I Don't Have To Save You In Order For You To Love Me
Codependence and the toxic savior complex
If I can just be enough of a support for you, give you enough love, help you to open up, allow you to realize your full potential, create a space where you can be vulnerable, take away all of your pain and never burden you with any of my own, make myself absolutely essential and indispensable…then will you love me?
This is how my brain was wired.
I was taught from a very young age that love was transactional. In order to receive care, I had to provide it — and my expense often exceeded what I was given in return. This has played out in so many of my romantic relationships it’s hard to keep track. It has ruined friendships, gotten me into a twelve-step program or two, and given me a very complicated relationship with my self-worth. The martyring, codependent, desperate for love kid in my head keeps looking for broken people to fix — because, well, if I fix you, then you’ll never leave her, right?
This also comes with the caveat that there is something fundamentally wrong with me. That I am also broken, and at fault somehow, for your inability to love me. Intellectually, this story is obviously false. Intellectually, I know that I was worth loving completely and utterly unconditionally since the day I was born. But…tell that to the little girl who’s terrified she might be unlovable without these valuable skillsets she’s learned over the years. And they really are valuable. They have kept her comfortable, kept her safe, kept her fed and cared for and sheltered. They’ve had their uses, to say the least. At this point in my life, I’m just beginning to rewire that programming that told me I was inherently not enough without it. If I can find it within my own capabilities to provide love and care for myself without transactional qualities or conditions, I may finally be O.K. with letting these skillsets accumulate some dust.
“The Savior Complex” is a term defined by psychologists as:
A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.
Savior complexes can absolutely start out with good intentions. “Being nice,” or working from an idea of kindness which supposes that ingratiation will help create a bond — are not inherently bad tendencies. The problem comes when the person attempting to be kind or helpful sacrifices their wants and needs in order to keep another person in their life. This can stem from a fear of abandonment, a belief that they require outside validation in order to feel worthy of love and affection, or doubt that they will be safe or taken care of without another person to take care of them. Ironically enough, this can also manifest in chronic rage and/or physical abuse — if this is a familiar behavioral pattern. In theory, if they can create enough moral superiority and instability within their partner, his or her dependence upon them is all but guaranteed. Especially if that partner has a history of addiction. In this light, it becomes a comfortable, familiar normal, breeding a kind of false safety that facilitates a continuous bond around shared trauma.
We can’t talk about “saving” without talking about God.
Although I was not raised in a religious context, our culture is positively steeped in the tenants of Christianity and Catholicism. God as part of the Holy Trinity is the original savior, and the concept of original sin teaches us that we are unworthy of God’s love from the day we are born. The solution of course is to live as sin-free as possible, ask for forgiveness, give your money, time and energy to the church that has promised to absolve you from this sin you never asked for, and spread the idea of sinfulness and unlovability to others so that they too might be “saved” by God’s grace. Now, I am not saying that ALL Christian or Catholic denominations teach that we are undeserving of God’s love, but these teachings are clearly demonstrated through traditional interpretations— especially through missionary programs.
This idea that we arrive in the world as a sinful being is, frankly, ludicrous and dangerous. It teaches us from day one that we are not born lovable, that there is something inherently wrong about us, that we should be ashamed, and that there is only one potential path towards salvation. If I live my life believing that I am unworthy, then I will spend my life attempting either to prove my worthiness, or prove the truth of that original story. What better way to prove my worthiness than by attempting to save others and bring them into my reality? What better way to prove my own unworthiness than to believe that I deserve to be treated without love, respect, or dignity? Both of these scenarios cause me to martyr myself from a place of lack and scarcity, and seek control over self-love.
So what is codependency?
“Codependency can be defined as any relationship in which two people become so invested in each other that they can’t function independently anymore…Your mood, happiness, and identity are defined by the other person. In a codependent relationship, there is usually one person who is more passive and can’t make decisions for themselves, and a more dominant personality who gets some reward and satisfaction from controlling the other person and making decisions about how they will live.” — Dr. Jonathan Becker
This was most disturbingly illustrated in Netflix’s most recent thriller, You. Where a psychopathic stalker bases his worth and lovability off of his talent for “saving” women. The savior who decides that they know best, and that the only way to earn someone’s love — is by completely and utterly controlling them, has gone beyond goodwill into full-blown violent codependency. It is a selfish, nascent need to stay safe and survive, the only way they know how to.Typically these behaviors manifest in cases of childhood trauma, neglect, and/or emotional or physical abuse. This is never an excuse for actions taken, merely a motivation — for a learned behavior that is no longer serving the adult the child has grown into.
For women especially, this narrative plays out through the “knight in shining armor” and “damsel in distress” tropes. Where the savior, in saving the victim from whatever is ailing them, takes ownership of their fate. Thus, they are enabled by that earned and assumed control to project their own fantasy onto their partner. Regardless of our families’ influence, girls around the world are taught that they will always be dependent on men to take care of them. Men are still widely accepted as the sole breadwinner’s in the typical American household, and ownership of a woman first by her family and eventually by her husband is still practiced in many eastern cultures. This assumption of helplessness has often been used to limit female power and justify male control. It plays out most basically when a man offers to buy a woman a drink at a bar, and assumes a transactional quality about the gesture. They buy the drink, the woman drinks it, or doesn’t, and then the man is entitled to the woman’s time, attention, and even body.
Until we learn to assert our own needs and take care of them first, instead of enabling or controlling other’s behavior, these patterns will continue to play out in all aspects of our lives.
Make no mistake, codependency is an addiction unto itself. The compulsive behavior lies in an attachment to emotions, behavioral patterns, or people who are seen as necessary for survival. For many, it literally feels like life or death. For example, I was in a nearly two-year relationship with someone whose sole value to me was in his capacity for emotional support. My partner made himself completely available to me emotionally, but withheld any sort of romantic connection. This extreme combination was intoxicating to me. So, like an addict, I kept coming back for more, even when the salve of his support stopped being enough on its own.He was playing out the fantasy that he could support me in this way without the risk of “catching feelings” — while I was living the fantasy that if I just offered enough of myself, my time, my body, my vulnerability, I could save him from this fear of attachment and he would become the person I had always wanted him to be. Unfortunately for both of us, our connection was built upon the threadbare foundation of shared trauma, and it never grew beyond that.
If you think you might be involved in a codependent or emotionally abusive relationship, see if you identify with any of the following traits:
Isolation and alienation from those you love.
Martyrdom and self sacrifice of one’s own feelings in order to make their partner happy.
The inability to distinguish yourself from your partner and assert your own needs.
Fear of rejection or abandonment (that) feels extreme, like life or death.Accepting blame or responsibility where it doesn’t belong.
Extreme reactivity when feeling threatened or triggered.
A strong need to control one’s environment and the people around them. — from American Addiction Centers
The core underlying issue is TRUST.
I must be able to trust that I am enough, that I will be taken care of, that I am worthy of love — all without the proof of these prolonged toxic dances. Yes, I was programmed to offer up everything I am in exchange for what meager emotional crumbs someone was willing to give me. I was taught to distance and protect myself from others by using judgements and fears built on false stories. I made myself needed so I could never be disregarded. But I am not broken. I am not a bad person. I am not hopeless. This is very important. For if I am to release myself from these patterns of need, I first must establish these beliefs, these truths — as self-evident. No, I cannot change my childhood, but I can become the adult that the scared little girl inside of me always needed.
Let me be clear: I have not, and do not recommend trying to do this on your own. Especially if you are currently in a codependent relationship, I highly suggest seeking out a couples’ therapist who can act as a fair and unbiased moderator, holding both parties accountable for their contributing behavior (it takes two two tango). If you are dating or single, please, try to invest first in what brings you joy and confirmation of your own worth separate from your partner. If, like me, you’ve been operating on the basis of depending on something outside of yourself for validation, it will take time to get to know who you are without that. It will take being incredibly gentle, and compassionate with the part of you that needed to cultivate these skills in order to grow into the person you are today. It will also demand the process of unearthing layers and layers of accountability and responsibility for oneself above all others.
This type of self-dependence is not in fact selfish. It is a healthy reorganizing of one’s priorities around the self — and the basic needs required to live and care for oneself. It still feels incredibly tricky for me to separate the love and care that others give me from my need to reciprocate it out of responsibility instead of genuine trust. The healthier the relationship, the better its chance of surviving the more I stick to my own internal boundaries and needs. I am learning, and practicing, and getting clearer and clearer on what’s true and what’s fiction.
I know that I don’t need to save you in order for you to love me.
I know that if you demand more than I am willing to give in exchange for affection, that we are headed nowhere good — fast. If you need me to love you in order to believe that you are lovable, I will prevent you from learning how to love yourself by being in relationship with you. If I am attracted to you because you are unavailable, or giving me just enough to keep me coming back…it might take me a minute, but I will eventually figure out that you are incapable of giving me what I need and decide to look elsewhere. If I am ever afraid that I am not enough, that I will not be taken care of, that I am not capable of taking care of myself, that I will not be loved exactly the way that I am, I can always ask for help. It can come in the form of a reminder from a friend who I trust, from an activity that brings me reassurance or makes me feel strong and capable, or from an act of expression — like this.
Last, but definitely not least, try the idea on for size that you were born worthy of love and belonging (to quote Brené Brown). Test out the train of thought that tells you there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. See how it feels to think about someone else loving you just because they like who you are, instead of who you are for them.
If all of this resonates and you decide that you need HELP, check out some of these resources as a good starting point:
Codependent’s Anonymous (CoDA): Much like AA, CoDA uses the Twelve Steps and Traditions to help you treat yourself and maintain sobriety in your addiction to being needed. The only requirement is your own willingness to show up and work the steps.
Ready to Heal: Breaking Free of Addictive Relationships, by Kelly McDaniel: The book that started it all for me, and caused me to call my mother in tears — sobbing into the receiver: “I think I might be an addict.” If you really want to understand where your compulsive behavioral patterns come from, read this one first!
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind — and Keep — Love, by Amir Levine: Codependency is most often bred from how we learned to attach ourselves to others growing up. Learn more about your attachment style and how to be in relationship based on what behaviors you may default to.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown: Tools and strategies on how to own your experience, treat vulnerability as strength instead of weakness, get accountable for your behavior and release yourself from shame.
Find a Therapist through Psychology Today: A national registry of licensed psychologists. Look for someone who has experience with treating addiction and intimacy disorders. Most therapists have sliding scale rates or can at least recommend someone who they think would be a good fit for your budget and individual needs.