image Relationships Work addicted to relationship that hurts

Relationship addiction is continuing a relationship that’s chronically painful, destructive, or unhealthy. Of course, there are varying degrees of dysfunction in these relationships. But relationship addiction becomes significant when a codependent partner tries relentlessly to improve the relationship, despite being continually frustrated by their partner.

Al came for individual counseling regarding his relationship issues with Emily. Here’s how the first session began:

Al: I’ve been seeing Emily for a little more than three years. We met at work. We are both customer service reps. At first, I thought she was just being flirty. She asked me to have lunch several times. Lunch progressed to after-work happy hours. We definitely had chemistry, but I held the line because I knew she was married.

Lori: What did you like about her?

Al: She spoke to me in a way that my ex-wife never did. She talked about her feelings. She told me she had been unhappy in her marriage for the last few years. Her husband started his own business and made a lot of money, but he worked all the time. He stopped paying attention to her. She said the marriage was over.

Lori: What did she like about you?

Al: Well, of course I paid a lot of attention to her. She liked the little thoughtful things I did, like bringing her flowers or giving her little gifts. I was always there when she needed to vent, unlike her husband.

Lori: When did you two cross the line?

Al: We went to a customer service training out of town and it just happened. It was so powerful, like a magnet. Anytime we weren’t in meetings we were in the room making love. She loved sex, unlike my ex-wife. We had a great time together. Right after that, I asked if she would separate from her husband, so we could truly be together. I wanted a future with her. She said she would. That was three years ago.

Lori: And you have stayed anyway. That must be hard for you, to be in a loving, yet secretive relationship.

Al: Yes, it’s become quite hard. When we are together I feel like I’m in heaven. We still have great chemistry, emotionally and sexually. But on holidays and most weekends I can’t see her. She is with her husband and kids, though the marriage, she says, is more like roommates. I understand she wants to be with her kids, but I end up alone. That’s when I start feeling depressed.

Lori: Why hasn’t she made steps toward leaving her husband?

Al: She says she’s working on it, but it’s never the right time. Her kids are 10 and 13 years old. I know she’s afraid to leave. I don’t make anywhere near as much money as her husband. She worries about money. I keep telling her we’ll figure it out.

Lori: How long are you willing to wait?

Al: That’s the problem. I can’t wait, but I also can’t stop seeing her. I love her.

Lori: Does she love you?

Al: She says she does, but she just can’t leave.

Lori: So you stand by, waiting.

Al: Yes, I’m trapped.

Lori: Are you angry at her?

Al: No, she can’t help it.

Lori: Al, it sounds like you are in a chronically painful relationship, where you are more invested than Emily.

This is an example of codependency. One person is on the more “selfless” end of the continuum and the other is on the more “selfish” end. Al made repeated attempts to move the relationship forward, but to no avail. Emily was quite content with the way things were. She was able to continue living with her husband and children without disruption and have a satisfying relationship with Al.

Though Al complained that keeping their affair created feelings of loneliness and depression, Emily continued to “string Al along.” She promised to leave her husband, so they could be together, but didn’t take steps in that direction. She manipulated the situation to have the best of both worlds. It was all on her terms. She maintained the power and control in the relationship, with little regard for Al’s pain.

Al’s choices were limited to keeping the status quo and dealing with the pain; or, telling Emily at some point he couldn’t continue unless she separated.

After several months of therapy, Al chose to confront Emily. Sadly, their relationship ended. Al realized that he:

  • Allowed himself to stay in a situation that was more about meeting Emily’s needs than his own.
  • Enabled her to continue being in both relationships.
  • Lacked confidence in himself.
  • Feared abandonment more than continuing to be in emotional pain.
  • Felt dependent on Emily to the detriment of his own needs and feelings.

In therapy, we worked on:

  • Building his self-esteem.
  • Learning what made a relationship healthy.
  • Being able to feel comfortable by himself and feeling less needy.
  • Building a bigger support network.
  • Understanding the difference between rescuing a partner and having a mutual, loving relationship.

If you feel you are addicted to a painful relationship, seek help from a therapist. You deserve to love and be loved.

If you are in a relationship that hurts and feel disconnected, have difficulties communicating, and/or are experiencing a crisis, Bob and I can help. Call us at 410-363-2825 or email

Image Copyright: Max Sandelin