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Once Upon A Time In The Land Of Codependency

What happens after the prince and princess ride off into the sunset? Do they settle into a functional relationship, with good communication, compromise and acceptance and understanding of their differences? Are they even compatible at all in a real-life situation, when she’s awake and he’s not distracted by a fire-breathing death-machine? Doubtful. They’re probably codependent and miserable.

You know what? I’m SO over fairytales.

The princess is always stuck in some kind of tower guarded by a vicious dragon, and needs to be rescued by a well-groomed knight on a well-groomed horse. The prince defeats the dragon, saves the girl (and if she’s taking a nap, wakes her up with an unsolicited kiss) and they ride off into the sunset together on the aforementioned steed.

But then what?

Do they settle into a functional relationship, with good communication, compromise and acceptance and understanding of their differences, and perhaps a pet (does the horse count?)? Do they set boundaries, keep their individual identities and individual hopes and dreams? Are they even compatible at all in a real-life situation, when she’s awake and he’s not distracted by a fire-breathing death-machine? Doubtful.

My prediction is that the prince probably has his own idea of what a princess he’s rescued should act like, while said princess either feels so grateful for the rescuing that she’s willing to compromise her own wants and needs to express her gratitude, OR she’s tricked into thinking that she can’t live without a brave knight to save her. This is what we call codependency, and it’s not a healthy way to have a relationship.

You may be thinking that I’m being a little dramatic, and quite negative about the post-sunset-ride relationship situation. The princess herself would probably deny that there’s anything wrong at all. But that’s just the nature of codependency. It’s easy for the parties involved to either justify or deny all the behaviour that’s actually causing them harm. I know because I’ve been there.

Now, unless you have experienced it, I understand that it’s very easy to say “I won’t let that happen to me”, because I was there too. But just like it did with that princess who woke from her nap to find herself in the clutches of a brand new captor (and his face unexpectedly pressed against hers), codependency in a relationship can often sneak up on you and look like something completely different. Like a handsome prince saving your life, for example.

OK, so let’s get into a little more detail here. What actually IS codependency?

According to Dr Shawn Burn in this article by Time, “In the codependent relationship, one person is doing the bulk of the caring, and often ends up losing themselves in the process”. Burn says that while in healthy relationships the dynamics of give-and-take are relatively balanced, codependent relationships are characterised by givers, who over-exert themselves for the relationship due to a fear of it ending (and thus them being alone) and takers, who benefit from this by getting more that they give. This can be due a personality disorder like narcissism, an addiction, or just a general lack of maturity.

While the term codependency used to describe families dealing with substance abuse issues, writes Joaquín Selva, Bc.S., Psychologist, modern understandings of the term have expanded to include any “relationship addiction characterised by preoccupation and extreme dependence—emotional, social and sometimes physical—on another person”. One party in the relationship becomes so focused on the other, that they forget to take care of themselves and lose their own sense of identity. If our princess, therefore, tries to play the role the prince expects of her, has no friends of her own because he doesn’t like them, has no life outside her new palace because he doesn’t want her going out, and feels indebted to him for saving her– in short, defines herself by her relationship with the prince– she may be in a codependent relationship.

So we know the princess is probably screwed, but how can you tell if YOU’RE in a co-dependent relationship yourself?

Well, from experience, you probably feel that your relationship drains you emotionally and mentally but don’t want to admit it to yourself or anyone else. Don’t take it from me, though, take it from an expert.  Dr. Holly Daniels, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles told Time that you need to ask yourself how much time a day you spend thinking about your relationship. If the answer is “most of the time” your relationship is probably codependent.

Other symptoms include seeking validation from your partner, putting him or her on a pedestal despite their faults (and perhaps making excuses for those faults), inability to say no to your partner, keeping quiet to avoid arguments, and feeling compelled to make extreme sacrifices for your partner.

I get it. It’s hard to admit when the person you love is just not good for you. Often your friends can see it (even though they might not say anything for a while because they care about you). Sometimes even YOU can see it. Our princess probably told herself a thousand times that her prince would change, or worse, that SHE would change to please him, and that every day would go back to being like that romantic ride into the sunset. But that never actually happens in real life or even in the post-rescue fairytale for that matter.

So we need to learn to identify and deal with the issue on our own, regardless of how difficult it is to do so. But, how?

Recognising that your relationship has become codependent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to pack your bags and leave. With professional help, codependent relationships can become more balanced, fulfilling and healthy over time, but it will take work and commitment from both parties. Through therapy, codependent couples can figure out the roots of their problems and identify their individual attachment styles and then work to combat them. According to Time, “for givers, that means learning to be on their own, strengthening their friendships, or focusing on passions outside of their relationship. For takers, it involves taking time to initiate meaningful conversations with their partners and showing more affection”.

Unfortunately though, sometimes relationships cannot be saved or aren’t meant to be. All of us, regardless of our relationship status, need to learn to nurture ourselves, our wants and our desires, and realise our own potential as capable, self-reliant individuals. If it takes losing a partner to learn to do this, then perhaps that’s for the best.

Saying goodbye to controlling, manipulative and abusive behaviour can be harder than you’d think when love is involved. Doing so is often accompanied by the fear of being alone and concern about the stability of your identity or the success of your endeavours without your “other half”. Sometimes you may feel like you’ve done so much for your partner that there’s no point in giving up and quitting now, but you’d be wrong.

Being in this kind of relationship leaves no room for growth and it stifles self-confidence. Once you manage to escape it, you’ll likely find that you have potential you weren’t aware of before, and that your capacity for growth is endless. You can focus on fostering positive and meaningful relationships with people who are good for you, mentally and emotionally. You can construct your identity exactly how YOU want it to be, and follow your own dreams, without having to cater to someone who makes you feel like those dreams weren’t achievable or even worth having.

So, yeah, the prince may be a total snack, and he may have saved the princess from a dragon that ONE time, but that’s no reason for her to stifle her identity and subscribe to a lifetime of indentured servitude. Leaving is tough. She’ll cry. She’ll feel like nobody understands her struggle (and since she was locked in a tower all her life with a fictional beast, she might be right). She’ll absolutely miss him. A LOT. But she’ll have more time on her hands to recover emotionally, to grow, to go on her own adventures, and perhaps slay a few dragons herself.

And THAT’s the fairytale I want to read.

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  1. Marushka

    26th Feb 2020 at 4:47 am

    Hey there, thank you for taking a deep dive into this topic in an approachable way. A lot of the time the word “codependency” gets thrown around with no, or vague, or overly clinical, descriptions. And no one wants to see themselves in that. But by making it a little more descriptive, it’s a lot easier for people to identify and tackle the issue.

    • Melissa da Costa

      26th Feb 2020 at 10:28 am

      I’m so glad it resonated with you. It’s something that often gets swept under the rug and denied by the people experiencing it, and I thought it was important to be able to start a dialogue about it.

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