The mindset that makes many women stay in toxic relationships

Traditional ideas about gender roles can make women more likely to overlook codependency in relationships.
Traditional ideas about gender roles can make women more likely to overlook codependency in relationships.
Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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The other day, I got a bill from an ambulance service addressed to my ex. My guess is that he had another overdose; the code said they’d had to perform advanced life support.

I hadn’t spoken to Mark in ages. But for six years, I supported him financially and emotionally while he made and broke promises to stop drinking and using drugs.

At the time, I believed that helping him to stay off the streets, get medical care, and get help for his psychological problems and addictions was the right thing to do, no matter what it took. Eventually, I would learn that I was co-dependent. But for a long time, I had no idea that my behavior was a problem—because everything I did conformed to social expectations about how women are supposed to behave in relationships.

* * *

Like many women, I was raised to believe that a woman’s role was to take care of the home and support her partner unconditionally. In exchange, I was taught, men were the breadwinners and protectors. Women put their romantic partners and their families before themselves; men called the shots.

I didn’t realize how much I’d internalized these ideas about gender roles when I first met Mark at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I had six days sober. Mark had 30. It was my first time in recovery. He had been there before. There was something about his particularly harrowing story that compelled me to approach him during the break. After the meeting ended, we hung out in Washington Square Park, and he told me the stories behind all his scars.

Mark was attractive, self-educated, and charismatic. Dating someone “in the rooms” made me feel safe and protected. But as our relationship progressed, and I continued to recover, it became clear that Mark’s addiction was still out of control.

A month after we’d met, Mark went missing. By then, and without invitation, he had moved into my studio apartment. I spent the sleepless night vacillating between anger, confusion, and fear. I was afraid he was dead, or that he’d abandoned me. When he reappeared a couple days later, I felt an enormous sense of relief. He smelled of booze and vomit. There was a new scar across the bridge of his nose.

I knew intuitively that this was unhealthy and that I needed space. But when I asked him to move out, he became irrational and threatening. He told me I was “selfish” and that I didn’t “know how to love someone.”

Ours was a case of textbook codependency: unsatisfied in a relationship, I tried to give more of myself and to fix things, instead of asking for consideration and care. I developed compensatory strategies for dealing with what was going on at home: I reasoned and compromised. I punished him. I grew obsessed with controlling his behavior.

Anyone who’s loved an addict knows the pattern: After every relapse came what felt like a honeymoon. Mark would be grateful for me, for us. We’d have dinner together. He’d share his feelings and whatever money he had. I’d forgive him, feeling loved and needed. When he attended meetings, I’d go with him and sit by his side, holding his hand. When he’d announce his day count, I’d clap the loudest. I was his biggest cheerleader, consumed by his recovery, cheerfully shouldering the household responsibilities while he got his life in order.

Then his attendance at meetings would stop and his mood would sour. Physical intimacy would dry up. I’d begin resenting my role in the relationship, and we’d start arguing. He’d shut me out. From then on, I’d live in fear and worry, waiting for the other shoe to drop—until, inevitably, it did, and I’d find out that he had relapsed again.

And so it went, on and off, for six years.

* * *

The word “codependency” gets thrown around so much that many people are unfamiliar with what it actually means. Often described as a maladaptive reaction to the tumultuous experience of living with an addict, it refers to the ways that the partners and relatives of addicts—or other people who need a lot of support—adopt the role of rescuer, protector, and confidante.

A codependent person enables an addict by helping them to avoid suffering the natural consequences of substance abuse. Self-help books such as Melodie Beatty’s bestseller, Codependent No More and 12-step programs like Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous insist that family members of drug users need care, too, and will often encourage those affected by addiction to detach or remove themselves entirely from people who are a danger to themselves and others.

According to their website, there are over 25,400 autonomous Al‑Anon/Alateen groups in more than 130 countries, and millions have received help. Still, some question the utility of programs like Al-anon. Some studies go so far as to discount the concept of codepedency as a myth, and challenge the idea that codependency is a pathology or disease.

Some even go so far as to promote the “benefits” of codependency. In the Vice piece, “Why the Codependency Myth of Drug Addiction Needs to Die,” writer Maia Szalavitz criticizes the idea of enabling as “unscientific” and “harmful” to drug users. She quotes psychologist and author of The Mismeasure of Women, Carol Tavris, who describes codependency as a “mush of reasonable ideas… that got its own pathological label.”

“Women have traditionally been the caregivers in this society,” Tavris claims, “and ‘codependence’ inflated aspects of their normal role as carers into a ‘disorder.’”

I concede that detaching in an attempt to help an addicted person hit bottom can backfire. But in my experience, it’s dangerous to assume that caregiving is a woman’s natural role. From my own experience, as well as having worked for over five years in harm reduction, helping addicts reduce negative consequences associated with their drug use, I know that codependency is real. It’s not love, as some claim, although it can look or feel as if it is.

While co-dependency certainly affects both men and women, I’d argue that women experience codependency uniquely. What’s worse, it may be more likely to get overlooked by women as a result of prescribed gender roles.

Desiree, a 53-year-old woman living in New York City, describes her former marriage as codependent. She was the major breadwinner, she says, while also taking care of two small children—both still in diapers. “I did most of the groceries and cooking, buying clothes for the kids, arranging babysitting, laundry, and he whined enough so that we had sex every night,” she says. “Even when I was sick, he used to wake me up for it.”

This went on until Desiree’s children were teenagers. “I never said no. Why? Because I was brought up by very old-fashioned European parents, so I just thought that this was the woman’s job.”

“I want to do everything and anything to protect my son from anything that might hurt him,” says Felicity, 49, from Vermont, who describes her relationship with her only adult male child as codependent. “I ‘help’ him in ways that are not so helpful, like things he could do himself but it’s just easier for me to do it. I also sometimes ‘help’ when I’ve not been asked to, which doesn’t always go well.”

Like Desiree, Felicity traces this behavior back to her upbringing. As a child, she says, she observed her mother’s relationships, as well as her maternal grandparents. “Always,” she says, “the man is first. He makes the rules, and is treated like royalty.”

From these examples, Felicity says, she learned “that having a man who wants to be with you is most important, and making excuses is woman’s role.”

Felicity’s biggest fear is that her son “might take himself away from me.” Not having her son in her life, she says, “would be the end of my world.” Growing up, Felicity says she was exposed to violent, angry, mercurial men—an apt description, she admits, of her son. When he behaves in ways that are unacceptable, Felicity says, “I don’t demand respect or get angry in response; I cower and avoid.”

The larger issue, Desiree says, “is that women are not taught to say ‘yes’ to our own feelings and ‘no’ to what is around them.” Women, she says, tend to imagine that they can take care of other people’s issues—precisely because the world tells them that’s the case. When other people have problems, women are more likely to internalize them as their own.

* * *

Szalavitz and others argue that family members are the right people to help drug-addicted loved ones, because spouses, parents, and children are highly motivated to see their loved ones do well. It’s true that I was highly motivated for Mark’s behavior to change. But it’s also true that while I took responsibility for my partner’s problems, my own needs weren’t being met.

Besides the erosion to my self-esteem, the greatest consequence was the financial abuse, which experts say women are at greater risk of experiencing. While there are varying forms, financial abuse includes relationships in which the man controls everything financially even though they aren’t working. In our case, Mark couldn’t hold a job for longer than a couple months at a time, and so all the household expenses fell on my shoulders. All the bills were in my name, including the credit cards I had begun using to make ends meet. I shouldered many of Mark’s personal expenses as well. When Mark had a job interview, for example, I took him to buy a new suit, desperate for him to begin contributing to our household income. I ended up having to work twice as hard to support us both, ultimately driving me deeper and deeper into debt.

I’m not alone in having shouldered a financial burden for a co-dependent partner. “Zak was brilliant, interesting, and a little bit crazy, or so I thought when I first started dating him,” says Eliza, 28, from Brooklyn, NY, who admits that she’s always been drawn to ex-addicts.

After the two had been dating for some time, Eliza says that Zak started acting “flakey, coming late to dates or canceling on me for dubious reasons.” Eliza says he became even less reliable as the relationship progressed, “and he was always asking me for money, which I provided.”

Eliza says she “tried to be low-key about it.” Still, she resented lending her boyfriend money. “I didn’t make a lot,” she says. “And I knew he’d never pay me back.”

Zak, Eliza says, “was always having a financial emergency.” One time, she says, Zak told her that his school had charged his credit card and exceeded the limit, and so it was frozen. Eliza later found out that Zak wasn’t actually in school.

Ultimately, the two broke up, but remained friends. Since their relationship ended, Eliza says Zak has paid her some of the money back, and he pays when they hang out. “He’s clean now,” Eliza says, “[which has made a] major difference.”

Of course, a relationship with a current or former drug user is not inherently codependent. Britni, 32, from Boston, Massachusetts, says that she and her and her husband began dating when they were both active drug users. “We spent almost every day and night together, and moved in quickly,” Britni says.

When they got sober, Britni moved out of their shared apartment, and the two spent ten months apart. During that time, they worked on their addictions separately. By learning how to be okay when they were on their own, Britni says, “we were able to come back together and have a healthier relationship.”

* * *

That wasn’t possible for me. But fortunately, while Mark dropped in and out of 12-step programs, I continued to get help for myself. I kept going to AA. Eventually, I started going to Al-Anon as well, and began working individually with a therapist.

In treatment, I learned that some people are more predisposed to have codependent relationships than others. People who’ve grown up in dysfunctional family systems are at risk of repeating these patterns in our adult relationships. I also learned that codependents are often people who rely excessively on others for approval and a sense of identity. For the enabler, a codependent relationship fulfills the desire to feel needed, which we mistake for love. My fear of being abandoned and left alone was keeping me in a less than satisfying relationship. I subconsciously felt safer in a relationship with someone who was “sick.”

No one ever told me to leave Mark, or insisted that I practice “tough love.” Instead, I learned how to set boundaries and express my needs. I learned what was and wasn’t my responsibility, what I could and could not control. I learned that fair and reasonable expectations for a romantic partner were not fair and reasonable expectations of Mark, given his drug use.

Eventually, after years of vacillating between disappointment and fear, I learned to take responsibility for myself and my life. In 2011, I ended our relationship. After three months, he still refused to vacate my apartment—so I moved out. Even though the lease was in my name, I slept on friends’ couches until, after some months of not paying any rent, he finally left. I stopped responding to his phone calls and emails, which continued for years, and let go of the fantasy that he would pay me back the money he owed me.

In some ways, I still have traditional ideas about gender roles. But my relationship today is a lot more egalitarian. I may prefer to be the one who makes dinner, for example, but when I do, he takes out the garbage and walks the dogs. Unlike past relationships, my husband and I share household duties. We also make about the same amount of money, and contribute equally to the “pot.” Most importantly, my husband and I show one another respect. We are pregnant with our first child, starting the family I always wanted. And we intend to teach our son the most important lesson I’ve learned about relationships: You ought to give what you get.