My girlfriend and I have engaged in your typical “U-Haul” relationship. AKA, we’ve been dating for less than a year and live together. We have become super close with each other’s families and friends and have gone on several long trips together. Throughout our relationship, we have learned that we are very different people with different love languages and different needs. In most situations, this has helped both of us step outside of ourselves and grow to meet the needs of the other person in a way that doesn’t leave us compromising who we are or our happiness. This stops being true when the topic of independence comes up. My partner feels like there isn’t a need to make memories without each other or really have alone time. I, on the other hand, would like to be able to hang out with friends without her on occasion or be able to spend time alone. This fight has happened many times, and her resolution is to ‘suck it up and deal with it.’ This doesn’t feel like a compromise on either end, so I’m not sure how to move forward. I don’t want to lose my independence, but I don’t want my partner to be miserable. Is there a way to make this work?
In some ways, you have a healthy mindset. You can easily identify your needs, your girlfriends’ needs and where they diverge. You support your partner in getting her needs met, and you’re aware of times when compromise might be necessary. You also know when you’re neglecting your needs in order to meet your girlfriend’s expectations. Hang onto that self-awareness — it’s your best tool for navigating through this conflict.
Asking for more space is a simple, reasonable request. Having alone time is essential for your mental health, and maintaining your own hobbies and friendships is critical for a healthy relationship. Getting alone time when you live with a partner during a global pandemic requires a little extra coordination, but it’s possible, and we should all be putting in the effort. When your partner denies your need for space, that’s a big red flag. She’s isolating you from the things that make you a capable, confident, well-rounded person, and when you adhere to her rules, you’re enabling codependency.
I’m not a therapist, but as a queer self-help nerd, I’ve read a whole lot about the dreaded “c” word. Initially, the term “codependency” was used to describe relationships between people struggling with substance abuse and their loved ones, but now it applies to a broader context. According to Melody Beattie, author of Codependent No More, a codependent partner is someone who has let someone else’s behavior affect them and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. The need to control a person or their environment is born from a desire to keep that person and your relationship safe, and “control” can manifest in all kinds of ways. Sometimes codependent people make unreasonable demands of their loved ones in order to feel more secure — that’s what your girlfriend is doing when she pressures you to spend all of your time together. Codependent people might neglect their own needs and put others first, even when it hurts them — that’s what you’re doing when you stop living on your own because “I don’t want my partner to be miserable.” While the intentions of codependent behavior are rooted in caretaking, codependency is ultimately a self-defeating cycle. You need to interrupt it before this behavior escalates and you become further isolated from yourself and from the people you love.
You said that you’ve already spoken to your girlfriend multiple times about needing space. Give it one more go. You don’t need to drop the “codependent” word bomb on your partner, but you do need to clearly tell her that this situation is not ok. Be specific about your needs (“I need to see my friends one a week,” “I need at least one hour of alone time at home every day,” “When you’re feeling lonely, I need to you to reach out to a friend or family member before you reach out to me” etc.). Explain that having space is a basic human need for both of you and that it will allow you both to bring your best selves to the relationship. Based on what you said about her past behavior, your girlfriend probably won’t respond well to this right away, so it’s important to acknowledge that this might be hard for her at first. Then give her time (but not too much time!) to start making progress. If your girlfriend doesn’t take any steps to release her controlling behavior, then it’s time to break up. Ending a relationship that’s stuck in a cycle of codependency is extremely challenging, since both partners have typically become isolated from their support networks, but the longer you wait, the harder it will be to extricate yourself from codependency’s claws.
If you find that codependency has shown up in your past romantic or in your relationships with family and friends, consider doing some work on yourself to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. If you don’t already have a therapist, get one. Read Codependent No More or check out one of the many support groups for people experiencing codependency (right now, most of them are online). Continually challenge yourself to put your needs first. Take yourself out on a date. Explore a new hobby. You deserve to live for your own happiness and you deserve relationships that foster mutual respect. Good luck!
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.