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Breathing space: With or without you


Women are more likely to be impressed with a good listener who is sympathetic to their problems

Women are more likely to be impressed with a good listener who is sympathetic to their problems

Women are more likely to be impressed with a good listener who is sympathetic to their problems

I'm six months into a new relationship and very conscious of the fact that we're establishing a dynamic and laying the foundations for the future.

More simply, I'm conscious that I don't want to make the same mistakes twice.

Past patterns often re-emerge in new relationships so this time round I've been holding my tongue and keeping my counsel, particularly when there is any perceived opportunity to give advice or assume responsibility.

It's taken me 31 years to realise that when people want your advice (or wish to be emailed links to job websites), they'll ask for it - and even then, they probably just want a chat.

It's taken me just as long to understand that what is seldom is wonderful, or rather, that consistently and extravagantly meeting the needs of a partner generally goes unappreciated and unreciprocated.

I've also discovered that these two patterns are characteristics of codependency, which is broadly defined as a dysfunctional relationship characterised by excessive caretaking and reliance. It's a term that gets bandied about, often to describe women that iron their husband's boxer shorts and men that field 22 text messages when they go for a pint. Actually, it's much more insidious than that. Codependency is a complex condition with many different shades but crucially it's a need to be needed; it's an issue of control.

As David Stafford writes in Codependency: How to Break Free and Live Your Own Life, "Anyone in your life who tries to change you is really saying: as I can't control myself I will try and control you".

It's a sobering thought for those who have set themselves up to be leaned upon. The people that habitually become caretakers rather than caregivers in romantic relationships rarely stop to wonder if they rescue others because it's easier than rescuing themselves. They never consider that they might be the lock to the key.

They bemoan their encumbrances without realising that they have asked to be encumbered, or as Melody Beattie writes in Codependent No More: "Codependents appear to be depended upon, but they are dependent".

Codependents Anonymous (CA) - yes, there is such a thing - explain the control patterns of codependents further. They "freely offer advice and guidance without being asked". They "believe most others are incapable of taking care of themselves". They "attempt to convince others what they should think and feel".

According to CA, the codependent personality also has "difficulty identifying feelings"; "puts aside personal interests and hobbies to do what others want" and "perceives himself as being completely unselfish".

In relationships, codependency is a feeling of not being worthy enough to be loved just as you are. The caregiver defines his self-worth by proving his devotion. While codependents tend to attract one another, their relationship roles are distinctly unequal. Rescuers pair off with damsels in distress while addicts pair off with enablers. Often the dynamic is more like parent and child than husband and wife.

Curiously, those with a dependent partner tend to have many more dependent figures in their life (boss, mother, child. . .). The vulnerable gravitate towards them, and still the codependent caretaker can't understand why it is that they are burdened with other people's problems.

It's a sorry cycle, continues Beattie: "Later we get mad at them for what we've done. Then we feel used and sorry for ourselves. That is the pattern".

Beattie goes on to write about her group counselling sessions with codependent couples: "They were shells, sometimes almost invisible shells, of people. Their energy was depleted - directed at someone else. They couldn't tell me what they were feeling and thinking because they didn't know. Their focus was not on themselves".

It begs the question: can codependents really be in love? M Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Travelled, prefers to think of it as "parasitism". Codependents feed off one another until their identities merge into a whole that is significantly less than the sum of its parts. There is no growth because they are simultaneously impeding one another's spiritual path and dissolving one another's identity.

Real love - where giving and receiving is in balance - is nourishing. It feeds the soul and lifts the spirits. Codependent romance is closer to infatuation or obsession - they are in love with the idea of love.

You'll notice that those in codependent relationships usually share friends, hobbies and holidays, while those in independent relationships have created boundaries and are comfortable being on their own. Space, both literal and metaphorical, tends to be lacking in codependent relationships.

Self-esteem tends to be lacking too, which is why the condition is so rife in our culture. We all have the potential to slip into the codependent dynamic. Indeed, Charles L Whitfield, author of Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition, describes it as "the most common of all addictions".

But it's an addiction that can be overcome. One of the most powerful recovery techniques is to simply resist the urge to offer advice and guidance. Do it - even for a week - and you'll notice a new dynamic begin to unfold.

Codependent personalities need to learn that they can only control themselves.

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