What is codependency? A simple definition of codependency is excessive reliance on a partner that is either emotional or psychological. The truth is codependency is far from simple. Codependent relationships often start with the best of intentions, usually an intention to help or save the other person in some way. However, once the relationship moves from helping to being codependent it becomes unhealthy and highly dysfunctional for both parties.
When a relationship is codependent there is often unhealthy clinginess, excessive dependency on each other for fulfillment, and often one or both parties have no autonomy or self-sufficiency. The pattern that starts out as helping the other person evolves into enabling the other person in some way. Because the codependent is always there to pick up the pieces their partner can continue with unhealthy patterns of immaturity, irresponsibility, under achievement and often addiction without directly suffering the natural consequences of that behavior.
Codependents are the caretakers in the relationship. Initially they start out trying to help their partner and be supportive. At first this may have felt rewarding and left the codependent feeling needed in the relationship. Over time this evolves into a feeling of never ending responsibility for themselves and their partner’s thoughts, emotions, behavior and wellbeing. The codependent ultimately becomes responsible for the relationship as a whole. The codependent finds themselves feeling overwhelmed, helpless and trapped unable to break the cycle of codependency, resulting in dysfunction and unhappiness in the relationship.
As this behavior pattern becomes engrained codependents may find themselves repeating this behavior in other relationships and friendships. This behavioral pattern maybe something that has evolved over time starting in one relationship and then was repeating in future relationships or it may be something that was learned from others as a result of growing up in or living in a dysfunctional environment for a period of time.
Am I codependent?
How do you know if you are in a codependent relationship? Everyone experiences codependent characteristics at different times in their life. When you find that this pattern is consistently a way you relate to others in your relationships and you are repeating the pattern from relationship to relationship, you may be codependent. If you feel you are in a relationship where you have lost your sense of self and ability to exist independent of your partner you may have fallen into a codependent pattern.
The following list summarizes some of the characteristics a codependent struggles with:
- Accepting responsibility for others' feelings or actions
- Strong desire to please others
- Unable to break free of controlling or abusive relationships
- Consistently putting the needs of others before their own
- Can no longer separate their own wishes and desires from those of their partner
- Disconnected from their own thoughts, feelings and needs
- Lost touch with who they are as an individual
- Difficulty setting realistic personal boundaries
- Resentful, often feeling like a victim
- Fear rejection or fear of feeling abandoned and alone
- Attempts to control and manipulate variables in their environment
- Depends on the approval of others for their sense of self worth
- Makes extreme sacrifices to meet their partner’s needs
How can I break a codependent relationship pattern?
Breaking free from a codependent pattern requires commitment, hard work and vigilance. The payoff makes it worth the effort. The results of breaking the pattern can include increased happiness, self-love, joy, self-esteem, freedom, fulfilling relationships and much more. Here are some steps to help you start to break the pattern of codependency.
1. Self-Assessment – Do a thorough self-assessment of yourself and your relationship patterns to know exactly which areas need your focused attention and awareness in order to break this pattern. Look at your current relationship and previous relationships. When did this pattern begin? This pattern may have started in one relationship and evolved into a pattern of behavior in all of your relationships. It may be a behavioral pattern that you are just realizing for the first time in a relationship or it may be something in between. What factors set the pattern of codependency in motion?
Consider the characteristics of codependency. Identify what codependent characteristics are playing out in your relationships. Often it is difficult for someone who is codependent to accept their role in contributing to the dysfunction in the relationship that they are trying so hard to save. Remember that ‘being codependent’ does not make you bad or wrong. Codependency is simply a pattern that is contributing to the dysfunction.
Since codependency is only one contributing factor to the dysfunction, stopping codependent patterns alone will not resolve the dysfunction in the relationship just as those codependent behaviors did not alone create the dysfunction. However if the codependency pattern continues in the relationship so will the dysfunction and the relationship will not improve.
2. Take a Break – It may be worthwhile to take a break from the relationship so that you can have some time to care for and reconnect to yourself. Ending the relationship completely may not be the best solution for you. It is possible to repair a codependent relationship if both parties recognize the pattern and are genuinely invested in repairing the relationship. Taking a break from the relationship gives each person an opportunity to break their habit of dependency and obsession with the relationship. During this break you also have a chance to reconnect to hobbies, interests, family and friends who have been set aside while you were in the relationship. Most importantly by taking a break it allows you to shift your energy from focusing primarily on the relationship and your partner’s needs, moving it back to focusing on you and reconnecting to your authentic self.
A break may result in a couple coming back together and rebuilding a healthy relationship or it could result in a permanent separation. However without a break to experience autonomy you will never know.
3. Support – Surround yourself with positive and supportive people to the greatest extent that you can. It is important that the family and friends around you at this time are there to be supportive of you and the roller coaster of emotions you may experience. Conflicting emotions and emotional swings can be especially intense and challenging in the initial stage of taking a break from the relationship. As you detach from the codependent pattern and find new routines in your day to day life the emotional struggle will decrease as you regain your autonomy.
The help of an experienced therapist in examining the codependent patterns with an unbiased perspective is also extremely helpful. A therapist can assist you in looking at yourself and your patterns without placing blame on you or your partner. Working with a therapist not only helps you to work through patterns that developed out of dysfunctional relationships you have been in and patterns that evolved out of childhood experiences and environments.
If you do not have a strong base of support within your friends and family, connecting with a support group is an excellent opportunity to meet with others who are facing or have faced similar challenges as a way to receive support and encouragement.
4. Find Yourself - Now is the time to focus on you. If you have previously changed your likes and activities to reflect those of your partner, now is the time to find out what it is you like. Focus on what your preferences, likes and dislikes are. What are YOU interested in learning more about? Get a book on that subject and expand your knowledge. Go to a museum you always wanted to go to or a concert or movie. Identify what makes you happy and what makes you unhappy. Keeping a journal to document your journey of self-exploration helps to bring the real you to life.
What are your beliefs and values? What is important to you? What are your limits? What are the lines that you will not cross based on your beliefs and values? Define yourself. Identify what your beliefs values and limits are and put them in your journal. It may take some reflection to identify what are truly your limits, beliefs and values if you had become so enmeshed in your partner that you adopted theirs. Once you are clear on your limits you can also become clear about what you need from particular situations and relationships.
5. Establish Boundaries - Setting boundaries is so often thought of as something you set between yourself and another person. Boundaries are not so much for the other person as they are for you. Setting boundaries with yourself is important in creating change. For example, do you find your initial reaction is to do whatever it is that will please another person rather than getting your needs met? Recognize that and draw a line for yourself that you will not cross. Set a personal boundary that you will no longer adapt your needs and desires in order to please another. Stay vigilant of your responses to situations and catch yourself before you act. Stay true to your authentic self. Hold yourself accountable to change your behavior to focus on communicating your needs rather that changing them to please someone else.
Set a boundary with yourself to say “No.” if you do not want to do something. It is not necessary to provide and explanation. If you experience someone trying to guilt you into a ‘yes’ or manipulate you into changing your mind, recognize that this was something that has worked in past interactions with you, Now you have a personal boundary in place to say ‘no’ when you don’t want to do something. With this boundary in place you have a commitment to yourself and you cannot give into these tactics. You cannot control the behavior of others, but you can control your response to it by sticking to your boundary.
6. Communicate - Dare to be honest and direct with others about your thoughts, feelings and needs. Listen to their thoughts and feelings but also clearly communicate what you need. Set firm boundaries by clearly and honestly communicating your needs and limits. By doing this you can set the foundation for more mature, satisfying relationships and stay true to yourself. If compromise is necessary remember that in mature relationships the give and take is equal not one sided and does not require you to compromise your beliefs, values or firm limits.
Remember when communicating with others you are only responsible for your thoughts, feelings and actions, not theirs. You cannot control someone else’s reaction to your actions. Your actions are a reflection of who you are, their reactions are a reflection of themselves not you. It is perfectly ok to provide love and support to others but remember their problems are theirs, not yours. Be careful not to take ownership of others problems and the choices that caused them. That is not helping them and it is not helping you. And, it will not solve the problem.
7. Love Yourself - As you reconnect with yourself and get to know who you are, you will find yourself starting to love that amazing person you are discovering. The more you get to know yourself the more confident you will become and your self-esteem will start to increase.All this will come naturally as you take the time to regain your independent sense of self. Take time each day to list things that you love and appreciate about yourself and the unique person that you are.
The more you grow in who you are the less the actions of others will upset you. As your sense of self becomes stronger you will recognize your true responsibility is to yourself and your happiness. The truer you are to yourself the more love and positivity you will project to those around you. The stronger you become in your authentic self, the more vibrant and joyful your life will be now that you have broken the pattern of codependency in your life. As you send the positive energy of confidence, self-esteem and independence out into the world you will attract new people and healthy, fulfilling relationships into your life.