What is codependency?
You may be in a codependent relationship if you “over function” and your partner (or friend or family member) “under functions”. In other words, you put too much focus on doing things for other people, but neglect your own needs. Codependent relationships can exist between spouses, parents and children, friends, co-workers, etc. For simplicity, I’m using the term partner in this article.
People with codependent traits tend to be caretakers who get absorbed in trying to help, fix, or change their partners. Many codependents have relationships with people struggling with addiction, mental health problems, compulsive behaviors such as gambling or sex or pornography, or narcissism. But even if this isn’t the case, your partner is dependent on you to make some aspects of his/her life function and you need to fix, control, and feel needed in order to feel worthwhile.
Codependency isn’t all or nothing. I find it helpful to think of codependency on a continuum. You may identify with all or only a few of the traits listed below. The quantity of codependent traits that you have isn’t as important as how much distress they cause you. If these relationship dynamics are causing you significant problems, they are worth addressing. Otherwise, you’re likely to repeat the patterns in other relationships. Codependency plays out in relationships, but its roots are very much about how you feel about yourself. So, codependent relationship dynamics will follow you into other relationships until you learn to balance taking care of others with taking care of yourself.
If you’re in a codependent relationship, you may feel “less than” and like there’s something fundamentally wrong with you. As result you constantly try to prove your worth be working extra hard, striving for perfection, being overly responsible, and taking care of everyone else. But you’re also afraid that you’re flaws will become known so you become an overachiever and caretaker, so that others depend on you. You fear being rejected and abandoned if others were to know your flaws, so you’re more likely to tolerate abuse and mistreatment; you struggle to assert yourself and ask for what you want and need.
What does a codependent relationship look like?
- Your partner’s problems or issues take up a lot of your time and/or energy.
- You don’t want to give up on your partner; you believe s/he’ll eventually change.
- You go out of your way to avoid conflicts.
- You spend more time taking care of others than you do taking care of yourself.
- Your moods are dependent on how your partner is feeling.
- You worry about what people think of you.
- No matter how much you do, it’s never enough.
- You feel like there’s something wrong with you and you have to keep proving your worth.
- It’s hard to acknowledge your feelings, but when you do, you’re resentful, scared, frustrated.
- You like to feel in control.
- You work much harder on your partner’s problems than s/he does.
- You make excuses for your partner.
- Appearances are important; you don’t want others to know about your family problems.
- You defer to your partner’s opinions and wants.
- You go out of your way to try to make him/her happy, but your partner doesn’t reciprocate.
- You worry that if you don’t take care of your partner, something bad will happen.
- You don’t want to believe that things are as bad as they really are.
What can you do if you’re in a codependent relationship?
1. Detach with love. Detaching is putting some emotional or physical space between you and your codependent partner. It doesn’t mean you’re walking away, giving up, selfish, or unloving. Detaching means you stop obsessing about your partner and his/her choices and problems. It gives you room to be a separate person; not as intertwined with your partner.
Detaching can include:
- Setting boundaries
- Not engaging in arguments
- Leaving a situation
- Staying calm rather than reacting
- Considering your own feelings and needs
- Choosing not to enable unhealthy or dangerous behaviors
- Listening rather than trying to solve or fix problems
- Not nagging and criticizing
2. Do something for yourself. Detaching is about focusing less on your partner. At the same time, you can begin to focus more on yourself. Detaching will begin to free up some of your time and energy for other things.
You may need to get reacquainted with yourself. For many years you’ve focused on what others need/want and you may have lost track of your own feelings, interests, goals, and friendships in the process. What do you like to do? Who do you like to spend time with? What are your goals? What can you do for yourself that would make you feel better? I encourage you to pick one thing that you can do for yourself and do it today. I’m not trying to suggest that getting a manicure will change your life! I’m just saying that putting yourself on the to-do list is part of bringing your life back into balance and health.
3. Get support and guidance. Relationships are hard, especially where they’re not going well. The good news is you don’t have to go through this alone. It may not feel like it, but I promise that there are people who really understand what you’re going through. You might find these people at an Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or Codependents Anonymous meeting. You might find them in an online support forum. Or you can find support through a licensed therapist or religious/spiritual leader. Many people also tell me that when they have the courage to open up to friends and coworkers, they are surprised at how much understanding they find. The things you’re going through may feel shameful and I know it’s hard to ask for help; support can make things more manageable and it also challenges your codependent tendency toward denial and focusing on others rather than yourself.
If you’re in a codependent relationship, there is hope. Change is possible when you focus on changing yourself.
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©2017 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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