Codependent So Much More

"So how long is Miguel away for?" asked my friend. She was perched on the lip of a plump white sofa with a tiny cup of espresso. We were sitting in my favourite cafe in Roma. Trees swayed gently in front of us, casting dappled sunlight on the street. 

"Oh a week," I said, after grousing about how much I missed Miguel, my new boyfriend.

She laughed. "Oh God Bronwyn," she said. "You made it sound like he's going to be away for a month!"

I heard once a line that stuck with me. It went something like "when I'm with you you can have everything: my body, my money, my time." You love me, I love you: I give you all my energy, all my compassion, all my resources until I'm completely sucked dry. Suddenly the deafening need to be complete in another is replaced by the urgent desire to recapture whatever is left of Bronwyn, proper. Terrified, I cast off the offending partner and disappear. This process usually takes about three years to reach fruition.

Folks, my name is Bronwyn Kienapple and I am a codependent.

I'm no therapist but here's my view of codependency in a nutshell. Boundaries? Oh no! You have none. Your partners' needs are your needs and fulfillment of them boosts your fragile self-esteem. You want to be everything and do everything for your partner, which really means you want to control them so they can be exactly who you need them to be. This helps you to avoid your overwhelming feelings of shame and anxiety.

Care taking, people pleasing, and bossiness are all hallmarks of poor boundaries and a desperate need for control built on a foundation of poor sense of self. You vacillate between feeling too much and feeling numb, no boundaries and rigid boundaries, in a frantic attempt to find comfort amid all the chaos.

Here's my process. Courtship, dating--it all proceeds normally enough. Then BAM: love. Slowly I spend every weekend with you. Every night. Every vacation. Your friends are my friends, though I'd rather distance you from them because I want you all to myself. I want you to need only me.

I'm jealous of anything you have for yourself because I should be enough to fulfill you. I am terrified of anything that might separate us. Soon I only know us as myself. I stop seeing my friends, I don't go out, I eat more to medicate the inner loneliness. I blame you for ruining my life, just as I blame myself. I become so sick with emptiness and unmet unrealistic expectations that I begin to detach.

My codependency even works with a non-codependent. I once had a quasi-boyfriend who I was completely obsessed with. It began innocently enough. I was determined not to become attached so I kept my distance. But he was adorable, funny as hell, and razor sharp and so of course I fell in love.

My beloved, however, continued to blithely not answer my texts, not introduce me to his friends, not open up to me. Still, I became consumed with trying to convince him that I could be everything for him. Even if he wasn't dancing with me, I didn't need a partner in my codependency: I still became eaten up by my own longing to become subsumed in him. I told him I wanted to be his. He refused. I disappeared. Yet I still tried to prove to some ghost of him that I was perfect--I ran a half-marathon and started volunteering and writing part-time.

When Miguel left for Chicago I felt bereft, a feeling I've carried since we came back from a two-week trip to southern Mexico. During our trip I had two infections and, at the mercy of his care in a strange place, I gave myself up to his attention. I relaxed in the familiar feeling of being nothing. It was like being weightless.

But with no boundaries left to speak of and faced with my normal routine in Mexico City I was defenseless. The trucks roaring outside my room at night left me sleepless. The faces of my students were too insistent. I ate my feelings and tried to bury myself in books and naps. It had little energy to devote to being a good girlfriend.

And yet, by the end of Miguel's trip away, I began to feel better. I started querying my first novel again and received positive feedback. There's nothing like writing to give me a sense of purpose and strength. I started rising earlier, eating better. I even decided to write a new novel (more details on this soon!). So by the time Miguel was back I knew if I was really committed to making our twosome work I would have to do something really counter-intuitive--I would have to carve out space for myself.

Miguel doesn't relish this idea but I've asked him to trust me as I go through this process. I can only rely on my instinct that it's time for this destructive codependent habit to be transformed into something new, wholesome, and life-giving. And after all this is why I'm Mexico--to figure out who else I can be. This will be one of my hardest habits to break, but I've got love on the line and the fighting spirit in me. I'm banking on it being something that can be beat.

Does this sound like you?: This article is a good introduction to the subject. I also found the book The New Codependency to be a great resource, as well as Healing the Shame that Binds You. I also strongly recommend watching Brené Brown's new TED Talk, Listening to Shame. And remember, talking to a therapist is gold. Please don't be afraid to reach out and get the help you need and deserve. 


Sunday said...

This is something I struggle with too (more or less-- factor in some probable neuroticism). Thanks for sharing your resources. I hope you find the balance you need. xo -T

B.Kienapple said...

Hey T, thanks so much for your comment. This was a hard post for me to write and I so appreciate your feedback. I hope you too reach that balance. xo

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