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Monday, November 21, 2016

NYC Psychotherapy Blog: Are You in a Codependent Relationship With Your Ex?

In a prior article, Is Your Boyfriend Stuck in a Codependent Relationship With His Ex?, I explored this dynamic from the perspective of someone who is in a current relationship with someone who is still codependent with his ex.

I've also written other articles about codependency (see my articles: Overcoming Codependency: Taking Care of Yourself FirstHow to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin and Exploring Secondary Gains of Codependency).  In this article, I'm looking at the same issue from the perspective of the person who is stuck in a codependent relationship with his or her ex.

Are You in a Codependent Relationship With Your Ex?

We all know that breakups are hard, especially at the beginning.  They're even harder when codependency is involved.  Codependency can be emotional, financial, sexual or any other form of dependency that two people can get into together.

When two people have been codependent upon one another, it's especially difficult to end the relationships because neither person has learned to be independent.

This is often the result of childhood emotional neglect or abuse where emotional needs weren't met (see my article: Understanding Your Emotional Needs).

This dynamic can also be the result of growing up in an enmeshed family that fostered codependent relationships (see my article:  Enmeshed Families and Shame).

For the person who is doing the "rescuing," s/he often believes that the ex can't survive alone.  Except in the most dire circumstances, this is usually not the case.  But it's a way for the "rescuer" to delude him or herself into thinking that s/he must remain involved, even if it's not a romantic involvement.

One of the problems with this is that the "rescuer" is so focused on the ex's needs that s/he doesn't look at his or her own needs to continue to be involved.  The "rescuer" looks like the "strong one," but s/he is just as dependent as the ex, if not more so.

Continuing to "rescue" the ex doesn't allow the "rescuer" to grow as an individual or to develop a new relationship.  And even if s/he does manage to get involved in a new relationship, the codependent dynamics with the ex can interfere with the new relationship.

This sets the stage for triangulation between the "rescuer," the new partner and the ex with all the problems engendered in that dynamic.

Often, this is a way of the "rescuer" from being fully committed in the new relationship.  Most of the time this isn't a conscious choice.  It's usually unconscious.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario and see how these dynamics play out:

Bill, Meg and Ellen:
After being in a tumultuous relationship with Meg for over three years, Bill ended the relationship with much difficulty.

Bill was exhausted from trying to help Meg through constant emotional crises, and he knew he couldn't remain in the relationship anymore.

Initially, when they met, Bill thought Meg was an intelligent, charming woman who "had it all together."  He admired her passion for her business and how knowledgeable she seemed about the industry.

But within a few months of their dating, Meg called late one night in tears to tell him that she was heavily in debt and unable to meet her basic personal or business expenses. She was crying hysterically and she didn't know what to do.

Bill was completely taken off guard because this was the first time that Meg had revealed that she was in trouble.  Before this, she had led him to believe that she was doing very well.  But in this phone call she told him that she was too ashamed to tell him, at first, that she was in trouble and it was now to the point where she might be evicted from her home and her office.

Bill helped Meg go through her bills, and he agreed to lend Meg the money to get on her feet, and Meg gratefully accepted his loan.

Are You in a Codependent Relationship With Your Ex?

Little did Bill know that this was the beginning of a slippery slope where Meg was in constant crisis and Bill was her "rescuer."

During the next three years, it was one thing after another:

  • Meg was having problems with the IRS because she didn't file her income tax, so Bill paid for a tax accountant to bail her out.
  • Meg had an argument with her mother, who had lent Meg money and now wanted it back, so Bill intervened as a mediator and paid Meg's mother back.
  • Meg's top salesperson walked out on Meg because she felt that Meg was verbally abusive, so Bill intervened to smooth things over.
  • Meg couldn't sleep at night, so she would call Bill at all hours of the night and he would calm her down.
  • Meg went to the ER numerous times with chest pains and each time the doctors told her that it was anxiety and she should see a therapist, but she refused to get help in therapy and insisted each time that Bill accompany her, which he felt obligated to do it.
By the third year, Bill was emotionally and physically exhausted from all the chaos.  He knew that he was in an unhealthy relationship with Meg.  He pleaded with her to see a therapist, but she refused. She felt that all she needed was Bill.

He thought long and hard about breaking up with Meg, but he didn't know how she would get along without him.  Finally, he started therapy because he felt conflicted about whether to stay or leave the relationship.

Even though Bill wanted to focus on Meg, his therapist helped Bill to keep the focus on himself and his own need to be in this relationship.

At first, he was very uncomfortable looking at his own dynamics in the relationship.  He had been taught as a child that it was "selfish" to think about yourself first and that others should always come first.

Bill's therapist helped him to develop the internal resources before going deeper into his own personal history and how it affected him in his current relationship (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills in Therapy).

When his therapist thought he was ready, she used a technique in clinical hypnosis called the Affect Bridge to help Bill make an emotional and physical connection to the current situation and his childhood history.

His therapist wasn't surprised when Bill discovered that he had a similar relationship with Meg as he did with his mother.

From a young age, Bill became a "parentified child" as his mother got into one crisis after another and Bill tried to help his mother overcome her problems.  It was as if he was the parent and she was the child.

It became very clear to Bill that he couldn't continue in his relationship with Meg, especially since she refused to get help, because it was affecting him physically and emotionally and it was a repetition of a childhood trauma.  So, he and his therapist talked about how he would end the relationship with Meg.

It took a few more months before Bill could summon the courage to tell Meg that he wanted to end the relationship, but when he did, Meg became enraged.  She was no longer the charming, loving girlfriend.  She became angry and vindictive.  She threatened to call his boss and tell him lies to get Bill fired.  She left voicemail messages on Bill's cellphone with all kinds of other threats.

Bill was shocked to see this other side of Meg, and he kept his distance.  But he also felt very guilty and wondered how Meg would get along without him.

In the meantime, he continued to see his therapist and worked on maintaining his resolve not to call Meg.

A few months later, Meg stopped calling Bill.  He was still worried about her, and he felt guilty, but he didn't call her.  Soon after that, he met another woman, Ellen, whom he really liked and began dating.

His relationship with Ellen was warming, loving and harmonious.  It had none of the emotional drama that was involved in his relationship with Meg (see my article: Hooked on Emotional Drama: Getting Off the Roller Coaster).

Even though he had not spoken with Meg in several months, Bill still wondered how she was doing.  Since Meg was no longer calling him and threatening, he thought it wouldn't be a problem to call her briefly to find out how she was doing.

His therapist was away, so he couldn't discuss it with her, so he decided to give Meg a friendly call.  But as soon as he got Meg on the phone, she began yelling and threatening him again.

Are You in a Codependent Relationship With Your Ex?

He told her that he had only called to find out how she was doing, but he was going to hang up because she was becoming abusive.

Then, Meg broke down in tears and told Bill that she was sorry for everything, that she was miserable without him, she was lonely and she had no one to turn to.

A few weeks later when Bill talked about this phone call in his next therapy session, he told his therapist how he felt himself irresistibly pulled in again, and he began to meet Meg for coffee to listen to her problems without telling Ellen.

But Ellen soon found out and she ended their relationship because he kept his visits with Meg a secret from her.  Bill pleaded with Ellen to take him back but, inwardly, he felt caught between his Ellen and Meg.  He knew that he loved Ellen and his relationship with her was a healthier relationship, but he also felt compelled to continue to help Meg.

Bill's therapist helped him to see his own codependent emotional needs at the point when he called Meg again, and he took responsibility for recreating this problem in his life.  He wanted to be with Ellen, but he just didn't know how he could "abandon" Meg (see my article: Why Understanding Your Problems Isn't Enough to Change Them).

After working on this issue for several months and working through the original childhood trauma with EMDR Therapy, Bill felt ready to let go of his role as Meg's "rescuer" (see my article: What is Adjunctive EMDR Therapy?)

Deep down, he also knew that by continuing to bail her out of situations, he was enabling Meg to continue to get into one crisis after another and she would never take responsibility for her life.

After a few weeks, Meg's desperate calls stopped and Bill breathed a sigh of relief.  For the first time, he felt that, even though he felt compassionate towards Meg, he wasn't responsible for her and she would have to work out her own problems without him.

When he recontacted Ellen and told her about the work he did in therapy, she agreed to meet with him so they could talk.  After meeting a few times to talk, they started dating again and resumed their relationship.

The fictionalized scenario about Bill, Meg and Ellen demonstrates that the roots of codependent relationships are usually found in early childhood relationships.

This is often what makes these relationships so compelling--not only are you experiencing the emotions related to the current situation but, on an unconscious level, you're also experiencing old childhood wounds.

The combination of the conscious emotions and the older unconscious emotions can be very powerful.

This is why it's so important to work through the earlier childhood trauma--otherwise, you can get out of one codependent relationship and go right into another one without even realizing it.

It's not always obvious from the start of a relationship that it will turn into a codependent relationship.  Often, people put their best foot forward at the beginning and only later reveal their need to be "rescued."  And often you don't feel the need to "rescue"at the beginning of the relationship, but it can develop with time.

The most important step you can take, if you find yourself in a codependent relationship, is to put the focus back on yourself and recognize how you're being affected by the relationship (see my article: Losing Yourself in a Relationship).

While it might seem that your partner (or your ex) is the "needy one," this is an illusion.  The person who is doing the "rescuing" has an emotional need to be in this dynamic just as much as the person who is living a crisis-oriented, chaotic life.

These relationships are often hard to let go of by yourself because the emotions can be so overpowering.

Even when you have managed to end a codependent relationship and you're in a healthier relationship, it's not unusual to feel compelled to go back to the former relationship or get involved with "rescuing" again.

Getting Help in Therapy
Getting help from a licensed mental health professional, who has experience with helping people in codependent relationships, can make all the difference between remaining in an unhealthy relationship which is draining you emotionally and physically and living a healthier, happier life.

Getting Help in Therapy

Take the first step to get help by setting up a therapy consultation.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many people overcome codependent dynamics.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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