Anna Karenina: Codependent Love At Its Best

“There can be no peace for us, only misery, and the greatest happiness.” Count Vronsky

What are you willing to sacrifice for the experience of great happiness and love? Will you find true happiness and peace in living your life for self-fulfillment alone? Or, is there something greater than personal fulfillment alone for which you should be living? These are powerful questions that Leo Tolstoy asks us in his timeless masterpiece Anna Karenina.

Although Anna Karenina was first published in 1873 and portrays the life of the Russian elite in late nineteenth century Moscow, the story speaks to timeless psychological and spiritual concerns about being, existence, and the nature of happiness. Joe Wright’s more recent movie version of the tale starring Kiera Knightly and Jude Law (2012) marks the sixteenth production of this gorgeous, deeply stirring and troubling story.

Anna Oblonsky-Karenin, a Russian socialite is married to Alexei Karenin, a powerful man, much older than Anna, who is Cabinet Minister of the Russian government. They married for social standing, rather than for love. At first, their social life and the care of their son, whom she loves dearly, seems to be enough for Anna. But, her trip to Moscow to give counsel to her brother Stiva and his wife Dolly over Stiva’s affair will change her life forever. It is there that she meets the young, handsome and charming military officer Count Alexei Vronsky. Their attraction is so palpable that it is a certainty that they will have an affair. Even so, at first, Anna is able to deny her feelings for him, by reminding herself of her marital and social responsibilities.

Count Vronsky is so taken with Anna that he follows her back to St. Petersburg ignoring that he has a complication or two of his own with regard to his freedom. His wealthy, Countess mother expects him to marry for social standing. And, Vronsky is not short of young, beautiful women of high social standing who are lining up to become his wife. He has been courting the young Princess Kitty. She expects that any day soon Vronsky will ask her to marry him. Instead, he falls madly in love with the already married Anna. And, as you’ve anticipated correctly, Anna succumbs to Vronsky’s boyish, sensual charm.

From this point forward, sensual desire, happiness, and peace becomes Anna’s sole reason to be. The intensity of Anna’s feelings toward Vronsky are so intense that it doesn’t take long for her husband Alexei Karenin to find out. He is a man who is guided solely by morality, reason and social custom and who his friends call a saint. The closest Alexei Karenin ever gets to sensual feeling is a desire for revenge against the adulterous Anna and her lover. At first, he appeals to Anna’s propriety asking her to end the relationship. But, Anna will hear nothing of this. Eventually, Karenin forgives Anna and Vronsky. But, when Anna decides to end the marriage, Karenin orders her to leave without her son.

For a short time, Anna and Vronsky share life with each other and have a child. But, Anna becomes increasingly depressed over the loss of her child with Alexei, and her diminished social standing. She also fears that the young Vronsky is tiring of her. She begs Vronsky to “restore her happiness and peace“, to which he replies, “There can be no peace for us, only misery, and the greatest happiness.” The immature, self-absorbed Vronsky leaves Anna forever. Now, faced with the weight of her grievous decisions, Anna commits suicide.

Dr. Deborah’s Wisdom

“One man just lives for his own needs,” questioning at every step of the way what it is that will bring the greatest happiness and peace. While  “[Another] lives for the soul…and remembers God ” .

Anna Karenina is a tragic story about codependent love. This is when you love so selfishly, lustfully, and recklessly that the relationship becomes more important than your self-preservation. The intensity of the relationship connection has lifted many fictional and  real-life couples into the stratosphere of the greatest happiness, and just as surely, the greatest misery. Codependency is exemplified in the love between great literary couples and historical figures, like Cleopatra and Mark Anthony,  Romeo and Juliette, Heathcliff and Kathryn, Paris and Helene, and the great sculptor Augustus Rodin, and his lover, sculptress Camille Claudel. Thus, please, do not despair, if you have ever been or are currently involved in a codependent romance. You are not alone.

Everyone has a need to find true love. But some of you have unmet childhood needs that make you especially vulnerable to codependent relationships. Your past has set you up to yearn for a type of love comparable to the early nurturing a mother gives her newborn baby. You want to breathe the same air as your lover breathes, as did Anna with Count Vronsky, and to be so deeply connected together that the outside world ceases to exist. By all appearances, you seem like a thrill-seeker. But, you are really seeking a relationship connection that is highly sensual, boundaryless, and makes you feel extremely special.

There’s nothing better than an example to show you what I mean. I recall treating a fifty something couple. They came to therapy because the husband announced he wanted a divorce. He was having an affair with a much younger woman whom he wished to marry. There is nothing new in this story, right? It happens to people every day.

My patient had a very hard childhood that deprived him of guidance, safety, love and resources. He spent three decades trying to quench a deep yearning within for true happiness and peace. He married, established a successful business and family life, and went beyond the call of duty protecting his family, friends and employees. Life was generally good, as long as he was building a career and relationships. But, once these were set, it wasn’t long before he was searching for his greatest happiness once again.

He found it, or so he thought, which prompted his visit to me. She was a twenty-eight year old employee of his who had a nine-year-old son. She became his greatest happiness and reason to be. He pleaded with his wife to let him go. “I deserve to be happy.” I’m so tired of giving to other people. It is time for me,” he repeated.” He was a man in great despair and need. And, I was pleased to help him.

I don’t think I ever saw a man sob so deeply over the decision to divorce. His grief called into question his newfound happiness. He was mourning. This was understandable. My patient was about to give up thirty years of history with a spouse, children, and their mates and children, to realize great happiness and peace with another family.

He announced right away that he was coming to therapy to tell his wife that he was divorcing her. He wanted me to help her to understand his reasons for leaving. Perhaps, I could have done this, if I trusted that he himself really understood the source of his great unhappiness. My patient romanced everything he did. He built a business that was unlike any other in his industry, at the time. He collected special antique cars that very few could buy. Everything promised to lift him away from despair to a larger than life happiness.

Indeed, it was time for him to find peace. But, first, he had to understand the psychological basis to his lifelong unhappiness. My job is to make him conscious, so that he knows what he is doing and can accept the full consequences of any action that he takes. Thus, every step of the way, I challenged the meanings he gave to happiness and peace in life. “Who is depriving you of happiness?” “What is happiness to you, to any of us in life?” “What is tiring you?” My questions chiseled away at his defenses and pushed him to reflect on the meaning of his emptiness and desire, rather than quench it through compulsive, risky codependent actions.

Life is a journey of discovering the authentic happiness. You won’t find it in extraordinary experiences that lift you to states of great excitement. You’ll find it in the simple activities of everyday life.

If you have a tendency to quench your emptiness and desire through codependent relationships that have brought you more misery than happiness, please take a moment to reflect upon the following question. What drives you in life? What makes you happy? Is it satisfying sensual desire through relationship, like Anna? If so, remember, not once in the novel does Anna contemplate the meaning of life, her marriage, or of true happiness, despite having experiences that should have given her ample reason and chance to ask herself such questions.

Thus, don’t go through life sleeping. Wake up; examine the romantic relationships that you have chosen thus far, for their true happiness. Don’t go from one destructive, codependent relationship to another that depletes you of innocence, hope and the will to live. You will deprive yourself of the relationships and experiences in which simple happiness is found, like the care and nurturing of children, family and loved ones, tending to the suffering of others, relationship with God, nature or existence, and the relationship you have to yourself, psychologically and spiritually. This is the most authentic way to enrich your life with meaning and purpose, stability, depth of feelings that you’ve been craving, and the awe of being alive.

If you liked my post today, please let me know by selecting the LIKE icon that immediately follows. And, if you want to share it with friends, please Tweet or Google +1. Warmly, Deborah

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34 Responses to “Anna Karenina: Codependent Love At Its Best”

  1. avatar Roy Underwood says:

    Wish I had read this prior to my experience. I too found the “one” that I just had to have. A co-worker 23 years my junior, both of us married at the time. We began an affair which made me feel as Anna did. I left a wonderful, caring and loving wife. We did not marry, but lived together for 13 years, then she decided she wanted to end our relationship, would never discuss the issue(s). Broke it off via two e-mails while we still lived in the same house. Anyway, it brought me untold pain for almost two years. Hard lessons learned.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Roy, I know how hard it can be to reconcile our decisions–especially in love. There is such a great feeling with this kind of love that it is hard to resist. I have much empathy for how tempting these relationships can be.

      I’m sorry for how she ended it. You deserved so much better and what she did speaks more about her limitations than yours’. I am glad this relationship did not destroy you, but I know it caused you very deep pain. I know what I am about to say is sometimes difficult to accept. The “hard lessons” define us, truly they do–they open the door to psychological and spiritual reflections that point the way to true happiness and peace. Warm regards to you Roy. I very much enjoy getting to know you. Deborah.

      • avatar Roy Underwood says:

        Thank you for your reply and wisdom. Even at age 66 I learned much from this experience. Lots of soul searching on my part. However, it taught me many excellent lessons, which made me a much better person. I am a Vietnam vet and have PTSD, am receiving treatment at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City. I also volunteer there three days per week. Looking forward to your next article. Peace!

        • avatar Dr. Deborah says:

          Hello Roy, it’s true we never stop learning–at least when we stay aware, like you. I’m sure there was lots of soul searching and you say it so well, experiences like this can be used to enrich us personally. It speaks to who you are psychologically and spiritually, Roy.

          Thank you for sharing your life with me including that you are a Vet. I hope the treatment for PTSD is helping. And, thank you so much for your service to our country. God bless and Merry Chrismas Roy, Deborah.

    • avatar anamta says:

      well, regarding the above article, we cant even deny of the stuff which causes depletion of true happiness !

      • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

        Hello Anamta, yes, you are right. It is hard to deny the types of pursuits and relationships that risk depleting our happiness. Nonetheless, the denial system in human beings can be strong–like teflon for some people. This is unfortunate because they end up suffering much in life through their decisions. Thank you for your comment Anamta. Warmly Deborah.

  2. avatar pratik says:

    Aren’t we, the humans, biologically hardwired as ‘Codependent’ in some way?

    In almost all the stories of ‘TRUE LOVE’, you’d find codependency in any of the two sides- the male side or the female side.Don’t we like these stories because they end up with tragedies?

    I feel, believe and think – codependency is one of the ingredients of love perceived worldwide.

    A thought provoking strong write up,Doc. Couldn’t resist myself from sharing my thought.

    Codependency is nice when it’s a two way street.

    Warm regards

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Pratik, and I’m so glad you could not resist, as I like very much considering your thoughts and wisdom on matters. That is a very interesting question, “Are we hard-wired for codependency?” We are definitely hard-wired for attraction, no doubt. And, I actually struggled with this post a bit because I did not want to put a damper on passionate love. But, I think the thing that really defines codependent love is losing our own interests completely for the interests of realizing sensual desire to the extent that one risks destroying him or herself.

      I do think that most stories of true, deep love involve what we call today codependent loving. It is interesting that you say TRUE love, because TRUE is at question for Tolstoy. But, I think Tolstoy asks us to decide for ourselves what true love really means and are we willing to risk ourselves for this “true” love? This is the question.

      Thus, in codependency, passionate love is not the issue here, but self destruction is. But, that being said, yes, I do believe Pratik that one of the most defining experiences of life is to love. And, these types of novels and movies hit us deeply (in heart and spirit) because each of us wants to love this way in life. Each of us want to be taken to heights of great love. Thus, the desire is quite natural, as you say, but the risk of everything is not, or perhaps, maybe only for the brave! 🙂

      As always, a pleasure my friend. Be Well–Warmly Deborah.

      • avatar pratik says:

        I wish if I were your student. I love your answers. I am so happy dear Doc.
        You believe me: not all can answer my question.
        So happy!

        Warmest regards

        • avatar pratik says:

          One more thing. Have you watched the movie ‘secretary’ by Steven Shainberg?
          Let me give you the wiki link:

          I think there are some stuffs in that movie that you’d probably like to discuss in your future write up.A different kind of love.I like the movie.A different school of thought.

          Hoping that, you would watch if not already and analyze it.

          • avatar Dr. Deborah says:

            I am familiar with the movie Secretary but have not watched it. I will see it though. I know there is lots of good stuff to analyze in that movie. Thank you for the suggestion Warmly Deborah.

        • avatar Dr. Deborah says:

          It would be very nice Pratik. 🙂

  3. avatar Dilshad says:

    Greatest , hooray my best Dr … ,

  4. avatar Dilshad says:

    hooray Dr … ,

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      THANK YOU so much. I’m glad you are celebrating this post. I absolutely adore this novel and this version of the movie. It was creative, passionatate, and also offered us a wise take on loving. Warm regards to you dear Dilshad Deborah.

  5. avatar Salvatore R. Maddi says:

    Dear Debbie,
    This is a wonderful analysis of the movie, and will help us all understand the potential problems of codependent relationships. We are all in this together, and need to learn from each other. We should not over emphasize the importance of intense happiness at every moment. Life is by its nature a complex and difficult phenomenon, and we need to take this into account, and try to learn from our experiences. In this, courage is more effective than happiness.
    Thanks for your continuing great work.
    Salvatore R. Maddi

    • avatar Deborah says:

      Hello Sal, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. Courage is more effective than happiness. Well said and so true. Thank you so much for your wisdom. Warmly Deborah.

      • avatar shahinshah says:

        these all problems in our life, like love, emotions, or breakup in relation which give us pain from the core of heart are all the examinations for humens because as we claim that we are ruling or operating the world or we are saying the humen is the most perfect creature of creator. As ‘Allah subhan wa talla’ says in Qurran i made the humen very unique and special. so, like us our problems are also difficult to solve. may Allah give us peace and happiness forever

        • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

          Hello, I like what you say about a mistaken belief that we are perfect and able to rule and operate our world without living for something greater than ourselves. I agree with you. Although what constitutes the greater force is different for people. For some it’s Allah and God and still for others it is nature or a force of understanding and wisdom that is to be aspired to in living. Whatever the name–you are right, human beings must strive to be better than their impulsive, instinctive selves. Thank you for your wisdom and I look forward to you stopping by again. Warmly Deborah.

  6. avatar Shariq Jafri says:

    Doc ! I really adore on your analysis but tell me something, a one who destroys him/her self on being rejected by the one to whom he/she loved.. Isn’t you think that makes you more toward codependency if you overcomes the shock =/ .. I wish you can understand what my point is..

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Shariq, thank you so much. Let’s see if I understand. Are you asking if a person becomes even more codependent if he or she actually overcomes the rejection and suffering from codependent love? I think I do understand. You are asking me if you are able to survive despite the destructiveness of this kind of love does that really say that you are resilient in this kind of destructive loving. This is a very interesting Shariq that has a good answer (I hope you think so!).

      Well, there are some people who indeed repeat codependent relationships repeatedly. They are like teflon when it comes to being abused, let down, and suffering. In psychology we call these types of people, self-defeating personalities. Thus, I can see why you suggest that recovering speaks to how codependent they really are.

      But, there are other outcomes from such relationships. Remember, some people, like Anna Karenina, do decide to kill themselves. Of course, this isn’t the best solution, but certainly good drama for a book or movie. The best solution is the person who is able to survive the destructiveness of a codependent relationship and CHOOSE never to play with this type of relationship fire again. This person can learn from experience and choose healthier experiences in the future because of this learning. Thus, this person is not self-defeating and immune to the destructiveness of codependent loving but rather a person who is aware and understands the will and freedom we all have to CHOOSE.j

      I hope I understood your fine question. I look forward to you stopping by again and reflecting upon the ideas in my posts. Warmly Deborah.

  7. avatar Amy Green says:

    Dr Deborah, thank you for yet another lesson in life. I enjoy the way you use comparison to help the point sink in!! I enjoy these articles as well as learn. Thank you again

  8. avatar Deana says:

    Co-dependent love is a misnomer. It is not love at all. It is, as Dr. Deb alludes to, an unspoken contract between ill-fated lovers to fulfill an unfulfillable dream, the dream of perfect love. None of us can undo the original shattering of innocence that gives rise to the never-ending pursuit for its complete restoration. Only a wound so powerful could cause a person to suffer the ravages of a co-dependent relationship time and again, risking the loss of family, work, spiritual centeredness, and even one’s own life. It is a most bitter pill to swallow, as you pull yourself up from the wreckage for yet another attempt at great happiness and peace. If one thing is certain, this is not the way. If I discover what it is, I will most definitely apprise you of it. Most grateful, DK

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Dr. Deana, I love what you say here that co-dependency is an unspoken contract between ill-fated lovers to fulfill the perfect love; a dream that can never be realized. Indeed, a love that eventually destroys is rooted in the past. What you say is so powerful that I can only say right now thank you for sharing your very deep insights into this type of love. Warmly Deborah.

  9. avatar Ivana says:

    … sadly, in this world there is no more room even for such purity of sense and room for a passion of this kind to be found. Fear not for it is impossible to reach this kind of love without being open to it and there is some serious lack of openness amongst humans right now 🙁

    I would rather live one life with such purity, one day of this kind of passion, one minute loved this kind of way, then a whole series of lifetimes without it !

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Ivana, I do understand what you are saying here Ivana. I love this beautiful story of passion,courage, risk–and openness to discover what is inside of us. Sadly, it also portrays what often results by casting all caution to the wind. But, of course, as you say well, this is a choice for each of us, not a moral story. We have to decide what it is that we want and accept the consequences that come with our decisions. Sadly, for Anna, it was a cruel time and the consequences of her “purity of sense and passion” was even crueler. Thank you for your passion dear Ivana. Warm regards Deborah.

  10. avatar Shelly says:

    Your summary of parts of the plot are incorrect. Kitty was never pregnant with Vronsky’s child. And Vronsky did not leave Anna. Have you read the book?

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hi Shelly, thanks for pointing out that Kitty was not pregnant. That was a mistake, I have since corrected. Thanks again. Warm regards, Deborah.

  11. avatar Carly Schilling says:

    Hello there,
    I absolutely loved reading your analysis of Vronsky and Anna’s relationship and thought it was spot on. In reading through your summary of events in the novel, I did notice a discrepancy that I thought you should be aware of. In paragraph four, you say that “[Vronsky] has been courting the young Princess Kitty, who happens to be pregnant with his child.” This event never happens in Tolstoy’s novel. Kitty and Vronsky never have relations and Kitty does not become pregnant until after her marriage to Levin. Anna does become pregnant with Vronsky’s child, however, which I see you did mention in your summary. Just thought I should let you know so that this very small error doesn’t detract from the accuracy of your analysis.

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Carly, it’s such a wonderful story. Anna’s plight is so poignant, tragic and timeless with regard to her passions and challenges. It’s so nice to find that you too are deeply moved by Anna’s story and that you resonate with my understanding of it. Also, THANK YOU for notifying me about the error. I will change it now :).

      Warm regards to you Carly, Deborah

    • avatar Dr. Deborah Khoshaba says:

      Hello Carly, I’m so pleased to see that you love the story, as much as I do and you resonate with my understandings of it. Anna’s poignant, passionate yearnings are timeless. Our passions often take a back seat to practical concerns. Again, thank you for your kind words. Hope to see you here again soon. Oh, also thank you so much for alerting me to the error. I just changed it 🙂

      Warm regards to you Carly, Deborah

  12. avatar Alex says:

    I love your definition of the codependent love more than the post itself:
    “codependent love is losing our own interests completely for the interests of realizing sensual desire to the extent that one risks destroying him or herself.”
    Essentially it equates codependent love to an addiction. The similarity of the love-instigated dopamine effect is well known. Love is a natural drug is this sense.
    That’s where the good part ends for me personally.
    I’m 55 and found myself in the epicenter of the codependent relationships. I left my wife of 20 years and my daughter to unit with my girlfriend who filled all my heart and my senses. Nonetheless, these relationships weren’t codependent as per your definition. Each of us has plenty of private space and lot of interests in life on our own outside.
    Our relationship came to an abrupt stop after 8 years of “it was only getting better by day.”
    I was immensely hurt and still struggle with stress, complete loss of sleep.
    It seems that we grew into each other or at least I did, when we became Pavlov’s dog for one another. We felt happy and fulfilled being together only.
    Though I do believe it may have a lot with the senses formed in childhood, but not a trauma or any negative experience but rather tastes and preferences as Dr. Freud assumed.
    I have no idea if I can love ever again as being hurt so much is unbearable. My deepest conviction is the mature relationships are based on a combination of passion, respect and trust. Remove one of the components and the relationship has no chances for survival on the long run.
    I had everything to live “happily ever after” but still ended up licking my deep wounds holding tight for the will to live.
    Speaking in the words of the Russian literature, Russian poet wrote:
    “But listen, go call on the Heaven above –
    Still how can someone make any sense of love?”


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