Relationship goals: when to invest in relationship growth vs separation

Yesterday I spent my day coaching 7 different young adults through completely different stages of their relationship development.  All of them have proven to be tremendously capable in their chosen professional field.  Even in the teetering tech market of Silicon Vally they’ve earned impressive merit based raises, gifted pricy vacations abroad with company funds, landed on prestigious lists like Forbes Top 30 under 30, deemed essential in corporate leadership, and set trends in the startup world of the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of them are navigating the perilous task of determining who to invest in for a long term romantic partnership.  These are people prone to approaching goals with a steely pace and scrupulous plan for a high success rate.  Yet interpersonal relationship development and decision making doesn’t easily succumb to this style of problem solving.  How does one successfully determine when to invest in relationship growth versus separation, especially in the face of elusive feelings like ‘attraction, chemistry and connection’?  How much compatibility is enough?  How much compromise is too much?   This article aims to offer some guiding points to lead you in your decision towards continuing in the relationship or breaking things off with the hopes of finding a better fit.

  • Predetermine what matters most in ANY sort of close, long term relationship.  Do this exercise.  Pretend you’re searching for a new platonic best friend, based on what has proven to be the most essential qualities you’ve enjoyed in other close friendships.  Make a list of top 5 descriptive traits you believe would be most important for the friendship to be awesome.  I asked people with various types of personalities to share this with me, in order to get a sense of what people prioritize when they decide to invest in growing a relationship.  I was actually surprised by what some people said! (I won’t list any here because I think it’s more effective to create your list without external influences.)  Now ask yourself ‘How can I find out if this person has enough of my 5 most valued traits?  What will I look for? How long will it take?  Does this person demonstrate these traits consistently with me as well as other key people in their life, or are they sporadic?’  Are the qualities on my list part of how I’ve identified and maintained ‘chemistry’ with people in the past?  If you find yourself dating someone who doesn’t exhibit these qualities consistently with you, chances are it’s just not going to work.
  • Is there considerable evidence that this person adds measurable value to your life right now?  I ask this because many people decide to invest in relationships based on factors they believe will be valuable at some future point.  Nothing is wrong with considering things like compatible achievement/financial goals, similar hypothetical timelines for marriage, or believing someone would make an amazing parent.  The problem with this focus is that people lose track of evaluating how much they actually enjoy the relationship in the here and now.  I can’t tell you how many people come into my office stating “my problem is that I tend to date two different kinds of people; one is super hot and we have great physical chemistry but not a lot in common/we can’t stand each other outside the bedroom, and the other one has a lot of what I want in a life partner but I’m just not as attracted to them physically.”  Choices, choices people!  Here’s the bottom line.  If someone doesn’t currently hold your interest enough for you to exclusively focus on them on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’re going to be so focused on an upgrade it’s bound to fail!  It does not matter that their potential is great, or the timing is off, etc.  Move on.  But accept this:
  • THERE IS NO HOLY GRAIL of a partner.  It doesn’t even matter how much of a catch you are (tragically!)  Don’t believe me?  Do this: find an older person who describes their early relationship as having exactly the experience you’ve always wanted- that feeling of butterflies and fireworks going off, sitting and daydreaming about when you get to spend time alone with them again, listening to them talk in awe of how amazing/intelligent/funny/interesting they are, doing stuff with them is so easy and fun, the physical attraction is there, ‘this is THE ONE’ feeling is there, the feeling is mutual, etc. etc.  Even when this whole ‘madly in love’ experience remains unwavering for years between two people, they will STILL tell you that eventually the honeymoon phase does end (You’ve heard this before.  Still, you long to be impervious to this truth, so you avoid it by chasing new honeymoons with different people).  So this is when the hard work of committed relationship compromise begins, in order for you to enjoy the reality of a long-term relationship beyond the honeymoon phase.

Now if you’ve managed to make a connection with someone to even consider any of the above questions, you’re off to a decent start.  These days in the dating world it’s a challenge to even get beyond the right swipe of a dating app, let alone past the cutting room floor of a first date/hang out session.  Think about how you want to address the idea of investing in this next period of relationship evaluation.

  • Clarify the deal of commitment.  Even though these conversations are awkward, if avoid it you’ll have no idea if investing more of your time makes sense.  First figure out what you want.  Would you prefer if the two of you are only dating each other in this next phase?  Or dating other people but sexually exclusive?  Do you know if marriage is something they want for themselves, and if so, how soon do they imagine being ready for marriage?
  • Spend time thinking about where you are and are not willing to compromise. The other person may need more time to feel it out.  Many people operate under the belief that “compatible” people start out wanting commitment changes to happen at exactly the same time.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, some people just need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.  It is your job however, to decide whether the discrepancies that exist between the two of you are just too big to establish and maintain a fulfilling relationship.  How you ask?
  • Notice the patterns that exist between you:  Are routinely important habits in their life persistently difficult for you to bear?  Do you see a feasible way for you to accept these things, even if they never change?  Can you communicate while problem-solving without spiraling into attack or stonewalling mode with each other?  Do you set each other off in consistently destructive ways?  Is the emotional toll of engaging in this relationship negatively impacting other important areas of your life such as your ability to work effectively in your chosen path?  Are you able to maintain the relationships you’ve determined are important to you while you’re dating this person?
  • Make a clear decision about the relationship for a specific period of time and execute towards that plan, rather than spending days or even months going back and forth about whether to stay in the relationship.  ‘Should I end this relationship?  Yesterday I struggled with thinking I should, but today I feel like I want to make things work.’  This type of deliberation can be paralyzing and spiral into even bigger problems, like anxiety and depression, which exacerbate the situation.  You’re not going to move forward in either your relationship or personally if you remain plagued with indecisiveness.  By not committing to a concrete plan, you are not actively working to gain resolution.  The irony of staying in a relationship with one foot out the door is that you neither benefit from the comfort of intimacy nor gain the necessary closure for moving on with your life.
  • Accept that even the happiest couples have perpetual problems.  Manage conflict with the understanding that not all problems can be permanently solved.  If I learned anything from studying the work of John Gottman (the leading expert on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations) it was this- you are setting yourself up for failure if you approach all your relationship problems  with the expectation of permanent resolution.  Perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in your personalities or lifestyle habits, and can lead to gridlock when attempts to communicate and compromise fail.
  • Learn to practice effective conflict management.  Enlist emotional intelligence skills and aim to avoid toxic communication styles.  Create a system of shared meaning in your relationship that fosters collaboration and friendship in order to bypass power struggles.  What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but establishing a dialogue that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem without it tearing down the relationship.

If all else fails, seek professional help to help you figure out how to effectively invest the time and effort necessary for building and maintaining a healthy relationship.  Work through your breakup story if that’s the route you take, but move on so you can benefit from the invaluable rewards of love and intimacy.

 

Dr.Villarreal on Forum with Michael Kransy

Forum with Michael Kransy of KQED, NPR Public Radio welcomed Dr. Christina Villarreal as a guest speaker and mental health expert on the episode Moving On After a Break Up … And Why It’s Too Painful for Some of Us on February 12, 2016.  With host Mina Kim:  A new Stanford study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin uncovers why some people have more trouble recovering from breakups than others.  Listen to the entire episode here.

 

 

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Dr. Christina Villarreal in The Green Room @ KQED San Francisco

Gen-Y’s tech twist on engagement, weddings and parenthood

While Gen-Y is still getting married at much lower rates than previous generations, some millennials are finally beginning to grow up, entering the world of marital engagements, wedding planning, and parenthood. True to form, their choices reflect advancements that set them apart from Gen-Xers, who were the first to utilize technology to chronicle their love stories on websites like theknot.com, build wedding registries online, gift personalized CDs with digitally remastered music as wedding favors, show spliced video montages of the bride and groom’s childhood at wedding receptions, and research honeymoons on websites like tripadvisor.com. As a card carrying member of generation X, I can proudly say we thought we were so cutting edge! Our kids were the first to be born with smartphones and tablets in their hands, and we posted their baby pictures on our social media pages and texted them to their grandparents. But time nor technology stands still, and Gen-Y has begun to put their own tech twist on engagements, weddings and baby plans. As a mental health treatment provider and consultant who works almost entirely with millennials in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have taken note of the following trends:

Their romantic relationships have an online life of their own. As the saying goes, no one really knows what happens behind closed doors, but in the personal lives of millennials, we can certainly take a look at their online activity to see what they’d like us to believe about their relationship status and history. The internet has become their forum of choice for chronicling romantic highs and lows, functioning as a means to gain public support, air grievances, compete for attention, and display markers of success (not to mention deleting away failures.) From public playlists on Spotify, hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest boards and Facebook’s ‘Relationship Status’ updates, Gen-Y leaves little to the imagination when it comes to sharing their stories of romance.

They crowd source their decisions when it comes to navigating relationships. Millennials are used to solving problems fast, arriving at optimal solutions with the least resistance possible. Millennials have been groomed to work in competency-based teams, and this concept is frequently used for managing their personal lives too. They prefer to avoid conflict, and are more comfortable than previous generations relying on others to help them make decisions. Jeff Snipes, CEO of Ninth House, a provider of online education, including optimizing team effectiveness, says a hierarchical, leader-oriented team was more appropriate for earlier generations: “Traditionally if you worked up the ranks for twenty years and all the employees were local then you could know all the functions of the workplace. Then you could lead by barking orders. But today everything moves too fast and the breadth of competency necessary to do something is too vast.” When faced with life-changing decisions about relationship commitment or endings, Gen-Y seeks the opinions of their team of friends, family and experts to help them navigate and solve problems. When problems are deemed too private to share, websites like popular sites like Whisper and Secret are put to use by millennials as a way to air their private thoughts, share their hidden behaviors and ask for advice completely anonymously, so there is no threat to their carefully constructed online image.

Their engagement stories, weddings and honeymoons reflect their brilliance and investment in personal branding. While previous generations aimed to establish their worth and reputation through self-improvement, author Dan Schawbel of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success points out that Gen-Y has discovered that in the dawn of the internet, admiration and success comes from self-packaging through a carefully concocted personal brand. From the days of Myspace to Tumblr, millennials have grown up managing their self image like celebrity publicists. Gen-Y has turned self-portraits into a way of life- ‘selfies’ have become one of the internet’s top forms of self-expression. Their overall online presence has been a way to uniquely distinguish themselves from everyone else, and they are highly invested in making their relationship milestones ideally memorable as part of their personal brand. Whether they capture and share these milestones via Snapchat’s Our Story, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or personal blogs, millennials are sure to control how the world sees their love stories unfold through brand management. One San Francisco Bay area millennial shared with me she got engaged via FaceTime, since her long-distance boyfriend was living in abroad and couldn’t wait to pop the question. To his credit, her (now fiance) also created an iMovie that he shared with her, depicting him staged in funny scenarios accompanied by a personalized musical score that specially captured their romantic history.

They’re comfortable resisting tradition, understanding that ‘following the rules’ doesn’t necessarily bring ‘happily ever after.’ Author Paul Hudson of Elite Daily, The Voice of Generation Y observes that millennials are far less likely than past generations to buy into the notion that marriage is the gateway to a future of stability and happiness. Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, describes the strong link between parental divorce and a reluctance to get married. “If your parents split up then most people are more likely to be quite skeptical about the value of marriage,” he explains. “So as there’s rising divorce rates, you can imagine how when the next generation appears, people will be more dubious about marriage.” Bobby Duffy, leading market researcher on generational analysis, says there are also far more financial pressures on millennials than previous generations. They have more educational debt in a less stable economic climate, and face an incredibly buoyant housing market. According to CNNMoney, twenty-somethings are transitioning into adult life at a more gradual pace, opting to cohabitate and co-parent without traditional marriage at a much higher rate than previous generations.

They anticipate their babies’ future in a world where technological identity matters. One website says it all:awesomebabyname.com, a new online tool that allows parents to choose a name for their child based on website domain availability. Yes people, this is happening. I heard it first a few months ago when a pregnant patient of mine found out she was having a girl, the first thing she and her cohabiting boyfriend/expecting father-to-be did was buy website domains and establish email accounts in her name. Of course, now there’s an app for that! “It’s important to give your children a fighting chance of having good SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in the 21st century,” says Finnbar Taylor, who created this website together with Karen X. Cheng. “We use search engines all day long to answer our questions and find things, including people. Imagine being called John Smith and trying to get a ranking on Google search. It’s important to give your child a unique name so that people, like potential employers, will be able to find them easily in the future.”

Granted, millennials are still in their 20’s, a time when it’s still developmentally common to be preoccupied with self-image, and an idealized future that looks different than previous generations. The question is, as Gen-Y ages, which of these trends, if any, will change?

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a clinical psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA. She produces web articles, televised and print/web interviews on current issues in mental health and tech culture. She offers consultation and strategy to start up founders and employees.

Tom Cruise Katie Holmes divorce due to history of family dysfunction?

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Since news broke that Katie Holmes filed for divorce from Tom Cruise, there has much speculation about why their highly publicized celebrity marriage ended.  People magazine reported that Holmes had become increasingly unhappy in her five-year marriage to Cruise and that “she no longer had the life she wanted, in terms of her career, her way of life, everything.”  While the media has widely cited Cruise’s beloved Scientology to be at the center of the split, Cruise’s attorney Bert Fields insists the Church of Scientology was not involved, stating “Let me be very clear about this. The Church of Scientology played absolutely NO ROLE in the divorce settlement talks at all…”  But could Cruise’s early history of family dysfunction, which likely played a large role in his adoption of the Scientology faith, be the root of his failed marriage?  Would seeking professional psychological treatment have been more effective at helping Cruise break his old patterns of family dysfunction?

There remains many unanswered questions about what led to the breakdown of Cruise’s marital union with Holmes.  While Holmes was raised in a stable Catholic family upbringing by loving parents with whom she currently remains close, Cruise has shared with the media that his own family upbringing was laden with chaotic family dysfunction dominated by an abusive father, whom his mother eventually divorced when Tom was just 12 years old.  Cruise has described his father as “a merchant of chaos“.  Cruise described him as a bully and coward: “He was the kind of person where, if something goes wrong, they kick you. It was a great lesson in my life—how he’d lull you in, make you feel safe and then, bang! For me, it was like, ‘There’s something wrong with this guy. Don’t trust him. Be careful around him.”

Further, Cruise’s education was highly fragmented- he was enrolled in a total of 15 schools during his 12 years of education.  Coupled with a diagnosis of the learning disorder dyslexia which at the time, was often misunderstood and mistreated by mental health experts, early life for Cruise was troubled and difficult.  Cruise admits “I was a functional illiterate” upon graduating high school.  Cruise states his mismanaged learning disorder was an ongoing source of great distress and an obstacle to many of his early goals in life.  This experience appears to be the origins of his widely known contempt and mistrust of the field of psychiatry, which was reinforced through his later involvement with Scientology.   Cruise attributes his eventual success with literacy to the L. Ron Hubbard Scientology Study Tech.  Scientology is publicly and often vehemently opposed to both psychology and psychiatry, and view psychiatry as a barbaric and corrupt profession and encourage alternative care based on spiritual healing.

Clinical research has shown that adults raised in dysfunctional families experience difficulty forming and maintaining healthy, trusting intimate relationships, struggle to maintain healthy self-esteem/depend on others approval to determine their self-worth, and often fear losing control and allowing themselves to experience genuine emotions.  These individuals are highly susceptible to falling into unhealthy co-dependent relationships not just with people, but in the case of Tom Cruise, with rigid lifestyle choices that can push loved ones away.

Our early childhood experiences can lead to lifelong patterns that continue to shape us for the rest of our lives. While patterns of dysfunction can be very difficult to break, it is possible learn healthier forms of functioning.  In my work as a clinical psychologist, I have effectively worked with people of all ages who’ve experienced various levels of family dysfunction.  Without professional psychological intervention, many individuals eventually fall into old patterns of dysfunction and relationship failure, in spite of their efforts to change.

What are the goals for professional psychological treatment with someone like Cruise, who experienced early childhood family dysfunction and other stressors?

  • identify and challenge irrational patterns of thinking
  • develop and heal intimate relationships
  • learn to identify and express emotions in safe ways
  • learn to effectively and respectfully communicate with others
  • develop healthy self-esteem
  • work towards identifying and reaching rewarding life goals
  • balance work and personal demands
  • develop healthy and pleasurable forms of self-care
  • establish boundaries with others that feel both safe and supportive

The following quiz was adapted at Kansas State University in their counseling services dept., and may be helpful in determining if you are experiencing long-term effects of living in a dysfunctional family.  If you find yourself answering “Yes” to the majority of the questions, you might consider seeking professional psychological help.

  1. Do you find yourself needing approval from others to feel good about yourself? Yes_____ No_____
  2. Do you agree to do more for others than you can comfortably accomplish? Yes_____ No_____
  3. Are you perfectionistic? Yes_____ No_____
  4. Or do you tend to avoid or ignore responsibilities? Yes_____ No_____
  5. Do you find it difficult to identify what you’re feeling? Yes_____ No_____
  6. Do you find it difficult to express feelings? Yes_____ No_____
  7. Do you tend to think in all-or-nothing terms? Yes_____ No_____
  8. Do you often feel lonely even in the presence of others? Yes_____ No_____
  9. Is it difficult for you to ask for what you need from others? Yes_____ No_____
  10. Is it difficult for you to maintain intimate relationships? Yes_____ No_____
  11. Do you find it difficult to trust others? Yes_____ No_____
  12. Do you tend to hang on to hurtful or destructive relationships? Yes_____ No_____
  13. Are you more aware of others’ needs and feelings than your own? Yes_____ No_____
  14. Do you find it particularly difficult to deal with anger or criticism? Yes_____ No_____
  15. Is it hard for you to relax and enjoy yourself? Yes_____ No_____
  16. Do you find yourself feeling like a “fake” in your academic or professional life? Yes_____ No_____
  17. Do you find yourself waiting for disaster to strike even when things are going well in your life?  Yes_____ No_____
  18. Do you find yourself having difficulty with authority figures? Yes_____ No_____

 

 

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in the Bay Area, California and may be reached at christina.villarreal@gmail.com

George Clooney: why do some men remain bachelors? 7 common reasons.


Hollywood’s most iconic bachelor George Clooney (and two time winner of People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive) is often cited as a ‘success story’ by high achieving, adult men who choose bachelorhood over marriage. Unlike in past decades, society has become far more accepting of men who remain bachelors. Modern day bachelors are frequently financially successful who have adopted an enjoyable lifestyle on their own, dining in singles-scene restaurants or cooking artfully for one, forgoing family style vacations for jaunts to sexually hedonistic cities like Miami, Rio, or Vegas, indulging in expensive and/or time consuming sports like golf, sailing, or tri-athalon training, and of course, finding time to pursue a wide variety of women for company. While a modern day bachelor may dream of the exceptional woman who could excite and inspire him to forgo all of this, in the meantime, there is no shortage of modern, single women willing to gratify his sexual needs, perhaps hoping to be the one to convert him to marital devotion.

In my professional opinion as a clinical psychologist, I don’t see anything wrong with men who feel that a life-long commitment to the same person isn’t right for them. Many people lead rich and fulfilling lives having never married. Staying single is a viable choice for people who feel this way, and absolutely the right choice for those that feel marriage would cause them unhappiness. Over the course of providing therapy to men, and discussing this matter extensively with current day bachelors, I have developed an understanding of common reasons why some remain bachelors.

A common myth of the modern day bachelor is that none of them have an interest in committed long-term relationships. Some bachelors believe that they want a committed relationship/marriage (‘one day’ as many will explain), and can cite a host of reasons why they continue to be single. The central dilemma for these men often lies in the avoidance of hypocrisy. Meaning, while a stable, intimate relationship has it’s benefits, the desire for sexual variety and freedom is often greater, so these men feel forced to choose. So the question is, why do some men choose bachelorhood over a committed relationship? These reasons vary greatly in my professional opinion. As Clooney himself has insinuated, relationships are very hard work, and bachelorhood is a strategy to avoid the emotional work necessary for a healthy committed relationship. George Clooney quotes:

“I was in a bar and I said to a friend, `You know, we’ve become those 40-year-old guys we used to look at and say, `isn’t it sad?”

“The holidays are the toughest time for me. I just try to get through them. Being a bachelor has it’s rough spots.”

“We’d get into a fight and I’d just mentally leave. I’d think, ‘In a relationship, we should never have his kind of fight.’ Then, instead of figuring out how to make it work, I looked for a way to get out of it. The truth is, you shouldn’t be married if your that kind of person.”

7 Common reasons bachelors forgo committed relationships and marriage:

1. Emotions and relationships aren’t always logical. A healthy marriage requires the ability to experience and manage strong emotions while problem solving. While many men are quite successful at problem-solving and managing conflicts in their work roles and male friendships, they find that intimate relationships do not always follow the same logical path to resolution. These men often develop a disdain for personal relationships that do not feel ‘logical’ because they feel confused and unsuccessful at managing them.

2. Sexual boredom. Some bachelors fear the time when they can no longer confirm their virility through sexual conquests. When a man’s self-esteem is closely tied to accruing new sexual encounters, he is bound to feel a tremendous blow to his ego if he cannot pursue the ’emotional high’ that is often associated with winning a new woman’s affection as evidence that he’s still ‘got it’.

3. Perceived loss of freedom and control. Many bachelors feel they can’t fully be themselves unless they remain unattached to a woman, who they believe will undoubtedly try to control him. Even compromise that is essential to any healthy relationship can feel like a loss of power when a bachelor anticipates a ‘take over’ from the woman he’s dating. Others grow weary of taking on responsibilities for anyone other than themselves (i.e. the old ball and chain.) Bachelors find support for their fears by pointing to married men who have far less time for male-centered activities, and can no longer make financial decisions that only benefit themselves.

4. Avoidance of marital disasters. To estimate his chances of marital success a bachelor often looks to his family and married friends as a prediction of his future. He will often zero in on examples of marital failure- married men who feel compelled to cheat, others who abandoned their children, or married couples who argue and fight over everything. Rather than subject himself to experience these marital disasters with someone he genuinely cares for, he rationalizes that remaining single is a much safer bet.

5. Absence of healthy marriage in childhood.
Many bachelors cite an absent father or father-figure in their childhood as a reason for not developing the skills necessary to contribute to a healthy marriage. Others witnessed a father who was repeatedly unfaithful and unhappy in his marital life. These bachelors feel that without a good model to draw from, they are destined to become part of an inevitable, familial chain of marital failure.

6. Difficulty balancing professional goals with marriage. It’s not uncommon for men to wait until they’ve achieved some level of occupational stability and success before choosing to settle down with a partner. Yet some men fear that a marriage and/or family will directly hinder them from making the career strides they envision for themselves (i.e. ‘the workaholic’), and have difficulty accepting that it is possible to have both simultaneously.

7. Misogynistic or devaluing beliefs towards women. In my professional experience, a subset of bachelors share an ideology that women are inherently inferior to men, and aren’t worthy of a man’s commitment. Their beliefs prevent them from having enough respect for women to engage in a loving, committed relationship. They tend to view all women as opportunistic “gold diggers” who are incapable of contributing meaningfully to a man’s life. The origins of their disrespect may come from dysfunctional relationships with their own mother, who they may have experienced as negligent, unloving, overly dependent on an abusive man, or otherwise poor caregivers.

Can bachelors like George Clooney be reformed? (women around the world are holding their breath as they read below)

Many bachelors will wait to until they’re old, bald, and/or grey and in need of a nurse before considering giving up their bachelorhood status- typically when the benefits of bachelorhood are no longer in reach (unless they’re the Hugh Hefner sort, and can buy a young woman’s company). Others will choose to bite the bullet and do it earlier so that they’re not constantly mistaken for their girlfriend’s grandfather.

However there IS hope! Psychotherapy with a trained mental health professional such as myself can often help men overcome their commitment fears of marriage. How does this work? A good therapist will gently extract a detailed family and dating history, in order to pinpoint precisely when and how the running dialogue in a man’s mind became “I’m better suited to bachelorhood. I need variety more than intimacy. I’m not cut out for married life.” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a highly effective clinical road map for treatment, if a healthy, committed relationship is the desired outcome. And when I say commitment, I don’t mean just to a woman/partner, but to himself. A commitment to giving himself the opportunity to experience and receive deep intimacy, trust, acceptance of imperfection of yourself and another person, and most obviously, love.

Codependency: Why do people stay in unhealthy relationships?

Have you ever wondered in frustration why someone you respect or admire decided to “stay” with a spouse or partner who has committed repeated acts of betrayal? Or do you tend to always end up dating people who come from alcoholic or dysfunctional families? Or maybe you know someone whose job consumes all of their time and energy, leaving essentially no time for self-care or meaningful relationships. This article aims to explain why some of us struggle to separate from unhealthy people or work settings that consume our energy at the expense of our own mental and physical well-being.

Codependency became a widely used term in the 1970’s to describe family dynamics when one person is an alcoholic. Since then, mental health professionals have come to describe codependency as a learned behavior that often originates during childhood in dysfunctional families. Common causes of family dysfunction are chronic parental conflict or divorce, alcoholism or addiction of any kind, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or chronic illness. Children raised in an environment where their needs and feelings are frequently overlooked are at risk for developing a codependent style of interacting. As adults, they tend to seek out relationships or work environments that demand codependent behaviors, because they feel familiar and comfortable, in spite of the pain or hardship they bring.

Common characteristics of codependency

A need to control others. Codependents attempt to exercise authority over people around them through unsolicited advice, in an effort quell fears of unpredictability. They tend to use gifts, favors, doting behaviors and sex to manipulate others into cooperation. They can appear to have a superior attitude, but very often have low self-esteem as a result of poorly developed self-worth in childhood.

A need to “fix” people or things around them.
Codependents need to feel needed. They have a hard time knowing the difference between normal caring behavior and codependent care-taking. They tend to believe others are incapable of caring for themselves, and are typically attracted to people whom many would deem hopelessly riddled with problems. They believe (unrealistically) in their power to change others. When people around them start to ‘get better’ codependents may sabotage others’ progress, so as to continue being needed. Other types of codependents take on unrelenting work loads, believing themselves to be the only one capable of doing a job, while others in similar positions find it acceptable to do less. They are compulsive care-givers and workaholics, often neglecting their own physical and mental health.

Codependents have difficulty expressing feelings.
Codependents often struggle to identify their feelings, and attempt to minimize, deny or alter their true feelings once they are known. They tend to avoid confrontation, and remain loyal to their own detriment out of fear of abandonment or loss of a job that has essentially taken over their life. They often repress a great deal of anger, and as a result, tend to behave in passive-aggressive ways, making statements such as “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get” or “where would you (or ‘this company’) be without me?”

Outside opinions determine their self-worth.
Codependents rely heavily on the opinions of others to determine their value, because they lack a sense of their own positive self-worth. They often accept purely sexual relationships when they really seek love. Only when they believe people are attracted to them/like them, or they earn coveted praise or work accolades do they feel any sense of worth. They have an extreme need for recognition and approval and are often devastated when their efforts go unrecognized.


Codependency Test

1. Do you feel offended, rejected or angry when another person does not want your help?
2. Do you constantly over commit yourself to another, committees or your work?
3. Do you have a hard time understanding or expressing your true feelings?
4. Do you feel worthless unless you are ‘productive’?
5. Do you find it difficult or uncomfortable to spend time by yourself?
6. Do you work long hours at your job, without receiving additional compensation or recognition for your effort?
7. Do you find yourself constantly trying please others?
8. Do you worry more about your loved ones’ activities than yours own?
9. Do you go to work early and stay late, because the boss “needs you”?
10. Do you blame others for your anger and/or lack of control?
11. Do you find yourself repeating one bad relationship after another?
12. Do you sometimes deny or hide the fact that your family may have been abusive and/or dysfunctional?
13. In the last year, has anyone resorted to arguing with you, or begging to get you to stop trying to help them?
14. When you survey your relationships, do you find yourself surrounded by mostly people who need you?
15. Do you ever find yourself making excuses for needy or abusive people in your life?

If you answered YES to 4 or more of the questions above, you may have a problem with codependency. Treatment options, including individual and/or group therapy, may help you begin to make healthy changes.

Reference:
www.CoDA.org (Co-Dependents Anonymous, Inc., a.k.a. CoDA). CoDA is a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships and is not affiliated with any other 12 step program.