Codependency is a hard pattern to break. Even when you’re aware of it, it’s not uncommon to repeat the same type of codependent relationships, behaviors, and thoughts. This is in part because codependency is learned in childhood – so it’s well-practiced and feels natural. But there are other factors as well, and in this article, I’ll discuss some of the other reasons that it’s hard to break free from codependency.
You’re dependent on others to make you feel worthwhile
At the core of codependency, there is an emotional dependence on others to validate your self-worth. In other words, codependents lack self-esteem and need other people to tell them or show them that they are lovable, important, acceptable, wanted, and so forth.
This emotional dependency makes it difficult for codependents to be alone. So, we will continue in dysfunctional relationships because being alone makes us feel worthless, rejected, criticized (many of the painful feelings/experiences we’ve had in the past).
Codependent relationships can have an obsessive quality
Codependents tend to be very tuned in to other people’s feelings, needs, and problems. For most codependents this crosses the line from healthy caretaking and nurturing to unhealthy enabling, controlling, and trying to fix or save others. You may neglect your own needs, interests, other relationships, or goals because you’re so focused on someone else. You may lose sleep or spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about them, researching solutions to their problems, wondering where they are or what they’re doing, and arranging your life so as not to upset them. Your life ends up revolving around someone else – making it tough to disentangle yourself and focus on what you want and need.
You don’t realize how dysfunctional your relationship is
Love (or infatuation or dependency) can cloud our perception, making it hard for us to accurately see ourselves and our relationships. The relationships we observed and experienced in childhood also shape our perceptions of what’s normal or acceptable in our relationships. So, if you grew up in an enmeshed family with poor boundaries or with parents who argued non-stop, those dynamics may feel familiar to you. And even if you know that they are unhealthy, part of you may unconsciously repeat them because they’re familiar.
The relationship isn’t bad all the time
Most codependent relationships aren’t terrible all the time. There may be times when you’re happy, things are peaceful, and you feel hopeful. Your partner may promise to change or even do so for a while. This is confusing and makes it hard to know whether a relationship can be saved.
How bad does it need to get before you should leave? That’s a hard question to answer. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask yourself if you’d be okay with your child or best friend having this exact relationship.
Your partner is also codependent
We call it co-dependency because both people in the relationship are emotionally dependent. This means your partner* may also have a hard time letting go. S/he may try to push boundaries after you’ve set them or continue to pursue you after you’ve broken up. This can be both upsetting/scary and flattering. Codependents have a strong need to feel needed and wanted, so we easily fall for manipulation disguised as flattery, desperation, and pleading.
Helping and self-sacrificing are socially acceptable
While some people in your life may be critical of your codependent relationships, others may actually encourage them. Women, in particular, are encouraged to be caretakers and to put their own needs last. You may have heard comments such as You can’t leave him now. He needs you. Or Marriage is for better or worse. It’s your duty to help him get better. Or perhaps, you’ve thought something similar and convinced yourself that you can and should “help” someone at any cost. This kind of codependent thinking is both extremely unrealistic and destructive. It perpetuates feelings of guilt and shame that will keep you stuck in relationships with emotionally immature and/or abusive people.
Shame, the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with you, and guilt, the belief that you’ve done something wrong, also keep codependents from ending dysfunctional relationships and forming healthy ones.
Many codependents grew up in families where outward appearances were extremely important. Family problems had to be kept secret, so it appeared the family was well functioning, respectable, successful, etc. Even within the family, there is often a code of silence, a denial of just how bad things have gotten. You may find that you’re repeating these patterns in adulthood. It’s difficult to admit to your friends that you’re being abused or your spouse got another DUI or you drained your bank account to bail him out of jail again.
This is how shame keeps us isolated. It convinces us that we caused these problems, that we deserve them, and that our inability to solve them is proof of our inadequacy. In order to free yourself from codependency, you have to heal your shame and stop listening to its faulty beliefs. You didn’t cause your husband to hit you just like you didn’t cause your mother’s alcoholism. These are convenient excuses that others want you to believe so you’ll continue to feel responsible for fixing their problems.
Shame is tough to overcome. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you’re struggling. But a good therapist can help you sort out what you’re responsible for and what you’re not.
As you recognize the factors that make changing your codependent thoughts and behaviors difficult, you can create a roadmap for recovery – a list of areas that you can work on. It might include some of the following:
- Moving from emotional dependency to emotional independence (being able to love and validate yourself, recognizing your feelings and needs as separate from others’, attending to your needs, pursuing your goals and interests)
- Effectively managing your anxiety
- Focusing on your own needs and practicing self-care without guilt
- Learning more about healthy relationships and personal rights
- Setting boundaries, using assertive communication and healthy conflict resolution skills
- Building your self-esteem
- Challenging the notion that it’s your job to help or save everyone
- Healing shame and feelings of unworthiness
How to change codependent thoughts and behaviors
Change is a process. No one can make all of the changes listed above in a short time. And no one does it alone. We need to learn from each other and support each other. The resources below can help you get started.
- Sign-up here for my weekly emails and access to my Resource Library which includes reading lists, articles, worksheets, and free weekly resources by email.
- Try Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, or Adult Children 12-step meetings. Meetings are available online and in-person. They also have literature and resources on their websites.
- Find a therapist who is knowledgeable about codependency, developmental trauma, or shame. And go consistently.
- Look for other free resources such as podcasts, support groups, Instagram accounts to follow, etc. (If you have a favorite resource to share, please mention it in the comments.)
- Set realistic expectations for healing and change and be kind to yourself.
*I used the word partner for simplicity. Codependent relationships exist between friends, siblings, parents and children, romantic partners, and more.