Photo: Izabella Balcerzak

Striking the balance: why we give too much in a relationship

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By Jacob Dubé

The end started with a series of phone calls. My then-girlfriend and I got into an argument. It was back in high school when nobody had cars or the patience to take a bus, so everything happened through my lime-green LG Rumor flip phone. I can’t remember what we were fighting about, but I remember thinking it was all my fault. Alone in my room, I would call her and cry for forgiveness. She would quietly listen, hang up, and wait for me to call again. And I would.

Every time I heard the dial tone, I felt this urge to call back, to put myself back out there just to be put down again.  It wasn’t because I wanted to fix the argument—it was far too late for that—but because I thought that to be in a relationship, I had to give away every part of myself. I gave her all my time, while my friends fell to the wayside. The sacrifice was part of the romance. But after a few months, I had nothing left to give.

Psychologists and relationship experts often talk about the idea of codependency. The term is referenced primarily when talking about the partners of substance abuse addicts, but it has slowly etched its way into the public discourse. At its core, a codependent relationship is one where a person invests more of themselves than the other—to their detriment.

In his report titled “Love is the drug: Codependency the bind that blinds,” clinical psychologist Martin Weegmann says that a person in a codependent relationship “weaves” their life around someone else’s and sacrifices their own needs as a result. The codependent person will often fall into a caregiving role, and can repeat this process through multiple relationships. Although making sacrifices and putting someone else’s needs before your own are seen as pillars of a stable partnership, it’s a dangerous slope that can lead to unhealthy side effects.

When Jennifer, a Ryerson student who asked me not to use her last name, was working her way through a nursing degree, she barely had any time to herself. Her days started at 5 a.m. She would head to class, then to work with just enough time to spare. Her then-boyfriend insisted she see him every other day, regardless of how she felt. She would get off work at 10, stay with him until one, and get four hours of sleep before repeating the cycle all over again. Jennifer didn’t like the person she was becoming. “It starts to wear down on you,” she says.

She was 16 when she started dating her 26-year-old ex, whom she met through her sister. He didn’t like her friends, so she gave up time with them for him. “I alienated myself. When I did have free time I had to choose between him and my friends,” Jennifer says. But it was the lack of sleep that really caused a strain on her.

She didn’t spend those long nights with him because she loved him—but because she felt obligated to. She ignored how tired she was and how little she could focus on classes the next day. She ended up on academic probation, and felt like she lost herself.

“You just feel like a shell. You’re not really there as a person. Your presence is there, but you’re not really engaged in any conversation, you’re not there socially. It was a tough time,” Jennifer says. She would look at her friends, who were finishing their degrees. They were happy. Soon after she realized her relationship was the main cause of her stress, she knew it wouldn’t last and eventually, she broke it off.

“You know how they say if you love them, you’ll do anything you can for them?” she says. “Essentially what I did in my first relationship was that I did anything I could, and I wasn’t happy at the end.”

After that relationship, Jennifer says she became more cautious because she didn’t want to give too much of herself again. But, in practice, it was harder than it seemed.

study done by the National Endowment for Financial Education found that people in a relationship spend anywhere from $600 to $3,600 more per year than those who aren’t. For Jennifer, that spending increase came all at once with another ex-boyfriend. He lacked ambition and wasn’t employed, so she would always give him money for food and other necessities.

“Part of me was saying, ‘I need to take care of him. I need to nurture him. I need to give him money,’” she says. But he would just waste it on other vices, and Jennifer felt like she couldn’t say no.

She reached her limit when he made plans to move to another country and asked her for an $1,800 loan to pay off his debts. He insisted that his mom thought it was a “great idea.” Initially, she resisted—she had her own tuition to pay off. But he convinced her the loan would prove she was caring, and it would be an investment in their long-term relationship. She loved him and, eventually agreed.

“I would like to say I learned my lesson before, but a part of me always wants to take care of who I’m dating,” she says. “Because I don’t want to see them in a position where they can’t take care of themselves. I want to be able to help them.”

In his report, Weegmann says the solutions for breaking a cycle of codependency are all about understanding. The core fixes are centered in finding your own source of self-esteem, and making sure your relationship is equal and healthy. “Through the human search for security, some individuals become caught up in ties that bind and blind,” he writes.

Hanging up for the last time, it finally clicked that I deserved better, and that I had to help myself—that a relationship isn’t about taking parts of yourself to fill what’s missing in the other person, but being able to share what makes you both whole.

So I put my lime-green flip phone down, wiped the tears off my face and began to rebuild.

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