remember a dopamine hit is an anticipatory hit. So every date or text becomes an opportunity to get that hit of delicious, amazing dopamine and validation even if you’re not really into the other person, that hit that makes your brain say “Yay, I’m worthy of love for 90 seconds!” Those feelings can override our connection with our intuition and discernment, can override that quiet voice inside that doubts the connection, that isn’t that into the person you’re dating, that voice that is trying to tell you to slow your roll. It gets steamrolled by that part that just wants to feel loved. I totally get that, it’s totally understandable, and darling — it does not serve you. It is another way that we stay out of our intentionality, and that never ends well.
5. Not choosing yourself and choosing false comfort of a relationship versus intimacy with self — not be comfortable being alone.
Until you learn how to be with yourself it sucks to be alone — I get that. We will buffer against being alone with anything we can get our hands on — alcohol, cannabis, sex, TV, exercise, overthinking — rather than learning to sit in the discomfort of being alone with ourselves and our thoughts.
And when our minds believe that we are safer in a relationship rather than being alone, then we will bounce from relationship to relationship in an attempt to feel safe in our own mind, body and spirit rather than pausing and experiencing being alone and learning how to get comfortable by ourselves. Because if we’re alone then we have to learn how to validate ourselves by ourselves versus looking to someone or something outside of ourselves to do that validating for us, which is admittedly scary at first!
And I will also testify that being with someone in a relationship built on a desire to escape yourself also does not feel good!
We’re sold this story that we need someone else to complete us, it’s part and parcel of the patriarchy, that we need prince charming to save us, to make us feel whole, and it’s just BS.
Dating or being in a relationship from that place is asking someone to do work that they have no business doing, strengthening our codependent reliance on others to make us feel safe instead of learning how to do it for ourselves and then looking to others to interdependently co-regulate with us.
And it’s important to say that you don’t have to leave your current relationship to practice being alone with yourself. This is a skill you can cultivate in the moments you do have to yourself, to learn to breathe, to check in with yourself, to get to know yourself, to build intimacy with yourself whether you’re single, dating or have been married for decades, and it’s vital for your own mental wellness and for all your relationships.
What to do about it
Whether you’re in a relationship or not, raise your awareness about these habits in your past and or present so you can start to get real with yourself about how codependency may be part of your mental milieu.
Learn to be ok being alone
If you’re in a committed relationship you don’t want to leave, you don’t have to put your spouse on the Titanic and walk away.
Ask yourself: How do you handle being alone when your partner is gone? Are you carving out space, even a few minutes a day to journal or breathe? To really be with yourself and your thoughts and feels? To move your body and connect inward, even for just 1 minute a day? Do you buffer or can you sit quietly with you? Have you given meditation or mindfulness a fair shake or just written it off as not for you?
Learning what you actually want and practicing saying that out loud
Start small! Practice the minimum baseline — ask yourself throughout your day what you want and listen in, not just to your mind, where your people pleasing habits, your socialization and conditioning in the patriarchy live, but rather, to your body, where your intuition lives. Start with the cotidian bullshit so that your nervous system doesn’t get activated. My favorite is beverages! “Body, do I want coffee or tea this morning?” It’s so simple and most of us don’t pause to check in. Another favorite: first thing in the morning — ”body, do I want to open social media and spend 30 minutes doom scrolling or do you want to stretch first?” The answer doesn’t matter, listening in for the answer does. Try not to judge what you hear, but rather, to accept and honor it.
Learning to trust yourself and tune into your intuition
This sounds like honoring and believing what you hear when you ask yourself what you want and need. The voice of your intuition is calm and quiet.
Reality testing with friends can be really helpful early in a relationship, which is a lesson from the relationship experts Helen and Harville Hicks who remind us that it takes a bare minimum of 3 months but also kinda 2 years to really know someone. In that time, especially if you know you have insecure attachment and are working on becoming more secure, introduce new dates to your trusted people and let your people know that you would truly like their opinion, and ask if they see any red flags or have any concerns. Make sure these are people you trust and whose opinion you actually value. It’s okay to get outside counsel while you’re building the muscle of self trust! Knowing yourself is key and getting opinions from others can be so helpful in the process.
Developing the tools of sitting in the discomfort of being real and honest with yourself
Why am I doing what I am doing?
Am I trying to keep myself safe by people pleasing, chameloning or not rocking the boat?
Ask yourself why you want to date this person or stay in your relationship.
- Is it really for you or to keep your date or others happy?
- Are you avoiding anything by staying in this relationship?
- Are there any patterns from your past you see repeating here?
- Are you able to be yourself fully in this relationship or are you still hiding parts of you?
- Do you feel emotionally and physically safe in this relationship?
- Are you being heard and seen, loved and attuned to, cherished and cared about?
- Are you putting in more effort than the other person is?
- Is there more fighting and turmoil than there is joy?
And finally, reparenting.
Ask yourself what your most loving parent, the one inside you that only wants what is truly best for you always, thinks about your current situation, be it casually dating, a relationship, a marriage.
- Does this relationship serve you in a deep way?
- Are you showing up with an open heart?
- Are you being met with an open heart?
- Are you growing and is your partner growing too?