Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!
Q: It seems that every time I get in a relationship, I give up me and what my interests are to be with him. Or be more likable to him. I feel like a chameleon. And when I do assert myself for the things I value, I feel like a traitor. I’ve tried reading self-help books. I just don’t seem to be able to change. I don’t even have casual friends. I feel broken. Is my only recourse to stay alone? —C.T.
A: What you’re describing is commonly called codependency, or the excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner. Another way to think about it is just as you described — one person in a relationship gives up their interests and even identity in order to feel more connected to their partner.
Every healthy relationship includes a healthy balance of independence and interdependence. But when one partner becomes totally reliant on the other, and independence is lost, then the relationship is unlikely to survive.
Often, you will create what’s called a “pursuer/distancer dynamic,” where the more one person pursues the other, the more the other is likely to pull away. It’s counterintuitive (I mean, who doesn’t want to be pursued?) but very common.
So let me address your ending question: Is your only recourse to stay alone? No.
I’ve seen dozens of couples in my private practice who are suffering because they never established a strong sense of individuality. This happens a lot when couples marry young and, for all intents and purposes, raise one another into adulthood. But they can get through it.
It’s probably worth mentioning that couples who marry later in life often have the opposite problem. They’re so committed to their “thing” that they don’t do interdependence very well.
But back to you. It seems to me that you do need to get really clear about what you want out of a relationship. Or, more importantly, you need to get really clear about who you want to be in a relationship. (And when you do enter a promising new relationship, be honest with your partner about your historical pattern and your desire to change.)
As a second step, I’d really encourage you to change your self-talk. Stop focusing on the parts that are broken and the feeling of being a traitor. That’s not helpful. It may feel true, but surely you have some pretty amazing qualities that you can celebrate and strengthen. Lean into those and let them define you. Be a komodo dragon rather than a chameleon.
Finally, consider seeing a therapist to help you, and know you are not alone. Codependency is quite a common issue to deal with, and shows up a lot among partners of addicts (if that sounds like you, consider joining Al-Anon for some community support).
No matter what, I think you should focus on being you. Ultimately what you want is a partner who cherishes you for who you are, not what you give them. If you disappear in a relationship, your partner isn’t really in a relationship with you.
More from Asking for a Friend here.