Why Breakups are Hard for Codependents

rejectionRejection and breaking-up are especially hard for codependents. They can trigger hidden grief and cause irrational guilt, anger, shame, and fear. Working through the following issues can help you let go and move on.

– Codependents often blame themselves or their partner.

– They have low self-esteem, so rejection triggers shame.

– Relationships are of primary importance to them.

– They fear this relationship may be their last.

– They haven’t grieved their childhood.   

– Loss and trauma from their childhood are triggered.


One of the main symptoms of codependency is poor boundaries. Codependents have difficulty seeing others as separate individuals, with feelings, needs, and motivations independent of themselves. They feel responsible and guilty for others’ feelings and actions. Sometimes they project blame when they feel guilty or ashamed, also. This accounts for high reactivity and conflict in codependent relationships. One person’s need for space or even to break-up may not be a consequence of his or her partner’s behavior, and blaming the partner doesn’t make it so. There may be instances where a person’s addiction, abuse, or infidelity precipitate a break-up. Those behaviors reflect individual motivations and are part of a bigger picture of why the relationship didn’t work. No one is responsible for someone else’s actions. People always have a choice to do what they do. If you’re feeling guilty, take the suggested steps in my recent e-workbook: Freedom from Guilt and Blame: Finding Self-Forgiveness

Anger and resentment can also keep you stuck in the past. Codependents blame others because they have trouble taking responsibility for their own behavior, including a failure to ask for their needs to be met and to set boundaries. They may have been blamed or criticized as a child, and blame is a learned defense to shame that feels natural and protects them from their overdeveloped sense of guilt.

Low Self-Esteem and Shame

Shame is an underlying cause of codependency stemming from early, dysfunctional parenting. Codependents develop the belief that they’re basically flawed in some respect and that they’re unlovable. Children can interpret parental behavior as rejecting and shaming when it’s not meant to be. Even parents who profess their love may alternately behave in ways that communicate you’re not loved as the unique individual who you are. Shame is often unconscious, but may drive a person to love others who can’t love or don’t love them. In this way, a belief in ones unlovability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy operating beneath conscious awareness. Some codependents have a shaming, “I’m defective” or “I’m a failure” script, blaming themselves for anything that goes wrong. Low-self-esteem, which is a cognitive self-evaluation, leads to self-attribution of fault and personal defects to explain why someone else wants to end a relationship. For example, if a man cheats, the woman often assumes it’s because she’s not desirable enough, rather than that his motivation comes from his fear of intimacy. Learning to love yourself can heal shame and improve self-esteem. See my book, Conquering Shame and Codependency.

Relationships are the Answer

In the dysfunctional and insecure family environment in which codependents grow up, they develop strategies and defenses in order to feel safe and loved. Some seek power, some withdraw, and others try to win the love of their parents by adapting to their parents’ needs. Stereotypical codependents keep trying to make relationships work – usually harder than their partner – in order to feel secure and okay with themselves. A close relationship becomes the solution to their inner emptiness and insecurity. It’s not unusual for codependents to drop their friends, interests and hobbies – if they had any – once they’re in a relationship. They focus all of their energy on the relationship and their loved one, which helps neither them, nor the relationship. Some couples spend their time talking about it their relationship, instead of enjoying time together. Once it ends, they feel the emptiness of their life without a partner. The adage, “Happiness begins within,” is apt. Recovery from codependency helps people assume responsibility for their own happiness, and although a relationship can add to your life, it won’t make you happy in the long run, if you can’t do that for yourself. It’s important to have a support network of friends and/or 12-Step meetings as well as activities that bring you pleasure whether or not you’re in a relationship.

The Last Hope

Losing someone can be devastating, because codependents put such importance on a relationship to make them happy. Fear is the natural outgrowth of shame. When you’re ashamed, you fear that you won’t be accepted and loved. You fear criticism and rejection. Codependents fear being alone and abandoned, because they believe they’re unworthy of love. They might cling to an abusive relationship in which they’re being emotionally abandoned all the time. These aren’t rational fears. Building a life that you enjoy prepares you to both live single and be in a healthier relationship where you’re less dependent upon the other person to make you happy.

Grieving the Past

Codependents find it hard to let go because they haven’t let go of the childhood hope of having that perfect love from their parents. They expect to be cared for and loved and accepted unconditionally from a partner in the way they wished their parents could have. No partner can make up for those losses and disappointments. Parents aren’t perfect and even those with the best intentions disappoint their children. Part of becoming an independent adult is realizing and accepting this fact, not only intellectually, but emotionally, and that usually involves sadness and sometimes anger.

Past Trauma

It’s a psychological axiom that each loss recapitulates prior losses. You may have had other losses as an adult that compound grief about the current one. Yet often, it’s abandonment losses from childhood that are being triggered. Closeness with a parent was either blissful or you may never had it, or didn’t have it consistently. The intimacy of a close relationship reminds you of intimacy you once had or longed for with your mother or father. Either way, it’s a loss. Codependents may have been neglected, blamed, abused, betrayed, or rejected in childhood, and these traumas get reactivated by current events. Sometimes, they unconsciously provoke situations reminiscent of their past in order that it can be healed. They also may incorrectly perceive rejection, because they expect to be treated the way they were previously.

Grief is part of letting go, but it’s important to maintain friendships and life-affirming activities in the process. Blame, shame, and guilt aren’t helpful, but working through trauma from the past can help you sort out your feelings and know what you feel about the ending of the present relationship. Do you miss the person, what he or she represent, or just being in a relationship? See my blog on “Recovery from Breakups and Rejection.” Listen to my seminar on “Breakup Recovery” on how to heal.

Letting go and healing involve acceptance of yourself and your partner as separate individuals. Usually, relationships end because partners have individual issues with self-esteem and shame, are ill-matched, or have needs that they’re unable to communicate or fill. Shame often causes people to withdraw or push the other person away. Healing trauma and losses and building self-esteem help individuals move forward in their life and take more responsibility for themselves. Sign up for a free copy of “14 Tips to Letting Go,” on my website, and get my ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem. For deeper work on healing toxic shame, get Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.

©Darlene Lancer 2013


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25 thoughts on “Why Breakups are Hard for Codependents

  1. Thanks for all your hard-work and making this information accessible Darlene. You are changing lives.

    I’m particularly grateful bc I hit rock bottom when my first relationship in my 20s ended. I’m currently using your ‘Codependency: For Dummies’ book to process my relationship with not only my boyfriend but also my family. I came to realise a lot of the suffering I dealt with was enmeshed with making my narcissistic mother and alcoholic father happy. The truth about the nature of my relationships has set me free. But it’s an ongoing battle to seek autonomy and a stable identity. Thankyou for helping my journey with your knowledge <3

  2. Everything I’ve read of yours has resonated with me but I wonder if you have any resources for my situation?
    I was in a very co dependent relationship with my ex, while pregnant with our son he became very distant and withdrawn and I ended up having a total emotional breakdown and going on medication, I completely lost it. He moved out when our son was three months old and I have been unable to move on emotionally, despite setting clear boundaries and going no contact I still feel obsessed and desperate for any sign of love or regret we separated.
    I met a wonderful man who I married and now have a child with but can’t seem to move on!

    • You seem to want the man who doesn’t want you, rather than the one who does and loves you. Shame and childhood abandonment might be the reason, but it will take working with a skilled therapist to uncover the real cause of your obsession with the unloving, unavailable father of your first child. Remember that there’s a difference between love and obsession. You’re very fortunate to have married a “wonderful man,” but may not feel worthy of him. Read my Conquering Shame and Codependency, which may provide you with some answers.

  3. I’ve recently realized I am in a mutual codependent relationship. I have been experiencing a lot of anxiety, because of it. I spent 5 years in an abusive codependent relationship, then I became involved with my current relationship only month’s after. We are going on 4 years. I feel like I never had time for me, that I used my fast moving relationships to put off my inner issues. I worked up the courage to tell her how I feel and was pretty much ignored. She’s amazing girl but now I feel that she won’t let me go and I won’t let myself go. I have seen this kill my last relationship and I just don’t have the energy to keep going like this

  4. I was in a relationship with a CoD woman, whom I truly loved. We worked on many levels, there was such bliss and joy. But I found my need for freedom hit against her codependency. In the beginning, I was wide open. But as she tried to control and make me responsible for her happiness, I pulled farther away. She eventually left me for another man. I feel because of classic CoD behavior she finds relationship as a means for completion. This cycle was hard for me to take, especially before I realized what was happening. Even today, armed with this knowledge, I find myself wanting to be with her and thinking it would be different.

  5. Wow, very simple and true. Thank you for making it sense out of break ups and co-dependency! I am currently trying to establish boundaries with a female with whom I “had” become intimate with during a time of weakness due to multiple family member deaths. It started in early 2010 and has been an emotional nightmare ever since! Talk about bringing up the past emptiness and neediness, This person is emotionally cut off and unable to communicate feelings verbally, to the point of neglect. Texts me daily! It’s exhausting! I am instituting boundaries, for my OWN sanity. But, oddly, I find myself wanting attention from her now? Very confusing?

    • Perhaps she helped you cope with the loss you were experiencing and without her or without the distraction of her texts, the emptiness and grief returns. I recommend reading my newest blog on the “Cycle of Abandonment” and Chapter 4 of Conquering Shame, which is about emptiness and how to distinguish it from grief.

  6. Wow… Tears sprang almost immediately to my eyes when i read this because every line was exactly what I needed to hear. I’ve been to therapy off an on during my life and thought I had worked through all the scars of my childhood. I just got out of a relationship with a man who is great but really emotionally unavailable because of his own traumas and issues, and it completely devastated me. Suddenly I was my unloved, ashamed childhood self again, blaming myself for it all. I could not have found your post at a better time. I am going to find a CoDa meeting or therapist to help me. Thank you, thank you so much.

  7. I have gone no contact with my narcissistic mother for the past 6 months. I am 61 years old. I recognize my own withdrawal symptoms which I find utterly fascinating. The fact that I was actually addicted to the perpetual chaos that is my mother leads my to fully understand my participation in the disfunction. As soon as I went away, Mom went to the lawyer to take me out of her will. I’m the only person in the will since Mom has already disowned my sisters. I’m fine with all of that part of it but my question is, how long does the withdrawal last? I’m still walking around in a fog! I even broke my toe because I’m not able to stop replaying the tapes.
    Thank you!

  8. I found a lot of positive information in the blogs. Codependency is a very serious issue. I am so grateful to have someone like Ms.Lancer help individuals with these type issues.

  9. I had been warned and (to some degree) could believe that my romantic attachment to a passive aggressive man was unhealthy but I couldn’t accept the oft repeated notion that it was attributable to unresolved childhood issues because my romantic issue is nothing like my father and although there were childhood issues with my father, those issues were discussed and resolved a long time ago. A year ago, the object of my romantic delusions used his previously unrevealed health crisis to manipulate me back into communicating with him — after I worked so hard to let go of him with a spirit of peace and blessing. His health crisis, really! Is nothing sacred? ( I will touch on the sacred in a moment). Almost a year, to date, after her did, my mother, who has always been manipulative, used her estate and her legacy to manipulate my sister and I. In a spontaneous utterance, I exclaimed to my dear friend, “he’s just like my mother!!!” And, that, people, is when the light bulb came on. Now, I intend to have no further contact with the object of my romantic delusions. I have no need for “closure.” I will not allow anger to “keep us connected.” In fact, when I began to suspect that he used his health crisis to manipulate me, I warned him that if I concluded as much then I would have a different regard for him. That’s where I am. (Thank God!) I am done with him and have peace about it. Now, there is my mother. Here is where the fun begins. In addition to being manipulative, I have a visceral feeling that she was so in a bullying kind of way. So in terms of resolving childhood issues centering around an aged parent, I am determined to do so. Here is what I plan to do. Each and every time my mother engages in the manipulative behavior, the proportions of which are legion, I intend to confront her. I wont be cruel, but I will not spare her either. I want a normal love relationship and I already know how to take care of myself, so to the extent that the possibility for the same is thwarted by unresolved childhood issues, I intend to resolve them by fearless confrontation with a manipulative mom. Lastly, the reason I am able to disconnect from the object of my romantic delusions in one fell swoop is because I have come to understand that with people who are manipulative, NOTHING is sacred….sobering. Thank you for your attention. Feedback welcomed. And to any of you dealing with similar issues, may my strength be yours in camaraderie.

    • Manipulation is covert hostility – a wolf in sheep’s clothing I discuss in Codependency for Dummies. However, once we’re aware of what’s going on – which can be difficult if we grew up with it – it is still up to us to not allow it. We can do this by replying very directly, without blame or anger, which only fuels arguments and an angry retort or more manipulation. I recommend my inexpensive ebook, How to Speak Your Mind and a book called, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.

  10. I am happy and sad all at the same time to be stumbling across your website and YouTube videos…. I am a 40 year old mother of 6 children (1 who has passed away and my oldest 2 have moved out) and I have been in a very dysfunctional intimate starved relationship for many many years… I am terrified of leaving and being on my own… in fact we have been separated since Feb. 2011 and divorced in March 2013 and we still live in the same household… I am lonely as all get out and exhausted by all my responsibilities as a mother… I am currently enrolled in school… Spirit has shown me recently that I am classic codependent and have been in a relationship with another codependent… He thrives on helping me but leaves me feeling so guilty (sometimes blaming me for “everything he does is for me and the kids” ) It has confused me for years and has kept me always waiting for some kind of intimate closeness… the message that confuses me is that he does so many care taking things “all in the name of love” and yet i feel so alone… your right the shame and guilt have us both so locked in dysfunction….I now see patterns of codependancy in my children… I am afraid that they will create unhealthy relationships because they know no different… I am so lost on how to start our healing and change… I have read through many of your articles but I feel that I may need help with this one… (maybe that’s my codependancy?) any advise on finding a good therapist?

  11. Hi, I read the CODEPENDENCY, its completely me. Reading this I realize the hurdle in my success is Codependency. I am 26 but in past and in present currently I am going thru a trauma of my relationship. I dont know where it will end, but I seriously believe i am loosing my life in it.
    I want to improve on myself I want to get out of it. It my weakness I accept it openly. But I want to improve. Kindly help me.

    I searched your book in India its not available. Still trying to find it.

    Please help me I want to improve on myself.

  12. I think that you are finally, FINALLY, getting through to me. Everything you write on Facebook has been helping me through a painful separation, but somehow I kept clinging to the idea that even though he left me and moved right in with someone else, it was still my fault. Worse, I kept obsessing over how I could fix it. This latest reading has somehow gotten through. I appreciate what you write so much, and want to thank you from the bottom of my shattered heart 🙂

    • Thank you for your feedback. Someone who “moves right in with someone else” has a problem that has nothing to do with you – even more so if he was cheating with her before he broke up. This ending is an opportunity for you to build your self-esteem and eventually find someone who appreciates you.

  13. I am currently separated and have an 8 month old baby. My ex came clean to me about his heroin addiction 6 months ago and my life has been in shambles ever since. Once he started attending meetings and got clean for the first time in his life, he called me “codependent”. I had never heard that term before in my life. I started researching on the subject and it was like my eyes were open for the first time. I have never had a healthy relationship and this is why. I’m scared. I don’t want to be alone. And I don’t want to hate myself anymore.

    • I understand your fear and anxiety, but you’re the same person you were before, only now you can find tools and treatment to start feeling better. I hope you have my books, with lots of exercise to start reclaiming yourself. You don’t have to do this alone. Go to Al-Anon or Nar-Anon or CoDA meetings and get a sponsor (like a mentor). Start therapy and build your self-esteem so you can have loving relationships. You both are on a wonderful healing journey together. I wish you many blessings. Be gentle with yourself and let go of any judgment. Darlene

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