Shifting Codependency to Conscious Partnership

Patti Scialfi, a recording artist in her own right, has been married to Bruce Springsteen since 1991. They have three children together. Some time ago, she was interviewed on the radio about her new CD, and my ears perked up when I heard what she had to say about her marriage. “You know, I was a child of the ’50s,” she told interviewer Liane Hansen of NPR. “There was the idea that love is a simplistic promise of completion . . . that you’re going to find the missing half, your lost twin, your soul mate. I don’t think that you can look for something external to really complete you that way.” She went on to say that her marriage had broadened her and given her a sense of fulfillment, but, she added, “You can’t really look for that. And if you’re looking for that, you’re going to be disappointed.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. One of the most common and widely accepted approaches to filling our personal voids is finding another person to make us feel happy, whole, and secure. But, in truth, relationships built on such premises tend to be conflict-ridden and unfulfilling. Why? Because if you’re unconsciously seeking someone to fill your voids, you’ll tend to attract someone who’s also on an unconscious quest for wholeness. As a result, there will be more differences than similarities between the two of you. You’ll both tend to be ill equipped to handle the conflicts inherent in such a relationship, which I call a “love battlefield” because the individuals eventually become intimate enemies. In contrast, in a healthy, interdependent relationship, the partners are integrated, whole individuals who have learned to meet their own needs and to communicate effectively. They come together out of conscious choice—not an unconscious drive to replicate old, familiar patterns.

There are all kinds of relationships that are built on default patterns or unconscious drivers that spring from our conditioning. I have a client who has been married twice. Although, outwardly, those men did not seem very similar, they were identical in two important respects. Both of her husbands seemed to adore her. When she split up with each of them, many of her friends were puzzled. “But he’s crazy about you,” they told her, in both instances. Yet, in private, both of these men were extremely demanding and critical. She had replicated the pattern of her family of origin in both her marriages. Her father adored her; he was unusually supportive of her goals, her independent nature, her spirit. Her mother, on the other hand, was critical of just about everything she did. My client found not one but two men who were embodiments of the dynamic she experienced with her parents. In each case, the chemistry—that initial attraction—was intense. Both times, she married in the wake of a whirlwind romance that lasted only a few short months. But both marriages were plagued by conflict. She spent many years trying to accommodate her demanding husbands—just as she had tried to accommodate her demanding mother—but the marriages were based on her default operating system. They were toxic relationships.

Chemistry takes a number of forms in codependent relationships. It can be a gut feeling that you’ve found the missing parts that are going to make you whole—your other half, as Patti Scialfi described it. Or it can be the composite of your most intimate family histories coming to life. Or it may be that you experience a familiar dynamic with a romantic partner that you’ve had with your parents or, in some cases, haven’t had—a missing piece that was never realized in your relationship with your parents. Any way you look at it, it’s all about completion, and it’s all about conditioning.

In romantic relationships, opposites tend to attract. Two people come together to fill the voids in each other. But such attractions are often problematic. Consider this example: Mary goes out with her friends on a Friday night and meets Brian. Outgoing and friendly, Brian is a world traveler with a high-powered sales job and a magnetic personality. He’s a dashing, interesting, charismatic person. They share a few drinks and a little conversation. She thinks he’s fabulous and can’t wait to see him again. Brian feels the same way. Mary is a nurse practitioner who has worked at the same hospital and lived in the same condo for ten years; he sees her as a solid, secure, dependable person. Just the kind of woman I need, he thinks. Someone caring, giving, stable—someone to keep me grounded. Mary, on the other hand, sees Brian as dynamic and exciting. He seems so worldly, so wise.

Mary is introverted, conservative, and security-oriented. Brian is eclectic, a bit of a Renaissance man, extroverted, and impulsive. At their first meeting, chemistry sparks. So they start a relationship, and over time, those very characteristics that initially attracted them to each other become sore points, sources of conflict. Mary starts telling her friends: “I don’t trust Brian. He’s always flirting with other women.” Or “Brian can’t hold down a job; he keeps hopping from one thing to another.” Or “He’s so irresponsible.” They argue about money, about how they’re going to spend their time. Their values are as different as their personalities. Over time, Brian starts to find Mary boring. “She has no spontaneity,” he complains to his friends. “She’s uptight.” “Where’s your sense of humor?” he asks her so often it becomes a running joke—only it’s not so funny anymore.

Opposites attract for a reason—the very same reason that those relationships tend to fall apart. When a relationship is driven by conditioned patterns, when it’s built on an unconscious need to replicate or compensate for your childhood experiences, it produces anger, resentment, disillusionment, and alienation. It erodes self-esteem. And it can lead to emotional and physical exhaustion, because it takes a lot of energy to deal with the conflicts that arise again and again. Sometimes these relationships can go on for years, particularly if they represent a low level of dysfunction. Say two people marry at a young age because each embodies the other’s lost parts. They strike a happy balance, finding a harmony that works. Maybe, despite their differences, they share similar values, or enjoy the same close-knit community, or derive pleasure from raising their children together. Then one partner hits a midlife crisis and it topples the precarious balance, or one partner dies. As a result of such unions, people can find themselves alone at some point, with big gaps in their lives—and in their selves.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s quite possible for a couple to work through these issues within the context of a relationship, to learn and grow. When couples come to me for relationship coaching, I encourage them to work together to bring an unconscious relationship to a conscious level. But it’s not easy. Both partners have to be committed to the process. Many people are ill equipped to handle the conflicts that arise in relationships, because they’ve never learned how to communicate effectively. I attribute the high divorce rate to issues such as these. If you’re not currently in a relationship, here’s the good news: You have the opportunity to start from scratch to create a conscious, healthy relationship with yourself and to emerge whole—and better prepared for the possibility of a healthy, conscious relationship with someone else.

For practical tips on how to "become the ideal partner you seek", click here to view my video interview with Hay House. 

© 2017 Lauren Mackler - Lauren Mackler is a world-renowned coach and author of the international bestseller Solemate: Master the Art of Aloneness & Transform Your Life. Sign up for her free Live Boldly e-newsletter at