Ever felt stuck in a relationship knowing full well things weren’t working in spite of your efforts yet you’d felt helpless, unable to leave? Or maybe your last relationship ended some time ago if it weren’t for the fact you and your ex somehow other manage to re-emerge in each other’s lives. Perhaps you’re feeling controlled or smothered, locked into a seemingly endless power struggle with your partner. Or are you one of those believing that you’re forever cursed to meeting the ‘wrong’ people? Regardless of your circumstance, being in a poisonous relationship is a lot like being in your own prison.
A relationship can provide for a secure bond with your partner. Such a bond can be a source for tremendous growth, self-discovery, and great joy. A relationship can also be a life-draining entity; a malignant, hostile, and unfriendly place where our very security (and sanity) feels threatened. If a toxic relationship is the prison, codependency is the warden to which we unwittingly submit to. The upshot is that some who go to prison end up finding themselves; their inner peace, their solitude, and yes as paradoxical as it may sound, their freedom too.
If you’re reading this then it is likely that you’re in the throes of an unhealthy relationship. Or maybe your last relationship imploded and you’re in the process of picking up the pieces, wanting not to repeat the lessons of old. “Why do I keep getting into dysfunctional relationships?”, a client of mine quips, head buried in his hands. Another client, frustrated and disheartened ponders aloud “I saw the red flags, why didn’t I get out when I had the chance?”. Whether you’ve had 3 failed relationships in as many years, remain stuck in a toxic pattern with your partner looking for a way forward, or you’re wanting to improve the overall quality of your connections, this article is for you.
Below are 5 ways to help you bust-out of the codependency prison:
1. NOBODY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR HAPPINESS BUT YOU
Relationships can sometimes have an addictive quality. When another person feels like our salvation to an undesirable life situation, it is easier to relate to the addict who turns to drugs to escape his/her pain. As with any addiction, once the initial euphoria wears-off that other person can feel like the source of our discontent.
As with any addiction, the first step towards recovery (breaking out from the prison) begins when we take accountability; for our thoughts, our feelings, and in particular our needs. This one simple truth is liberating. Once you’ve realized that you’re responsible for yourself, you then have the freedom to make a change for the better.
2. COPING BETTER WITH UNCERTAINTY
Your partner is upset. The day is seemingly at a stand-still as you are paralyzed with intrusive thoughts, worried about the state of your relationship. Your partner hasn’t texted you all day. You begin to panic. Worried that something’s wrong you send a text hoping for a response to set your mind at ease. An hour later and no reply. Panic begins to set-in, your stomach begins to knot up.
You’re starting to really like that cool new guy you’ve been dating the past 3 weeks. It seemed as though that last date went well, but a week has gone by and he’s yet to ask you out. With each passing day you anxiously wonder “Does he really like me?”, “Am I going to see him again?”, “Did I move too fast and he lost interest?”.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these thoughts, they become unhealthy when they imbued with an obsessive quality. Consumed by such thoughts we become anxious, easily irritated, and face an ongoing struggle to be present throughout the day. It may not be all that surprising to learn that these anxieties often lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. The guy seeking validation from his partner through a text message finds his ‘proof’ that he is unloveable by her latent reply, pushing her away as he protests her lack of responsiveness (she was actually tied-up in a business meeting). The young woman unsure if the guy she’s dating shares the same feelings pulls away feels shame for ‘too eagerly’ putting herself out there. He does the same assuming she’s no longer interested.
If any of this sounds familiar, you’re probably wondering how you can ‘cool’ yourself when dealing with uncertainty. While there is no way to inoculate yourself from all anxiety, the closest thing to a panacea is by giving yourself daily ‘doses’ of meditation.
By meditation I am not talking about spirituality, a religious experience, or having some sort of a divine epiphany (although if its any of these things, great!). Rather, the goal of meditation here is simply to calm the mind’s chatter. This is done through the act of being present. To become more present, is to be free of toiling in past thoughts, or future projections. When we are present, grounded within ourselves. We are also able to stave-off any temptation to react so situations out of impulse. The space that meditation gives us, cools the limbic area of the brain and allows the prefrontal context (the area responsible for judgments, evaluations etc) to stay ‘online’ so we can then make more informed decisions. This can mean the difference between REACTING and RESPONDING to a situation.
Try your hand at some of the meditations at http://www.mindfulmuscle.com/5-top-guided-meditations. The benefits of meditating regularly can be life-long. The more you exercise your mindfulness muscles, the greater your quality of presence. A mere 5-15 minutes of meditation daily can dramatically increase your window of tolerance (your ability to sit with life’s uncertainties), lower your base level of anxiety, and grant you the sanity and serenity you’ve so longed for.
3. THE ONLY PERSON YOU CAN FIX IS YOU
Recognizing that your partner is responsible for the way he/she feels is imperative for building a healthy relationship. There is truth to the old adage of accepting others “warts and all”, particularly those we hold nearest and dearest to our hearts. When we accept a person for who they are we no longer perceive them as flawed, nor have any desire a need to change them. In fact, demanding that another person change to suite our needs is an act of selfishness. We are in effect saying to the other person “you are not enough”, and that they’d better fall-in-line to meet our needs. This energy can feel both oppressive and smothering. It can smother the flame, feeling heavy and oppressive, rather than stoke the fire that keeps the relationship going.
Healthy relationships, secure bonds, are a collaborative effort. We come together, rather than become divisive. We share power with, not over the other. Learning how to healthfully communicate feelings and meet needs out of a gifting energy was the lifelong work of Psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg. His legacy of Compassionate Communication lives on and has helped individuals, couples, and societies develop find solutions and with intentionality create more meaningful connections.
4. ALWAYS GIVE OUT OF A GIFTING ENERGY, NEVER OUT OF OBLIGATION
The energy to which we act from has a direct influence on the complexion of our relationships. When you give to your partner, there is no obligation involved, and there’s no expectation of payment in return. When we do things out of an obligation energy, we are doing violence to our relationships; we ignore our own needs, and we add point to our mental score card.
That’s not to say that we ought not to ever do things we may not like. Rather, it is to recognize that everything we involves choice. We may not enjoy doing the dishes, but if at very least we understand it as a choice then it brings a lightness to what we’re doing. In order to change the energy to which we do things it is important to 1) RECOGNIZE that you’re making a choice (the reality is no one is forcing you), and 2) CONVEY your feelings on the matter keeping the other person out of the picture.
When you give to your partner, there is no obligation involved, and there is no expectation of payment in return. When we do things out of an obligation energy, we are doing violence to our relationships; we ignore our own needs, and we add point to our mental score card. To be clear, this does not mean we never do things that we may not enjoy doing. Rather, it is for us to recognize that is always our choice to do.
5. LEARN TO HEAR NEEDS, NOT CRITICISMS
This one may not be so intuitive. According to renowned Psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, “At the root of every tantrum and power struggle are unmet needs.” If identifying needs in others were like finding a radio station, our ears would be the dial to tune-in. We must therefore learn to dial-into the proper frequency to receive the actual message.
When our focus is on unmet needs, we are in a far better position to connecting to what’s alive both within ourselves and those around us. In hearing needs it is imperative to focus on the present moment. Put another way, focusing on another person’s or our own needs brings us to presence; like meditation, this is another pathway to presence.
When we’re experience any unsettling, stuck, or upsetting feelings – anger, depression, guilt, or shame – we become shutoff from our own needs, ‘what’s alive in us’, and the world around us (Rosenberg, 2005). When we focus on what another person THINKS about us we lose that precious connection to them, to ourselves, and we go on the attack.
There is however another way. If instead we were to focus not on what’s being said, but on the unmet needs behind the words, any perceived judgements or criticisms will go unheard. We only hear the needs not being met and are in a far better position to be responsive to them. To learn more about communicating in this manner visit www.nonviolentcommunication.com.
There really is no one way to break out of an toxic and repetitive relationship cycle. It is however important to remember that the enemy is not your partner, the opposite sex, circumstances, or anything other than the cycle itself. By creating new habits as outlined above you will break toxic patterns of behaviour and well on your way to building healthier relationships. Whether or not you’re currently in a relationship or single, these strategies will help you foster a stronger connection within yourself. By making them a part of your everyday living they will help enrich your relationships while bringing a renewed sense of purpose and vitality back into your life.