Breaking Codependent Patterns and Learning to Be Myself in a Relationship
After 3 months, I’m getting ready to say goodbye to Colombia. I have learned so much about myself here—simple things, essential things.
Last December (2017) marked the 3-year anniversary of Jamie and I selling all our stuff to travel. When we began, I had some (retrospectively embarrassing) idealisms about how people in “other cultures” would be. I thought travelling would help me find acceptance, community, peace. And I suppose it has, but first, it brought me uncertainty, self-doubt, and conflict.
The truth is that, every step of the way, I’ve been stuck in a tug-of-war between independence and codependency. One part of me says to go out and do whatever I want. The other part says to stay and do whatever he is doing. When we first started travelling, I was mostly doing the latter.
When we first started our journey in Costa Rica, I remember feeling glued to my seat, watching him working on his computer across the room, knowing I wanted to get up and take a walk, but some mysterious force kept me there.
I had to learn to pull myself away from doing whatever he was doing. Sometimes, it was like pulling off a Bandaid. Sometimes, it was like pulling off skin.
I remember thinking, “Why is this so friggin’ hard?!”
Then came the months in Mexico. There, it was easier, mostly because there was more space. Of the three months we lived in Costa Rica, two were spent in a one-room cabin in a tropical climate. Sometimes, we’d be trapped together in the same room for three days while it rained and rained. To say we got on each other’s nerves would be a massive understatement.
So we learned to get places with more space. Rooms. Places to go, breathe, remember who we are.
When we went to Asia the next year, I started returning to some of the things I loved but had forgotten about. Simple things.
I remember in Thailand one day, it was thunderstorming and, because none of the outlets were grounded, we couldn’t charge our electronics. My computer had died. So I started reading. In that accidental free time, I rediscovered the joy of books.
Then, in Malaysia, we got close with our AirBnb host who loved to do karaoke. Whenever we could, we’d rush to the local mall and shut ourselves up in dark rooms, belting out Adele and Vanilla Ice into over-sized microphones. There, I rediscovered my love of singing.
Then came the emergency phone call. We were in Kuala Lumpur. After having worked ourselves to the bone for 2 months, we bought tickets to Bali. But life had other plans. Twenty six hours and thousands of dollars later, we were back in Canada.
And in Canada we stayed for a year and a half. In that time, I accomplished a lot. I finally finished The Art of Talking to Yourself. I hosted a few events, including a book launch. I wrote a lot of poems.
I also learned a lot. After travelling for two winters, I learned that lack of sunlight is seriously bad for my mental health. But more importantly, I learned that I had been accidentally suppressing important parts of my personality.
The epiphanies began last spring, almost a year ago. I started taking solo trips to Toronto while Jamie stayed with his family. There, I rediscovered so many pieces of myself that I thought I needed to cut off in order to heal. I started reintegrating all my forgotten past loves: poetry, music, dancing. I kept diving into my inner depths and loving what I found.
When Jamie and I decided to get back to travelling in January, I was conflicted. I felt I’d taken massive steps back toward myself. Would living and travelling together 24/7 set me backward in my journey? Would I, once again, have to struggle with pulling myself away from what he was doing and remember my own desires?
I thought long and hard about this. For a while, I contemplated travelling by myself, thinking it was the only way to keep myself balanced.
But those months of solo trips and self-discovery taught me some valuable relationship skills. Not only did I have to bring certain habits back into my life, I also had to break the news about my new self to my partner. Imagine being in a relationship for 5 years and, suddenly, being introduced to a whole new person. How would he react?
Of course, he was accepting. He always is. And not only did he accept my new passions, but he also started to partake in them with me.
One evening in December, I dragged us out to the only place that has a decent dance floor in the small town where Jamie’s parents live. He wasn’t in the mood to dance. Instead of trying to convince him, I just started dancing. Slowly, he became more comfortable and danced with me. I laughed to myself, realizing how many years I’d spent trying to verbally persuade him to dance (which never worked).
I had felt, many times in the past, that his lack of desire to do certain things kept me from doing them. But now that I’m actively going out and doing those things, he’s actually choosing to participate some of the time. And when he doesn’t participate, he certainly doesn’t try to stop me.
So who was keeping me from doing what I wanted? It was only me. Only my thoughts. Only these ineffective patterns of relating I learned as a child.
So that’s what these months in Colombia have been all about: not just travelling but also self-discovery. This has been an experiment in interdependence. Could I maintain my newfound sense of freedom without constant solitude?
Before we left, I made a plan for how things would be different this time around.
I promised myself that I would keep doing the things I loved: dance, hike, adventure, explore, sing, read. And I also promised myself to go out and form new relationships. In some places, Jamie and I have been each other’s only friends. That’s not only a lot of pressure on a relationship, but it’s also a danger zone for those codependent patterns.
I joined Facebook groups for digital nomads and expats in Medellin, our first destination. I made plans to meet up with all sorts of interesting people.
There was a Colombian woman who took me on the metro cable and told me stories of Medellin’s transformation from the most dangerous city in the world to the most innovative. There was a local artist who invited me to her house where we drank tea, played guitar, and sang together. Then, a former TEDx speaker who left a 25-year marriage to travel the world.
When I wasn’t meeting people, I would go explore the city, do yoga, read, write poems. It was more like a vacation than any of our travels have been so far. Last year, I was incredibly busy with editing and releasing The Art of Talking to Yourself. In Medellin, I did very little actual work. I slowed down. I found a new pace of life.
On the weekends, Jamie and I would explore together. We visited Guatapé where we climbed 650 steps to the top of a giant rock and looked out at clusters of islands sitting on the lake like raindrops on a leaf (see photo at the top). We went on a boat tour to see You-Know-Who’s bombed up houses (they don’t like to say his name here). We went on hikes. We went dancing.
And although Jamie and I were having fun exploring together, I made sure not to save all my fun for the weekends. That is his schedule, not mine. Of course, I would save doing certain things with him so that we could do them together. But I wouldn’t sacrifice doing what I craved just because he was busy or not interested.
I went on a yoga retreat. I did a few city tours by myself. Then, right before we left, I wanted to do a hike to El Morrón de Copacabana. I saw this video made by someone I’d met in Medellin, and I was dying to go.
Jamie wasn’t into it. Once upon a time, that would have stopped me. Or it would have made me insist on going alone just to prove something. I did neither. I got some people together and hired a guide. It was one of the most difficult, incredible things I’d ever done. (The video somehow filmed the only easy part of the whole ordeal!)
That hike (more like a climb, to be honest) gave me new courage. I felt like a little kid venturing further and further away from home, adventuring but not running away. Exploring, but feeling safe to return. That was something I never got as a child. I was owned, like a piece of property, until I broke away violently and got disowned. (Can you tell where these patterns originated?)
I’ve been healing. And what a background to do it in. In every corner of Colombia, I’ve encountered seeds of hope sprouted into strong roots of rebirth. This country, once plagued by destruction and violence, is healing, changing, evolving, daring to be something different than it was yesterday.
When we left Medellin and came to Santa Marta, I started hearing about something called the Lost City Trek. Ciudad Perdida. They said it was Colombia’s version of Machu Pichu.
Now this was a 4-day adventure trek covering almost 60km of mountainous terrain in the blistering heat. Sleeping under mosquito nets, waking up at 5am each day, taking freezing cold showers, conquering half a dozen steep hills to reach an archeological wonder.
Could I do it? The reasons not to go were numerous. Jamie couldn’t go. I had already paid for my half of our apartment and the trek wasn’t cheap. There was a chance I’d have to sleep in hammocks for some (or all) the nights of the trek. And usually, the only way I see 5am is if I stay up to greet it.
But as you probably know if you saw the Facebook post, I went. Not only did I go, but it ended up being one of the best experiences of my entire life.
Now, here’s the plot twist. For the past two weeks, we have been in Cartagena. And except for last night when I went for a long walk on the beach at night by myself, we’ve both been spending our days around the house. He’s been working. I’ve been doing some work, but mostly writing, doing yoga, swinging back and forth in the hammock reading.
The little room we’ve rented here is much smaller than our cabin in Costa Rica. We’ve spent very little time apart. And minus some minor (but constant) disagreements about the appropriate temperature of the air conditioner, we’ve gotten along surprisingly well. It’s been comfortable, enjoyable even.
What’s become clear to me over the past few weeks is that I no longer need to keep asserting my independence. Though I’ve spent less time alone lately, I still feel comfortable being myself, thinking for myself, making my own choices.
Being alone helped me integrate what I already knew: I am free to do what I want. I am free even when I am with others.
So as I get ready to leave this amazing country that has, like me, escaped the clutches of darkness and emerged into a new light, my most important takeaway is this: freedom doesn’t always have to be a revolution. I forcefully broke away from my family as a teenager, and since then, I’ve sought freedom like a dog tearing off its chain. But no more.
I have learned to be free quietly, gently, gracefully, like a bird spreading her wings and flying away. I have learned to enjoy the wide-open sky, and I’ve learned the joys of returning to the places and people that I love, not always having to be on the run. Simple things.
Maybe real freedom is being able to enjoy all kinds of experiences. Maybe the freest bird can enjoy being in a cage for a little while, just because she knows it’s temporary. She’s free from the constant desire for freedom. She’s free to just exist.