Unpacking our generational fear of codependency
Rampant individualism and a misconstrued understanding of codependency have fuelled a loveless, community-less dating climate.
21 June 2022, 9:17am
“You don’t need to be in a relationship, just love yourself first” and “someone will come along when you’re not looking for them” are both lines intravenously fed to single people actively looking for a partner. So much so that to admit you’re actually looking for a relationship has become a source of embarrassment for those navigating a casual dating scene dominated by hookup culture and “sneaky links.” “I have been forced to hear again and again the message that self-love is the ‘pinnacle of self-actualization’ and that craving a romantic relationship is a sign of weakness,” says maya finoh, a human rights advocate and model based in Brooklyn. But is our fear of appearing weak just feeding into rampant individualism in the dating climate and, in turn, robbing us of true community and connection?
Dr. Nathan Brandon, a clinical psychologist in California, says part of today’s toxic “self-love before everything” dialogue is a misconstrued understanding (and fear) of codependency. “The term ‘codependency’ was originally coined in 1979 to describe the nature of the relationship between alcoholics and their partners, or families, who were thought to enable their loved one's substance use,” he says. “But in day-to-day conversations, it's often used as a catch-all term for any type of dysfunctional relationship. The term has come to be used to describe individuals as weak, needy or clingy in relationships.”
Unfortunately for young people, being needy in romantic relationships has become the ultimate loss in a game of who can care less about the other person. According to a global VICE study from September 2020, “only one in ten Gen Z-ers say they are committed to being committed,” something that’s reflected by the general sentiment across social media that being a “simp” is worse than being cold-hearted in dating. However, despite what the #ThatGirl “I don’t need anyone” mindset would have us believe, the core root of the newfound romanticization of singlehood could also be a fear of intimacy and vulnerability.
Josie Ramirez, a 23-year-old based in Los Angeles, says they’ve often navigated romantic and platonic relationships with the “you are enough” mentality, in which needing someone meant you were somehow broken. “I found myself cutting people off, leaving people who didn’t serve me and then it took me years to realize I was alone,” they said. “I burned all my bridges and didn’t have anyone but myself. I told myself that my own love was enough, but it wasn’t love. It was a wall I built isolating me from the world painted pink and rosy to keep up the delusion.” Josie says they have since learned that true self-love includes allowing yourself to rely on others.
Today’s Goopified self-love messaging has been a core pillar of the capitalist “girlboss” mindset that lingers on, despite that era being declared over. The remains have left romance in the dust to leave more room for productivity and monetized self-development, where choosing the gym over having fun with friends has become the ultimate flex. Dr. Brandon says this incessant need to reach a perfect place before entering a relationship is an unattainable goal. “There is nothing wrong with wanting a romantic relationship. It's perfectly normal to want intimacy and connection with another person,” he says. “It's possible to love yourself and another person at the same time. You don't have to choose between the two and if you're only focused on loving yourself, you may still have difficulty forming a healthy and intimate relationship with another person.”
There are also a rising number of people across social media who admit to being a romantic “lover girl” amongst a sea of emotionally avoidant players. “Sometimes a boyfriend is the only thing that will fix you but therapists aren’t ready for that conversation,” says one viral tweet. And while having a romantic partner is not a necessity for everyone, having a community is. “I truly believe that hyper-individualism, which is deeply rooted in capitalism, does so much work to trick us into believing that we should feel like we can do everything in life on our own,” maya says, adding that being in a relationship has made them so much more conscious of how love is regulated in the Global North. “We don’t receive love at our 9 to 5pm jobs because institutions can’t love us and platonic relationships are not put on the same pedestal as romantic love,” they say.
maya also says that the classic ‘love yourself first’ trope frustratingly doesn’t factor in the “many forms of systemic oppression and disgusting beauty standards that intentionally keep people from loving themselves.” “Hyper-individualism turns feelings of low self-esteem and difficulty finding romance into a personal responsibility: if it’s a personal responsibility for you to learn to love yourself, then society is now off the hook,” they say. The solution, of course, is not to strive toward true codependency but interdependency, something disability justice and Black feminist organizers have discussed for years.
Jesse Kahn, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York, says that interdependence looks like creating space to appreciate each other and choosing how you are in relationship with each other. “Interdependence places value on intimacy, vulnerability and connection while also having separation, boundaries and a sense of self separate from each other,” he says. Dr. Brandon agrees, stating that while it’s important to have your own independent life outside of your relationship, this doesn't mean you can never rely on your partner (or your friend) for emotional support. The model of interdependence, of course, relies on each partner to also nurture caring platonic relationships, something the nuclear family model has deprioritized for decades.
Despite the demonization of dependence and “simping” — which at this point has been so watered down that it just means allowing yourself to like another person — many people in today’s dating climate are actually dodging interdependence, not healthily addressing codependency. This becomes an isolating cycle, as self-love and a “healthy routine” alone are not enough to address the full spectrum of our needs as humans. This is where the rising “lover” messaging (allowing ourselves to love and be loved) becomes both a signal of hope for the future and an act of retaliation against capitalist individualism. After all, the only people that benefit from us isolating ourselves from our communities are the people who are fearful of our power in numbers.