When love really hurts.

When love really hurts....

Unhealthy mutually self-defeating attachment in adult relationships

For the purposes of this brief reflection I am going to offer my own definition amongst the very many others to be found elsewhere.

Sometimes referred to as ‘codependence’, unhealthy mutually self-defeating attachment in adult relationships seems to be….. 

‘an attempt at an alliance through which a person strives to avoid  separation/abandonment by almost any means’  

i.e. threat, blackmail, passive, passive aggressive or aggressive control, manipulation and sometimes not only psychological but physical abuse. 

This behavior persists despite protestations that one or other or both want to end the relationship.

It is the extreme end of the insecure attachment spectrum – if you don’t love me I’ll die. I hate you don’t leave me. In this scenario power is everything. The person temporarily in charge calls the shots until the other person finds some agency and moves away and then, lo and behold, the other person is the insecure needy one so the magnetic poles swap over.

All this happens in our everyday world where most humans search for a safe partnership and a special other to share life with, but now the object of our ‘love’ takes on an extraordinarily meaningful role. The other person and the relationship enshrine a vast black hole of needs which are impossible to meet. We externalize our sense of ‘self’, our self-responsibility, our autonomy and agency and give it away to an unrealistic hope for ‘true love’. Actually we want to live in a fairytale. 

So this idea of ‘codependence’ has become a pejorative term for a social and behavioral norm that has become extreme. Those of us who have experienced this vortex of pain, fear and craving, can attest to it’s seriousness. It is not unusual for one or other of the couple to threaten suicide as a means of control. This takes us onto the notion of supposing that we can control other people. The problem here is that to try to do that is not a realistic strategy and arguably the most self-defeating behavior you can possibly attempt socially, especially in a 1:1 relationship. 

Here  are some strategies we use to control others….

Coercion, manipulation, blackmail, gaslighting, double binding, guilt tripping. Includes threat of separation, threat of harm, annihilation, abandonment and we haven’t even started on persuasive argument and rational debate…… Dialogue – what’s that?

If the search for a safe bonded attachment is the normal human drive, how does it lead to extreme forms of emotional disturbance and dis-regulation with often terrible consequences for the mental health within the codependent relationship? 

Most psychology and neurobiology research looks toward early attachment templates laid down in childhood. This makes sense and there are numerous studies to support how poor attachment effects our sense of a ‘secure’ self in adulthood leaving us insecure and vulnerable with an insatiable desire to find safety and security in adulthood. (Ainsworth, Main and Bowlby etc etc.)

However I am not going to delve into that detail here as I am more interested for us to be able to spot when things start to go wrong and try to find strategies to extricate ourselves before enmeshment and terrible feelings of fear, self-loathing, rage and hatred …..

(See below for further reading)

My clients ask me: 

“I understand the theory, but how can I stop choosing these completely inappropriate partners”

“how come these people choose me? What am I doing wrong?”

“am I autistic that I can’t read the social signals”

I’m beginning to believe that the obsessive need for a secure relationship overrides and trumps the ability to notice that a relationship, any relationship, will never supply this desperately needed security. The difficulty seems to be that we think that another special person will make us feel happy worthwhile safe and secure. Is this a reasonable expectation? Literature and myth implies that this is possible. Indeed a ‘happily married couple’ (if you know one or two) confirms this. But how have they managed to become happily married? Maybe their expectations are low? Apparently the happiest European country is Finland. Why? Researchers believe this is because the population has reasonable or low expectations for being ‘happy’ and therefore find contentment with themselves and their situation. 

Or, maybe both partners are secure in themselves? They don’t need continual validation from their partner or to control their partner. 

Or, maybe it’s all an ‘act’? The partnership finds a way to write a story with each other that they agree to maintain, This can be very successful if well managed and there is support from the world around them. Unfortunately, often in this case there can be consequences for mental health. But to all intents and purposes a united front is shown and kept in place.

So back to falling in love…..

The difficulty is that we tend to ‘want’ to ‘fall in love’. It seems we don’t want to be a self-secured robot. Also, it seems our design has evolved to create fairytales and fantasy perfect stories of love, possibly in order that we have loads of sex and multiply, but more likely because the love story straddles our world of erotic arousal, wanting sex, the animal base of human existence.

Then there is the potential for existential safety i.e. life has meaning I am loved and I love. Look I have children and a family home with a big bow on top. The animal template keeps looking for sexual satisfaction. The unsafe homo sapiens sapiens needs to belong and be safe. 

Then again, could falling in love be seen as a way of letting go of personal responsibility? i.e. I’ll fall into a make believe universe where I can exonerate myself from personal accountability. Plus it feels so great. We are one together in love. It feels so good, but after a few months and we are back in the real world with someone we don’t really know, the rose tinted spectacles are lost and the scales fall from our eyes….

The potentially unhealthy codependent person wants to fall in love and remain in that state all the time. Fall, collapse, stagger, stumble, fall into something, lose control of our bearings, be taken care of, feel safe …… of course! It’s great. It’s not real it’s a co-created world of romance. But its brilliant until it’s not brilliant. It’s exhilarating fantastic obsessive scary I’m going to die if she leaves me. I’m so jealous he’s so jealous and possessive I feel trapped he’s controlling me. I need her so much she can’t leave. I hate you don’t leave me. Why do I always get it wrong, it’s all her fault. Falling in love it’s so great it’s what makes the world go round.

Unhealthy ‘codependence’ is a schema through which a person strives to avoid  separation/abandonment by almost any means.

Again the why? 

At the risk of endless repetition, we all, especially primates but also all mammals, need to feel special and have a special person ourselves to love, a family and a tribe. 

As well as the early attachment deficit from childhood there is another possibility that perhaps we were loved too much and now seek this state forever. Terry Real calls this ‘false empowerment’, when a parent tells us we’re wonderful perfect brilliant, and then we meet the real world which doesn’t give a shit. 

Or simply we seek and yearn to be special to someone and have a special person to love. Someone who belongs to us and we belong to them – this is a problem in 2023 because the modern world of being ‘individual’ and female/neuro diverse empowerment doesn’t like people belonging to other people.

So what’s the answer….. 

  1. We agree not to expect perfection.
  2. Remind ourselves that blazing romance, passion and/or deep meaningful understanding is at best transitory. 
  3. We somehow try not to load sexual passion with too much meaning other than good chemistry, for a while. That sex can be an adult form of play rather than defining how great we are as a couple.
  4. That we then agree is to be committed, open and honest.  
  5. To help this we discuss differences, have dialogue, communicate true thoughts and feelings and if we do this, hang in unless the gap is clearly too great to bridge despite being our best selves. 
  6. Before breaking up, double check that evidence shows we need to move on, rather than take care of our own fears and explore and face up to stuff we find ugly in ourselves.

Hey Drew you were supposed to give me the answer ☹


Why we love – Anna Machin

Terence Real ‘Us’

Esther Perel ‘Mating in captivity’

Heller and Levine ‘Attached’

Tara Brach ‘Radical Compassion’

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