I Love To Love: Recovering From Codependency

I’m learning that real interdependence is the overflow of self-care. 

I love to love.

For 33 years I had no idea what that really meant.

I never had a high school boyfriend. I was 21 when I lost my virginity in a casual relationship. Then I dated a series of people who were basically un-reciprocating. So I addressed my own considerable commitment phobia. I went to therapy. I did a lot of thinking and reading and talking about what I wanted, who I wanted to be, and what being in a relationship meant to me.

And then, at 25, I fell in love. Outrageously in love. I spent the next eight years of my life untangling this impossible mess.

Most of us are not taught how to love well. We barter our affection, giving love to get it. We keep score, developing complex systems of judgment and justification, to feel safe. We withhold love from ourselves or each other until it is earned or deserved. We act as if it is a limited, nonrenewable, and dangerous resource.

As if love is rare treasure we are lucky to stumble upon, and not a part of our basic, everyday essence.

For me, love was a simple equation: (Want + Need) x Passion = Love.

Of course this was math taught to me by my family, who has a well-rehearsed history of improbable, fool hardy, “wrong side of the tracks” love stories. For my parents, a merging of identity, trauma, and personality was a way of surviving a world that felt hostile and threatening from a young age. We were a wobbly tripod. An only child, my nose was pressed up against the glass of their self-mythologized union. All I wanted was to be one part of a duo that was seemingly seamless.

I wanted a team of my own.

When I finally committed in a relationship, pleasing the other person was a priority, fulfilling the other’s need a way of loving, denying any request for my own needs a generosity. Later, being depended upon felt like security. Eventually it was just enough of a drain that I felt a twinge of relief at the thought of it ending. I was asking for nothing and so I thought I was risking nothing. Except my own long-term happiness.

But it wasn’t so simple.

For almost a decade I untangled—slowly, painfully—my feelings of want, need, passion, and attachment from deep feelings of love, joy, tenderness, and care. I taught myself to separate out my childhood from my budding adulthood and discern my parents’ way of being from my and my partner’s.

I finally understood that being in love is not at all the same as being in a relationship—a mutual, equitable, sustainable relationship.

What love gave me was precious and irreplaceable, its gifts only slowly erased by our mutual self-denial, abuse, and imbalance.

I knew better, before the end. I knew it hurt me to stay, but I stayed anyway. Trying to make a broken thing whole. Until I was finally, totally exhausted. Of ignoring what I knew to be true. Of the drama. Of the careening loop-de-loop of recoil and merge. Of the memorized choreography of confusion, pain, and yearning.

I was so tired by the time I fell to earth and out of love. Still, I only really ended the relationship when I could see how equally unfair and hurtful it was to the other person, however much they said they needed and wanted and loved me. It was a killing field, keeping us both tethered to this lie that pretended to be love.

There were so many times I couldn’t see the shore. The line of myself reeled so far out, I didn’t know how to get back to what felt like me. I had to pull my way back to myself each time. I had to practice feeling the difference between my own concerns and the other’s, between what and how much was right to give and to get. It was a lot like learning to ride a bicycle. In the middle of the ocean. At night.

The strategies that helped me survive as a little girl had turned on me. Silencing my needs while taking care of others, seeking to please and gain approval, or taking up as little emotional space as possible for fear of abandonment and neglect were eroding any chance I had of becoming a whole version of myself.

As infants and children we experience total dependency. It seems almost obvious that we would limp along leaning on each other in codependency before standing upright in our own assured independence. Almost.

People are tricky animals. We get away with whatever we can, with minimal effort, most of the time. I had to consciously hoist the bar a lot higher, in what I expected in caring for myself, and in what I expected from how the people in my life cared for themselves.

Let go of the ones you love who cannot meet you halfway.

The boundaries I set now are about me, about what I know being in balance feels like—not about what people in my life are giving to me or doing for me. Love has become a function of the quality of what I am giving, to myself and others, instead of what I’m getting.

For the last seven months I have been in love, outrageously in love, again. But for the first time I feel like I have an equal partner whom I admire. For the first time my relationship gives me more than it takes.

I’m learning that real interdependence is the overflow of self-care.

It’s the surplus of love and attention we commit to another when we are thriving enough to nurture a shared experience of life.

Because it takes a lot to do this well.

It’s been seven months of unprecedented vulnerability, honest communication, respect, commitment, and trust.

This is what we’re learning. Play every day. Never take anything for granted. Have clean fights and good sex. Blame is a waste of time. If one person “wins,” you both lose. Use your words. Grudges are toxic. Apply kindness liberally. Team members take responsibility for keeping themselves, not each other, whole.

I get scared. My track record stinks, and I’ve never done this before. I feel around inside of myself all the time looking for the walls I used to hit. This isn’t right. It’s gone too far. I’m giving too much. I can’t do this. But so far my insides are a wide, blue sky.

I don’t have any expectation that this will be perfect or effortless or last forever.

My only expectation is of myself—that I’m honest every day about the difference between support and dependence, that I speak up for my needs, and that if I hit a wall, I’ll do what I need to take care of myself.

This isn’t easy, or simple, or obvious.

But it’s good. And I finally know what that means.

Leona Palmer is the content specialist for the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. A former plus-size model with Ford and Wilhelmina Model Management, Leona cofounded Curves for Change, a nonprofit promoting positive body image and is a contributor to The Huffington Post, HandpickedNation.com, and Heygorgeous.com where she writes about gender, media, and sustainable living. She’s on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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