Relationships are a basic human need, like water.
What’s also true, though, is the cliché: “You can’t love another until you love yourself.” (I think I first heard this in a spaghetti sauce commercial in the nineties. Doesn’t make it any less real.)
As for me, I was often in a clingy fog that prevented my connection with myself, my purpose in life, a god of my understanding, my friendships, and community.
But you know what? It’s not that black and white, either. People, in fact, aren’t substances. There was good and bad in my past relationships. And learning to be healthier in relationships is not a linear process. But it is a journey worth taking.
1. Taking time off from dating hurt at first, but it healed me. I took a year.
I had a long-term partner a while back, and he was a great person. It wasn’t his fault I was addicted to him. We weren’t a match though. But for me, that didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was meeting my relationship “needs.” We were in almost constant contact. Every anxiety, insecurity, or sneeze I needed to process with him, and he obliged. I needed him and he needed to be needed. We were codependent.
After we broke up, I didn’t jump right into another relationship.
And this hurt. As withdrawal does. I shook at a core level. I needed a lot of Netflix and junk food. But I held back on the impulse to rebound, and focused on just getting through this painful period by getting to know myself, by learning to self-soothe, even if the things that were soothing me weren’t mastering pilates, indoor rock-climbing, or doing meticulous house-cleaning.
- I did not go crazy without a partner like I feared I would
But the lesson from this painful experience answered the core fear I had when I was with that ex—I genuinely thought being with him was keeping me from having a mental breakdown. I had no faith that I could hold myself together.
I could hold myself together just fine. I did it in messy, imperfect, indulgent ways, but I was sane. I was functional. I didn’t need him.
For me, it was necessary to take a full year away from even thinking about being involved with another person romantically. It was tough, but worth it.
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3. I built deeper friendships with people who were already around.
Time away from romantic relationship broke the spell of my belief that I was incomplete and unworthy and on the brink of disaster if I am “alone.”
Because I had never been alone. It took cutting off romantic entanglements to emerge and see that, and stop taking for granted the great people already in my life. I learned to really value platonic bonds.
- I developed new friendships based on shared interests and mutual support
I learned the transformative power of creative play with friends.
But friendships went deeper too; I learned the simple but important value of give and take. It’s not always all about me.
In technical terms, I did my best to develop interdependency and move away from codependency.
5. I became a self-care Jedi
After the painful period of withdrawal was over, I was able to actually enjoy my own company and treat myself well. Never got to pilates, but I did get healthier. There is a big difference between loneliness and solitude. Self care can be as simple as a regular bed time routine or weekly walks in a park or making a nice meal for myself every so often. As children, we thrive with boundaries and order. As an adult, I want to give my inner child that same sense of stability in whatever small ways I can offer. Showing myself that love on a regular basis reminds me that I am worthy of love, and gets me out of the codependent trap of demanding from a partner or friend that they prove how much they love me by rescuing me. I am not an island, and of course, no one is, but I am more self-sufficient now.
6. Friendships are the house, community is the foundation
I belong to several communities—creative, spiritual, extended chosen and given family, and I have friendships borne of these communities. Communities need attention too. For me, when I was in a codependent relationship, I had my partner and a handful of friends, but my sense of community shrank. These days, I am proud to count many people in my extended network of folks I care about, whether I connect with them frequently or not.
7. Spirituality is the roof on the house
Whether a meditation sangha, a habitual prayer practice, a church, or frequent Tarot readings, (or some or all of the above) some access to inner/universal wisdom has guided me towards making sound choices for myself. My version of God/dess/inner wisdom shelters me from the storms because whether I have a partner or not, storms come.
8. The goal is not to be a monk, unless, of course, that is your goal. (New sweeties rule.)
I’m blessed to have a wonderful person in my life right now, a new sweetie. But when I fail at self-love, I fail her. Love is an action, a conscious action, not a state of being you accidentally “fall” into. In All About Love: New Visions bell hooks says that love is the conscious decision to aid in another’s spiritual growth. If I don’t know how to love myself, how on earth can I love her? And it’s like one of those visual puzzles where you have to blur your eyes a bit to get it—self-love is actually the opposite of self-absorption.
Also important to note is that we are moving slow in developing our bond.
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- The work doesn’t stop when a relationship begins.
Remember how I said I used to treat people like booze? Well, even with the time of drying out/withdrawal, building friendship, community, self-care, and spirituality, I can still have the tendency to make it “all about me” which is at the core of any addiction, relationship addiction included. Call it self-obsession, self-absorption, or just plain selfishness, I can fall into this pattern if I’m not careful. If I’m not vigilant.
You know that thing in airplanes when they tell you about the oxygen masks? That in the event of an emergency, put on your mask first before assisting someone else?
That pretty much sums it up. Except not so much “assisting” someone else as “relating” to someone else in this case.
In practice, that means as much as I love spending time with my new sweetie, sometimes the best thing to do for both of us, and for our relationship, is to cut a date short, and to slow down in developing and deepening our bond. We need our own time, too—in solitude, in friendship, with our respective gods, in our respective communities.
And sometimes I mess up. Sometimes the “urge to merge” is so strong I forget all these lessons and things don’t feel right. Or I make something about me when it’s not, and we fight.
But we’re working it out, separately and together. And I’m amping up my meditation practice so that when negative thoughts appear, I am not as attached to them. So there is space between a fear and an impulse to speak it.
- I’m learning to be accountable for damages I’ve caused in the past.
These are all things I’ve learned to make my own life better, in and out of romantic relationship. I’ve learned to have a better relationship with myself, my god, my community, my friends, and a partner who I hope sticks around. I also know I’ll be okay if she doesn’t.
But what about the exes I’ve hurt? What about the roommates and friends I’ve irritated and alienated because of my self-absorption and other flaws at the root of my addiction? I can’t just ignore that. I have to take stock and take responsibility for my mistakes. And also, continue to apologize for my mistakes with anyone I wrong as I live life. I am human. I’m going to keep messing up. All I can do is clean up afterwards. I’m still working on this one.
“Freeing myself from relationship addiction” is a life-long process. My addiction comes from trauma, it comes from unhealthy attachment issues developed in childhood, and it comes from an addictive culture sickened and obsessed with “love” and “romance.” I won’t be rid of this in a few months or a few years. I am getting better. My life overall (career, family relationships, friendships, creative ambitions, and so on) has improved dramatically since I started putting self-love first. But it’s not a degree program. I’m enrolled for life.
For more resources and wisdom try the books:
Don’t Call It Love by Patrick Carnes
Facing Love Addiction by Pia Mellody
And here are some free resource groups:
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(Feature Image: Photo of two people kissing, one person has curly hair, the other has short cropped hair. The sun is in the background. Source: https://static.pexels.com/photos/1075/couple-love-people-romantic.jpg)