Losing Yourself in a Relationship: Abuse and Co-dependence

Dear Liz,

I am struggling with understanding that my relationship is toxic. I continuously let the small amount of good overpower the immense amount of bad, and while I am aware of this, I still cannot let go. My partner continuously criticizes me for almost every aspect of my well-being. My messiness, my aspirations, whether I do nothing, or do too much, how I eat, dress, talk to others/act around others. They call me out on everything I do multiple times a day and if I even dare try to reason with them or give an example on how we do the same thing and it works both ways, they say all I do is critique them whenever they mention something because I “can’t take criticism.”

I am yelled at and they lose their temper on me, not physically but emotionally, and it is extremely draining. They make up for this by apologizing and saying they want to better their self, but they are very narcissistic and will never break any habits of their own. I have changed a lot of aspects about myself to be with the person. My social life, the friends I have, my relationship with family, even personality traits about myself. I feel like I’ve lost who I am.  I am not funny anymore or confident and outgoing.

Please understand that there ARE good times too, it just feels like they are constantly bogged down. We used to be different and laugh more together, but now I am constantly just criticized. I feel as though this is my fault for not escaping sooner. This person showed signs of all the instability early on, but only began to criticize who I was a few months down the line. They went from raving about how perfect I was and making me feel as though they loved who I am unapologetically, to wanting me to change who I was completely, but not directly saying that.

I am just so lost. I am in a position where I can’t just up and leave and cut them off cold, but I also know something needs to change. I have expressed so many times how I feel about all this and while they agree for the time being, often not even an hour later they are doing it again.

What do I do? How can I salvage my relationship (if at all)?  They say people can’t change, and while I am not sure whether they could, I know I have certainly changed a lot of who I am for them. Not that it was necessarily for the better, but I know certain aspects of myself really are different now.

Dear Friend,

I read your letter several times, and I kept getting the same feeling each time:  This person knows it’s time to leave the relationship, but either there’s an over-identification with the abusive partner’s feelings (meaning there is an addictive/co-dependent dynamic at play) and/or there is some genuine fear (substantiated or imagined) preventing the exit.  I will speak to both in my response to you. 

But first…you wrote about all you have lost.  Abuse will do that.  But perhaps a more accurate way to describe it is,  you’ve been temporarily separated from much, but you will recover it.  As you set out to heal from this heartbreaking, abusive, relationship, you will unearth many other parts of yourself in need of tender care, and as a result, you will bring forth even more beautiful aspects of yourself.  I know it’s hard to believe that right now, but it’s true.  I’ve been where you are, and I know it is possible.   

You wrote that you are struggling with understanding that your relationship is toxic (I take that to mean you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around that reality) and that even though you are aware that the good is heavily outweighed by the bad, you are still having a hard time letting go

First, surviving day to day in an abusive relationship requires denial and/or minimizing the abuse you are experiencing, therefore making it very hard to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  Others can look in and see with clarity, while the recipient of the abuse is so used to finding ways to survive the toxicity (minimizing, shutting down, assuming the blame) that “clear seeing” remains elusive.    

Second, the self-blame goes hand in hand with shame, and both are always present in abusive relationships—this contributes to the challenge of letting go.  The one who is the target of the abuse will often feel responsible, not just for what they may have done to trigger the abuse (that’s the self-blaming part) but may also feel responsible for the emotional well-being of the abusive partner (that is where co-dependency comes in, which I will explore more deeply in a bit).  Add to that the breaking down of one’s self worth and confidence, and it’s easy to see how leaving isn’t a simple thing.

Finally, letting go of any relationship is hard, and letting go of a relationship where bonding took place in a trauma filled setting is especially hard (look up traumatic bonding).  You are in the midst of grief (having lost parts of yourself and having lost what you believed would be a great love) while being put down and yelled at every day—this will of course make clear-thinking really, really, hard. And that’s why I am so happy you wrote to me.  Those who are being abused need to talk with someone who can be a witness to the truth, to the reality, of what’s going on.  I will do my best to speak to what I am observing. 


Before I say anything else, I need to state what is apparent, at least to me:  Your partner is profoundly unwell, psychologically and emotionally speaking.  Their abusive behavior is enough to establish this, but the apologizing then doing the same thing an hour later suggests frontal lobe damage, and such damage suggests developmental trauma.**  The narcissistic tendencies and refusal to break habits may be symptomatic of substance abuse and/or untended to severe depression.  Your partner is not merely struggling with “intimacy and relationship challenges” that some counseling could remedy.  It seems without intensive, quality, psychotherapy/somatic therapy (and sobriety, if substance abuse is an issue) it is unlikely they will be able to recover.   

I think part of the reason you may be stuck (in addition to traumatic bonding) is co-dependency.  A quick google search will pull up the following definition:   

Codependency is a concept that attempts to characterize imbalanced relationships where one person enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Definitions of codependency vary, but typically include high self-sacrifice, a focus on others’ needs, suppression of one’s own emotions, and attempts to control or fix other people’s problems. People who self-identify as codependents exhibit low self-esteem, but it is unclear whether this is a cause, or an effect, of characteristics associated with codependency.

We are set up for co-dependency when one or both of our parents are emotionally unavailable to us, for whatever reason.  In this way, we can come from a seemingly functional, non-abusive, household, but still have been deprived of what is most essential for our psycho-spiritual well-being.  When a child is left alone with their feelings—when a child has nowhere to turn to express their fears, anger, vulnerabilities, and need for love, the child is poised to become an adult who is “out of touch” with their own emotional needs.  Needs are what other people have…not me…. That is co-dependency. 

Co-dependent people feel loved when they are needed.  The co-dependent person overly identifies with the needs of others, is often a rescuer, and they quite naturally project onto the broken person in their midst all the care and tending to they were deprived of—this can seem “saintly”, but it is also at the risk of erasing their own self.    

Being inclined toward co-dependency can often walk one straight into an abusive dynamic, because abusive people are incredibly broken, needy, people.  And it can be so confusing, because super needy people can deliver what feels like the greatest love of all.  This is because they will often see the object of their affection as the cure for their pain (addicts do this a lot).  So, it gets confusing—the initial affection and attention from the partner was real, but the psychological/emotional/spiritual disturbance within them is so tremendous, inevitably setting the stage for an exploitive relationship to ensue.  The red flags usually pop up early (as you acknowledged) but the hunger and the promise of a “love” that has been craved for one’s whole life is enough to get someone to look the other way—at least co-dependent, love-starved folks. 

In co-dependent relationships there is a strong feeling of attachment, but there is not a healthy, tender, mutual partnership.  Co-dependency, be it with an addict or an abusive person, results in giving permission to the addict or abuser to stay sick, and in so doing, encourages the very dysfunction that is causing so much pain.

Something Needs to Change

You shared:  My partner continuously criticizes me for almost every aspect of my well-being…I am yelled at and they lose their temper on me not physically, but emotionally, and it is extremely draining…They are very narcissistic and will never break any habits of their own…I am just so lost….I am in a position where I can’t just up and leave and cut them off cold, but I know something needs to change…I feel as though this is my fault for not escaping sooner…

Please read that last line…you are blaming yourself for being in a situation that requires escape.  Not leaving…not separating…not taking time for yourself….but escape.  Your very choice of words is revelatory of how just how effective your partner’s abuse has been.  We escape prison; we escape when we are being held hostage; those who were enslaved had to escape.  Your partner has managed to trap you by using psychological and emotionally abusive tactics. The only one responsible for that is your partner.

Your partner is not going to be the agent of change here.  Healthy relationships come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they all share in common is a mutual willingness to take responsibility for whatever old wounds or habits or behaviors corrode the partnership.  There is genuine desire, followed by action, to bring one’s best self into the partnership—that’s what real love looks like.  From what you have described, there is nothing mutual going on here. 

Your partner appears compulsive with respect to demeaning you and exerting control over you.  As time goes on, you will both become more unwell—your mental and physical health is at risk.  Please trust me when I tell you that an abusive/controlling partner will subject “their person” to any version of abuse if their control is threatened.  You cannot trust the vulnerabilities or loving gestures or promises that come your way, as they stem from the same narcissistic tendencies as the insults and abusive unloading on you.   

You asked me, what do I do…how can I salvage my relationship…and you added that you weren’t in the position to “up and leave and cut them off cold”.  Working with all three of those moving parts, here is my advice:

Separate from your partner temporarily.  This will accomplish several things:

  1. It will give you some distance, some quiet, some peace, so you can think.   
  2. It will give you a chance to explore what you need to do for you, so you can begin to recover from what you have been through, and therein you will bring forth the change that you said was needed.  The thing is, when one partner changes in the relationship, the whole relationship changes.
  3. If you are clear that the current dynamic is not sustainable, and if you are clear that you are going to make some changes for your own well-being and safety, then your partner (and the relationship) will be at a crossroad—if your partner wants to salvage the relationship, your partner will follow through on getting all the help that they very much need.  If they do not, then you will have your answer about whether the relationship is salvageable. 

You cannot heal or change your partner.  Your partner was ill before you met, your partner is ill now, and your partner will remain ill unless your partner genuinely sees there is a problem and desires to ask for help and do the work.    


Every person has the right to separate from a situation that is not healthy for them, but with an abusive person, it is obviously much more challenging. 

  1. You will need a safe place to be.  You mentioned losing friends and family as a result of this relationship, which means those friends and family are still there.  Turn to those who have proven to have your best interest at hand—those who love you.  Imagine if your sibling, your friend, or your child, came to you with the story you brought to me.  How would you respond?  Give those who love you a chance to care for you.
  2. Do not let your partner dictate the terms of the separation—you are in the driver’s seat here.  Think about your needs, not your partner’s.
  3. Don’t deliver the news of separation to your partner in person—if you do, you will be talked/manipulated/abused out of it.  Leave a note that is clear and concise expressing that you  are taking space to figure out what the future will look like.  Ask your partner to respect the space you need.       
  4. Expect that you will feel guilt, and you will likely spend more time feeling bad for your partner than for your own self.  This is a normal reaction for co-dependent people in abusive relationships.  Just keep reminding yourself that real love doesn’t enable.  Enabling can provide a “fix” (the co-dependent’s drug of choice is to be needed) when the high wears off, the co-dependent will find themselves right back where they were—abused, drained, miserable.     
  5. Keep reminding yourself that you have the right to happiness and peace, and to have a partner who is stable, kind, and takes full responsibility for their own issues.       
  6. If you don’t feel safe separating (meaning your partner has made threats or done things that lead you to believe they’d prevent you from separating/harm you or those you love) then you must secure a restraining order.  If that feels overwhelming for you, know that you can call the local police department, wherever you are (from your car) explain the situation, and they will walk you through what you need to do, and will even secure a temporary order over the phone if it is the weekend.      

If separating is not possible, I urge you to get to the bottom of why. If you fear for your safety, then please reach out to a trusted friend or family member and/or a domestic violence (DV) resource center—this is not the time to “go it alone”.  If you can’t separate because you have a child, and you fear your partner having visitation, consider this:  if your partner has any documented history of criminal behavior, violence/domestic abuse, or drug addiction, it is unlikely they will secure alone time with the child, especially if you secure a restraining order documenting the history in detail.  If you share property or a business, consult with a DV resource center—they will have knowledge about legal steps you could take. 

I do want to share one more thing:  you said they lose their temper on me….and it is extremely draining. You intuitively know exactly what is happening to you:  you are literally being drained of your life force.  If you continue to be present for this abuse, it is only a matter of time before you end up depressed and/or ill with disease. Our life force is sacred—we are meant to honor and nurture it, thus we are meant to remove from our space those who contaminate it and drain it.  Self-love begins with nurturing and protecting that life force, in the same way a mama protects her baby.  For the sake of your well-being, emotional, psychological, and physical, I urge you to find a way to separate.

Separating will not be easy; it will be hard, but I know you can do hard things.  I know this because you had the strength to reach out and ask for help.  You have a spirit that is reaching for the light—don’t stop reaching.  You yourself said “something has to change” and that change must begin with you. 

Please do follow up; I care about you. 

Love, Liz


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