Relationships come in all shapes and sizes, but they don’t have to be abusive to be unhealthy. Another type of unhealthy relationship is called a “codependent” and it is difficult to avoid because at the beginning, it can look like and feel like love or deep understanding. The difference between healthy and codependent lies in the word itself: when you are in a codependent relationship, neither member can have an independent life any longer.
“Codependents” are often battling addiction, poor mental health, or some form of arrested development. They require that their partner enable and then take part in their struggles, internalizing them as their own. A codependent relationship becomes unhealthy when the Codependent starts trying to control their partner by any means necessary.
Identifying a Codependent Partner
Unfortunately, codependency is difficult to identify early on in a relationship. However, there are some signs to watch out for that will let you determine if you or someone you love is a codependent. In an article for WebMD, Feifei Sun offers the following questions to ask to help you: “Are you unable to find satisfaction in your life outside of a specific person? Do you recognize unhealthy behaviors in your partner but stay with him or her in spite of them? Are you giving support to your partner at the cost of your own mental, emotional, and physical health?” (WebMD)
The answer to the last question can manifest in many ways, including weak or no boundaries between yourself and your partner (no alone time, they use your things without asking, etc). Frequently, if you try to establish a boundary, regardless of how reasonable, a codependent partner will argue with you or resort to manipulation techniques to make you change your mind. They need access to you at all times, and need to know that you will give them whatever they need: emotional support, financial assistance, or enabling behaviors for their own issues, which they also want you to acknowledge as your own.
Because of their weak boundaries, codependents often have trouble determining their own emotional responsibility. In her article on Psychcentral, “Symptoms of Codependency”, Darlene Lancer explains this: “[Codependents] feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else” (Symptoms). A codependent may demand their partner feel the same way they do, or even try to make them fix or feel responsible for problems that aren’t their own. These problems can range from paying the bills to addiction, even blaming self-harm or suicidal ideations on their partner.
While taking care of your codependent partner, you can easily lose sleep, get distracted at work by constant phone calls, or go over your budget. Emotionally, you may start ignoring your own feelings because your partner has directly or indirectly required you take their side or see things from their perspective, no matter what your feelings/beliefs/needs for emotional and mental health are.
What Type of Person is Susceptible to These Relationships?
People-pleasers or those who have low self-esteem often find themselves in relationships with codependents. They may enter the relationship knowing what they’re getting into, but expecting to be able to “fix” the other person. People who feel that saying “no” is not an option, makes them feel guilty or even triggers their own anxiety, are also vulnerable (Symptoms). “Fixing” or helping a codependent is not going to happen–it is not what they want, and they will go to many lengths to make sure it does not occur. A codependent partner may say they want advice, even though they consistently ignore or reject it. This can start a vicious cycle in which the people-please feels their “poor” advice is their own fault, and they begin searching for another (likely rejected) tack.
The Impact of Codependency on Mental Health
Allowing codependency to continue in your relationship or family can be unhealthy or downright dangerous to all those involved. Codependent behavior can stall mental health development, and allows all parties to ignore or deny the real problems at hand. In her article for “Friends For Mental Health”, counselor and art therapist Lucy Lu explains how weak or nonexistent boundaries can lead to arrested development. “…healthy boundaries…allow us to care for ourselves and protect the limits of our physical body, our time and energy” (ASMFMH). Without strong boundaries, the codependent keeps their partner focused on their problems instead of healing and moving forward.
Lu details how codependence can affect whole families at once, creating a “dance” of codependency that keeps them moving in circles instead of addressing the root problem, whether it is addiction, abuse, or some other struggle.
“Even in healthy families, a particular family dynamic can be created, described by the Karpman’s triangle where people take on various roles of relating – the ‘victim’, who feels unfairly treated, the ‘persecutor’, who bullies the victim and the ‘rescuer’, who swoops in to save the victim (often the co-dependent)” (ASMFMH).
Prevention and Treatment
While it is impossible to predict where a codependent relationship may pop up, there are steps you can take to avoid getting wrapped up in one. Knowing your own boundaries and asserting them early in a relationship is very important, and will help the other person understand your values. Boundaries will also help prevent you from taking on the other person’s problems unnecessarily. Some ways to establish boundaries are to tell your partner/family member when you do and do not want to be touched, whether or not you like sharing food, or when you need time to yourself. Another is respecting one another’s’ privacy, not assuming that you are welcome wherever the other person happens to be (this is a common complaint in couples who do not respect each others bathroom time, for example).
If you are the one exhibiting codependent behaviors, do not be afraid to talk to a mental health professional, and get advice on how to change. If others in your life continually complain that you disrespect their boundaries, or leave messes (metaphorical or otherwise) for them to clean up, take some time to examine their point of view. Let them know that you are sorry you hurt them, and that you want to work on changing the dynamic between you. If you need more help, there are groups both online and in person where codependents share their stories and help each other heal.
One group like this is Codependents Anonymous, which provides resources much like AA or NA. The CoDA website has plenty of information about meetings, as well as resources to help you identify codependency in yourself and in others. Their frequently asked questions page covers many topics related to codependency at large and how their organization helps those affected by it. Getting started working with CoDA is simple: “Regardless of your situation, your first step is to go to a meeting. Go to at least 6 meetings before you decide if you can get what you need in CoDA. Know that meetings are like people, they have different personalities. Try different meetings to find one with which you can relate.” The second step? “Keep Coming Back” (CoDA).
Recovery is Not Quick: The Four A’s
Whether you choose to join a group or not, recovery from codependency is very difficult and can take a long time. Codependent relationships can damage everything from your self-image to your time management, and removing them from your life will come with some major changes. In another article for Psychcentral, “Recovery from Codependency”, Lancer explains the “four A’s” which provide a roadmap to recovery. These are abstinence, awareness, acceptance, and action (Recovery). In this case, abstinence refers to abstaining from codependent relationships, and learning to “…detach and not control, people-please, or obsess about others. You become more self-directed and autonomous.”
The middle two steps are self-explanatory–recognizing and accepting the problem are essential before the final step: action. “Insight without action only gets you so far. In order to grow, self-awareness and self-acceptance must be accompanied by new behavior. This involves taking risks and venturing outside your comfort zone” (Recovery). In other words, you will have to act on your new-found knowledge, which can be very difficult for those who have relied on codependent relationships in the past, and even more so for those who grew up in a family that exhibited these behaviors. The process can be helped along by sharing with others who have gone through similar situations, and talking about the problems with a mental health professional.
“CoDA.org.” CoDA.org. Codependents Anonymous, n.d. Web. 19 July 2017. <http://coda.org/>.
“Five Ways to Avoid Codependence | Addiction Recovery.” Addiction.com. N.p., 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 July 2017. <https://www.addiction.com/3939/5-ways-avoid-codependence/>.
Lancer, Darlene. “Recovery from Codependency.” Psych Central. N.p., 17 July 2016. Web. 19 July 2017. <https://psychcentral.com/lib/recovery-from-codependency/>.
Lancer, Darlene. “Symptoms of Codependency.” Psych Central. Psych Central, 17 July 2016. Web. 19 July 2017. <https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-of-codependency/>.
Lu, Lucy. “The Role of Codependence and Mental Health.” Friends for Mental Health. Asmfmh, n.d. Web. 19 July 2017. <http://www.asmfmh.org/resources/publications/the-role-of-codependence-and-mental-health/>.
Sun, Feifei. “Are You in a Codependent Relationship?” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 19 July 2017. <http://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/signs-of-a-codependent-relationship#1>.