Have you broken up with your significant other, but can’t seem to completely let go?
Are you struggling to end an on-again-off-again relationship once and for all?
Are you trying to figure out how to move on from a codependent relationship?
It’s normal to feel conflicted about whether you should end a relationship — whether it’s a romantic relationship, friendship, or with a family member. And, it’s also normal to feel sad and angry (and lots of other feelings) when a relationship ends. Grieving the loss of a relationship and healing is always difficult.
Codependents often have a particularly difficult time moving on after a break-up or the end of a relationship. Even when you know it was a dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship, you can’t seem to let go and move forward with your life. You find yourself stuck – not really in a relationship, but not emotionally free either.
You might find yourself doing some of these things:
- Frequently texting, calling, or emailing your ex*
- Seeking information (maybe on social media or from mutual friends) about your ex
- Spending inordinate amounts of time thinking about or worrying about your ex
- Being “on call” for emergencies and rescuing your ex from his or her poor decisions
- Over-analyzing the relationship
- Fantasizing about getting back together or thinking about only the good parts of the relationship
- Feeling jealous that your ex has moved on
- Creating a crisis to get your ex’s attention
- Having trouble maintaining boundaries when your ex reaches out to you
Ending a codependent relationship — why it’s so hard
Let’s first get clear about what codependency is and isn’t. Codependency is a group of traits or a way of relating to ourselves and others. Some of the most common characteristics of codependency are people-pleasing, low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, difficulty trusting, poor boundaries, caretaking or rescuing, wanting to feel in control, anxiety and obsessive thoughts (find out more here). These traits develop in childhood, generally as a result of trauma and dysfunctional family dynamics. We then carry these traits with us into adulthood and they often negatively impact our romantic and other relationships.
One of the ways codependency impacts us as adults, is our difficulty separating ourselves from dysfunctional or toxic people. We often stay way too long in dysfunctional relationships; we stay even when we’re being hurt emotionally or physically and there’s no indication that the relationship can meet our needs. We continue to think we can change our partner and make him into something he’s not. We don’t want to give up. We don’t want to fail at another relationship. And we don’t want to be alone.
Break-ups are also hard for codependents because they can trigger:
- Feelings of shame or being defective or inadequate
- Fears of being unlovable
- Memories of being rejected or abandoned
- Feelings of loneliness and jealousy
- Low self-esteem
- Fears of never finding another partner and being alone forever
Many of our codependent traits make it difficult for us to let go of toxic relationships
As people-pleasers, we often lose ourselves in relationships, meaning we don’t feel whole without a partner (or best friend). We neglect our own hobbies, goals, and friends and instead we focus on what matters to our partner. So, when the relationship ends (or we think about ending it) we feel especially lonely and without purpose, perhaps questioning how we can go on without our partner; it’s as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves.
Codependents tend to base their self-esteem on taking care of and being of service to others. Caretaking gives us a sense of purpose and worthiness. So, we’re quick to respond when our ex wants us to help her move or needs a ride home from the bar at 2 AM. Being needed makes us feel worthwhile. When we stop caretaking, our self-esteem and self-worth take a significant hit.
Because of our weak boundaries, we feel responsible for other people’s feelings, wellbeing, and choices. We want to help them avoid negative consequences and feel terribly guilty if we say no or refuse to help or rescue. Guilt keeps us from setting appropriate boundaries with an ex so that we can truly separate emotionally and physically.
Need for validation
As codependents, we also have a strong need for external validation; we rely on others to tell us we have value. As a result, we may stay in unhealthy relationships in order to feel lovable, valuable, and worthwhile. We rely on others to quiet our deep-seated fears of being unlovable and unwanted, which makes it very hard for us to end relationships or be single because without external validation we often feel defective, inadequate, and unlovable.
Codependent relationships can have an obsessive quality. In fact, sometimes codependency is described as an addiction to another person because we get so wrapped up in what someone else is doing and feeling. We have a hard time separating ourselves emotionally, detaching and allowing others to make their own decisions. We may spend a lot of time worrying about others, trying to solve their problems, or just thinking about them.
Tips to help end a codependent relationship and move on with your life
- Remind yourself of the problems in your past relationship. I don’t mean that you should dwell on the negative; I’m talking about maintaining a realistic memory of the relationship. Often, we only remember the good times and “forget” the bad times. So, we long for a fantasy relationship that never existed.
- Set boundaries and stick to them. If you want to move forward, you need to set firm boundaries that will help you keep information about your ex out. Sometimes this means blocking your ex’s number, not following her on social media, and asking friends not to tell you what she’s been up to. These are tough boundaries to set and feel uncomfortable. However, staying in touch, directly or indirectly, makes it impossible to completely separate yourself emotionally.
- Build your sense of self. Spend time getting to know yourself and engaging in your own hobbies, pursuing your goals, and spending time with your friends.
- Try journaling. Writing is a helpful way to process your feelings, get to know yourself, and gain clarity about what you want and need.
- Don’t look for a new relationship or partner to make you happy or heal your childhood wounds. You’re likely to repeat the same patterns until you work through the root issues.
- Take good care of yourself. Sometimes, we’re so focused on other people that we fail to notice what we need. We need to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually in order to be healthy and happy. We also need to practice identifying our needs and feeling they have value, so we can create a balance of give-and-take in our relationships.
- Go to therapy or a support group. A therapist can help you process your feelings, grieve, learn to challenge your distorted thoughts, and create a plan to deal with obsessive thoughts. A support group, such as Codependents Anonymous, can also provide invaluable support from people who’ve walked a similar path.
“Letting go” or moving on after a relationship ends is often a painful and lengthy process, especially for those of us with codependent traits. People-pleasing, caretaking as a source of self-esteem, difficulty setting boundaries, a need for external validation, and obsessing make it challenging for us to release our dependency on someone else. We can gradually gain confidence, self-esteem, and a stronger sense of who we are as individuals when we invest time and energy into getting to know ourselves, allowing our feelings to surface and be expressed in healthy ways, and identifying what we truly want and need.
*You can substitute friend, family member, or another type of relationship for “ex” throughout this article.
©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.