Romantic Obsessions & Codependency

People sometimes see me for therapy in NYC because they are painfully fixated on and relentlessly obsessing about another person. If this is you, it probably feels like depression, anxiety, acute frustration and intense longing are all happening simultaneously. Your sleep is likely to be disturbed, work can feel like drudgery and life itself can suddenly seem meaningless and without purpose.

This is a dark and difficult place to be. And when human beings are in such a place, they need to be reminded that: (1) you are not alone; many people go through this, so try to be compassionate towards yourself; (2) there is a way out if you are ready and willing to get help; (3) you will look back on this someday and it will be an important learning experience in your life.

codependency: when a person becomes your drug of choice

It can be helpful to view romantic/sexual obsessions as a form of addiction. As the therapy community in NYC and beyond has learned in recent years, the addictive process is very similar no matter what the drug of choice is:

  1. Craving a 'fix' from your drug of choice (person, alcohol, gambling, weed, food, pornography, shopping, etc.)—while feeling somewhat down/depressed or restless/jittery
  2. Score the drug of choice and get 'high'
  3. Experience the high for a while
  4. As you come down from the high, you start feeling down/depressed or restless/jittery which triggers familiar cravings for your drug
  5. Back to the beginning and repeat

As with all addiction it can feel highly compulsive—like a black hole sucking all your energy into a negative, self-defeating and chaotic space. If you find yourself in such a situation, you have fallen into an all-too-common pattern of turning another person into a 'drug'—and you have come to need a regular fix (i.e. contact, affirmation, sexual encounter) just to feel normal.

When things have gotten to this point, something as simple as not getting a returned text can ruin your day or your week. Failing to get your fix triggers withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, depression, irritability, desperation and more.

emotional dependency, codependency & emotional pain

Contrary to popular opinion, emotional dependency can be very healthy, very unhealthy or anywhere in between. As I discuss often with clients in therapy, dependency is a very misunderstood concept. In fact, it is unfortunate that in our society, people have come to view dependency as 'bad' and 'weak' because the truth is that human beings NEED to depend on others. What's important is that we learn to do so in healthy ways that promote trust, safety, emotional closeness and growth for all involved. When we succeed in this task it can be said that we are in a state of healthy dependency or inter-dependency.

The term codependency, however, refers to patterns of excessive dependency where you have given too much power to someone else and essentially lost touch with yourself and your own life in the process. This leads to conflict, tension and misery. 'The other person' in such scenarios can be anyone (i.e. a romantic/sexual partner, a boss, a friend, a child, a sibling, etc.).

Diminishing yourself and giving away your power to a current or 'ex' romantic partner is only one form that codependency can take, though arguably it is the most painful and the most destructive. In these scenarios you end up feeling weak, needy, insecure and desperate—and while what you want is connection with the other person you are likely caught in patterns that push him/her away.

The emotional suffering that results from codependency is agonizing. In this state, nothing else in life seems to matter nearly as much as the prospect of connecting again with this person; feelings of jealousy are constant and in worst case scenarios you experience frequent intrusive thoughts that torture you because you cannot stop imagining that this person is spending time and having sex with someone else. These images can play in your mind with unbearable repetition.

why do we develop codependency & romantic obsessions?

All aspects of our personalities and relational styles developed over time, influenced by many intersecting factors over a period of many years. If you are currently struggling with patterns of obsession and codependency, then you can probably look at your history and see similar experiences; this is not the first time you've had very painful difficulties in romance.

We form relationships and participate in them via patterns and habits that we've built up throughout our lives—from childhood into the present day. Thus whatever we learned/experienced in relationships during childhood, teen years and young adulthood contributes to how we think, feel and act in relationships in adulthood.

One of the questions we often explore in therapy is: “What were the emotional/relational dynamics of your childhood, teen years and young adulthood?” This historical perspective can be very valuable, but it only sets the stage for the main event—and the main event is the hard work you put into your own learning and growth process in your present life. Let me explain further:

In the early days of therapy it was believed that insight into childhood experiences would cure problems in adulthood. It was not true and fortunately the field has grown out of this limiting belief. What we now know is that understanding the emotional/relational dynamics of your childhood (and the impact they had on you) is only the beginning.

Such self-awareness provides you with some increased clarity about what you need to work on and change in your present life. And therapy can be of great benefit in this process—to help you not only understand your own self-defeating patterns but more importantly, to understand what you need to do in order to unlearn and replace those patterns with healthier and more constructive ones.

codependency, abandonment issues & attachment theory

It's probably accurate to say that all human beings have some degree of what is referred to in everyday language as "abandonment issues." No one enjoys (and everyone suffers from) being left, breaking up or having others go away. Still—it is definitely the case that some people go through much greater pain and disorientation than others when a romantic interest pulls away. When unrequited love impacts a person's moods to the point where daily functioning is seriously impacted, it is definitely time to get some help.

This begs the question: “Why do some people suffer so much more than others during break ups or when romantic feelings are not returned?”

One helpful thread of understanding can be found in the ideas of Attachment Theory and the pioneering work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainesworth. This rich body of ideas has begun to help us unpack and understand the complex phenomenon of human bonding: how it begins, what it looks like and what forms (healthy and unhealthy) it can take in our lives.

Thus, one of things I take a look at in therapy with my clients is the quality and nature of their attachments (emotional connectedness in relationships)—both in childhood and in adulthood. A review of the ways in which your attachments were (and are) secure, insecure and/or ambivalent can provide a helpful framework for understanding how to think about and participate in relationships going forward in your life.

therapy for codependency & romantic obsessions

If you are suffering from codependency and/or romantic obsession, it is important that the therapeutic process helps you to take responsibility for the fact that you've given inordinate power to another person. Taking responsibility is the foundation for taking back your power.

It is sometimes hard to admit but the truth is that—in your thinking and your actions—you have elevated this person and put him/her on a pedestal while simultaneously diminishing yourself. In this way you have conditioned yourself into believing that without this person's affirmation of you, your life is a dismal and lonely place.

It is likely that this has happened little by little, over time, without you fully noticing what was going on. Yes, maybe you saw a few 'red flags' along the way, but like many others, you were too caught up in it to stop and change direction. And now you find yourself in an emotional crisis.

As part of the healing and personal growth process, it is important that you tell yourself daily that you are not bad or evil or shameful—but that you are HUMAN. And as we all know about humans, they/we fall into self-defeating patterns at times. It is unavoidable. The point is not to beat yourself up but to start taking steps toward healing and growth. You owe that to yourself and your future.

additional resources for healing from codependency & romantic obsession

In addition to addressing issues of codependency and romantic obsessions in therapy, some people choose to also attend meetings of the support groups listed below, so if that is something that interests you—you should feel free to explore it and see if it is right for you: