For a Happier Relationship, Do This
Are you or your mate keeping score? Trying to read minds? Struggling to set boundaries or ask for help? Here are a therapist’s tips for healing codependency — and how I’m curing my own disease to please.
We fell in love the first day we met. It may be one of the most beautiful and tragic things about us coming together. He was beautiful, sensitive, creative — and the first man I didn’t have to teach how to respect me.
Our relationship progressed quickly. Within a month of that meeting three years ago, he and I made it official. We’d spend intense weekends in my bed or his, learning every crevice, every detail of each other’s minds. After never experiencing reciprocity like this, with someone I finally considered an equal, I wanted to give him everything, and he gave me everything back.
But then the cracks began to show. After our first real fight, we had to confront reality. And while I was still sure of our commitment to each other, life intercepted as it always does. Both of our lives were imploding. He was healing from a life-changing injury and attempting to find work in a difficult market. I was working full time as a waitress while going to school and facing the deterioration of my relationship with my mother. The constant stress of our lives caused us to retreat within each other.
Upon reflection, I now realize that we fostered a codependent relationship.
So what does a codependent relationship look like? And what are the signs?
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines codependency as “the state of being mutually reliant, for example, a relationship between two individuals who are emotionally dependent on one another.”
Our codependency showed up differently in each other. For me, it was needing my partner, not just wanting him. It was prioritizing his needs above my own. For him, it was having issues expressing his needs and creating boundaries. Rarely did I ask for help, even though I was often drowning in all of my responsibilities. I expected him to see that I was struggling, as if he could read my mind.
Quinn Gee-Edwards, a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist based in Washington, D.C., specializes in treating women’s issues, including codependency in Black women. In 2019 she published a codependency journal for Black women and runs an annual codependency intensive for her patients. She explains codependency as “not centering yourself in your decision-making process because of a compulsive need to please people, usually wrapped up in some childhood trauma or attachment issues.”
The Black women in my life have always performed above and beyond for their loved ones. I thought it was honorable. I didn’t know it could be detrimental until I found out for myself.
How I realized I needed to move on — and heal.
Gee-Edwards also highlights the issues couples can face when struggling with codependency: “Not asking for what they need. Not setting boundaries. Mind-reading or case-building.” These problems were familiar to my relationship and often caused conflict.
Back then, I was always trying to find solutions to his problems — whether they were searching for ways he could find work, or taking his (often minor) issues intensely seriously — often more than than I did for my own problems. He viewed my feelings as more powerful and important than his and would often suppress his need for space in order to address my anxiety. We’d constantly clash due to my outbursts after leaving my needs undressed for long periods.
We were trying to revive the magic that we found in the beginning of our relationship. We chased the first 90 days of our relationship for two years before finally calling it quits in early 2019. After ending the relationship, I began to center myself again by spending more time alone, journaling to reflect and spending time with loved ones. Rose-colored glasses make you see all sorts of shapes, so it’s disorienting when you take them off.
Today, I am happier as an independent woman. I now pursue relationships that add to my quality of life, not my sense of self. After a few months of distance from my ex, I realized that my self-esteem was embedded in that relationship, as well as my autonomy.
Healing takes time, but learning to love myself and what I bring to the table will sustain me in the long haul.