To codependents, love is perhaps the highest ideal. Relationships give our lives meaning and purpose. They enliven and motivate us, validate our self-esteem, and soothe our fears of loneliness. Too often a beautiful romance turns sour. What was a wonderful dream becomes a painful nightmare. Yet when the relationship turns toxic, ending it may be as hard as falling in love was easy!
Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT is a marriage and family therapist. She is a relationship expert and author of “Codependency for Dummies” and “Conquering Codependency and Shame: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You,” as well as five ebooks. She has worked extensively in the field of addiction and codependency. Her work is informed by training in Self-Psychology, Voice-Dialogue, Dream Analysis, Jungian Therapy, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, Somatic Work, EFT, and Hypnosis. She has also previously supervised other therapists as an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and practiced law as an entertainment attorney.
The Chemistry of Romance
Our brains are wired to fall in love – to feel the bliss and euphoria of romance, to enjoy pleasure, and to bond and procreate. Feel-good neurochemicals flood the brain at each stage of lust, attraction, and attachment. Dopamine provides ecstatic feelings that can be as addictive as cocaine. Oxycontin, the “cuddle hormone,” released during orgasm, is linked to bonding and increases trust and loyalty in romantic attachments.
The Psychology of Romance – Whom We Find Attractive
Psychology plays a role, too. Our self-esteem, mental and emotional health, life experiences, and family relations all influence whom we’re attracted to. Experiences, both positive and negative, impact our choices and make someone appear more or less attractive. We’re attracted to subtle physical attributes and emotional and behavioral patterns shared with a member of our family even before they become apparent.
The Ideal Stage of Romance
Healthy idealization is normal and helps us fall in love. We admire our beloved, are willing to explore our partner’s interests, and accept his or her idiosyncrasies. We feel more alive because love also brings out parts of our personality that were dormant. We might feel manlier or more womanly, more emphatic, generous, hopeful, and more willing to try new things.
Although healthy idealization doesn’t blind us to serious warning signs of problems, if we’re depressed or have low self-esteem, we’re more likely to overlook signs of trouble or accept behavior that is disrespectful, dishonest. or abusive. Romance can lift our depressed mood and fuel codependency and love addiction when we seek a relationship in order to put an end to our loneliness or emptiness. When we lack support or are unhappy, we might rush into a relationship before really knowing our partner, sometimes referred to as “love on the rebound” or a “transitional relationship” following a breakup. or divorce. It’s far better to first recover from a breakup.
The Ordeal Stage of Romance
After the initial ideal stage, we learn more things about our partner that displease us. We discover habits and flaws we dislike and attitudes we believe to be ignorant or distasteful. In fact, some of the same traits that attracted us now annoy us. Additionally, as the high wears off, we start to revert to our ordinary personalities. We don’t feel as expansive and unselfish. Now we complain that our needs aren’t being met. We’ve changed, and so has our partner. Yet, we want those blissful feelings back.
Two things happen next that can damage relationships. Now that we’re attached and fear the relationship ending, we hold back feelings, wants, and needs. This puts up walls to intimacy, the secret sauce that keeps love alive. We withdraw and breed resentments. As romance and idealization fade, the second fatal mistake is to complain and try to turn our partner into who we first idealized him or her to be. Our partner will resent this.
Many codependents, who get quickly involved for the reasons stated above, will sacrifice their own happiness and continue in a relationship for years trying to change, help, and fix their partner. The dysfunctional family dynamics of their childhood often get repeated in their marriages and relationships. Change requires healing our past and overcoming shame to feel entitled to love and appreciation.
Getting to the Real Deal
We might not want to continue a relationship that has serious problems. (See Codependency for Dummies for minimal and optimal relationship ingredients.) Getting past the ordeal to the real deal requires self-esteem, courage, acceptance, and assertiveness skills. It also necessitates the ability to honestly speak up about our needs and wants, to share feelings, compromise, and resolve conflict.
Steps You Can Take
We will attract someone who treats us the way we expect to be treated. As we value ourselves more, whom we are attracted to will change, and we will naturally avoid someone who doesn’t treat us well or meet our needs.
• Take time to get to really know the person and how you both resolve conflict.
• Know yourself, your needs, wants, and limits. (Do the exercises in Codependency for Dummies.)
• Remember that sex releases oxytocin and increases bonding (though it can occur without it).
• Don’t hide who you are, including your needs. Speak up when you dislike something.
• Talk honestly about your expectations in a relationship. If the other person doesn’t want the same things, end it.
• Self-worth is essential to healthy relationships and can predict a relationship outcome Read “Codependency: The Effect of Low Self-Esteem on Relationships.” Get How to Raise Your Self-Esteem.
• Learn to assertively express your feelings, needs, and wants and set boundaries. Get How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits and the webinar How to Be Assertive.
• Read “How to Change Your Attachment Style,” and take the quiz.