Am I in a codependent relationship?
(It’s not just for alcoholics and their loved ones anymore!)
Codependency is when two people with dysfunctional personality traits become worse together. It was originally coined to refer to relationships in which one person was a substance abuser and the other person heroically tried to rescue that person from the consequences of those behaviors. It has subsequently been generalized to refer to relationships where one or both parties enable behaviors such as learned helplessness, underachievement, and/or poor ability to self-care.
Don’t set yourself on fire trying to keep others warm
The key is that one or both parties depend on their loved one for fulfillment, self-worth, approval, and a sense of identity. (Notably, codependent people are dependent on a specific person, rather than on others in general.)
Like everything, codependency exists on a spectrum. Healthy relationships involve dependency and require some give and take. But if your mood, happiness, and identity is defined by another person, then you could be in a codependent relationship. If you can’t function independently any more, you are almost certainly in one.
Signs you may be in a codependent relationship:
- You have lost your sense of identity as an individual. If you have a hard time knowing what it is that you want to do when you have alone time, or if you find yourself requesting your partner’s feedback on every decision (major AND minor), this may be a problem for you. It is particularly worrisome if you find that you no longer are certain about what you should eat for dinner. Or, if people ask you how you are, and you end up telling them how your partner is doing.
- You make extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs (and he, she, or they do not make similar sacrifices).
- You spend a great deal of time and energy either trying to change your partner or trying to conform to your partner’s wishes. It’s this second dimension that I want to highlight, because I think it is less commonly known. But it’s equally important. Many people who are co-dependent are controlling of their partners. At the same time, many of them bend over backwards trying to be who they imagine their partner wants them to be.
- You often feel insecure in your relationship. If you spend a lot of your time worried that your partner is going to be angry at you, or leave you, you are likely in a dysfunctional relationship.
- You have trouble communicating honestly and will do almost anything to avoid an argument. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you’re afraid it will upset your partner. It is particularly worrisome if you spend a lot of time crafting what you’re going to say and trying to gauge the best time to say it.
- You can’t find satisfaction in your life outside of a specific person. I’m thinking of a patient who hated the city they lived in, disliked their job, and was profoundly disappointed in their friends. They believed that their relationship was the only thing working in their life. When they finally broke up with their partner, they found that they enjoyed their city, their work became pleasurable, and their friends were suddenly much more enjoyable.
- You have low self-esteem. Many codependent people find their sense of self-worth comes from being able to help their partner.
How Common is Co-Dependency?
Research indicates that characteristics of codependency are much more prevalent than previously thought. If you were raised in a dysfunctional family (a family with problems that does not acknowledge that those problems exist), you likely have some codependent traits. If you were neglected or abused, you are even more likely to have at least some of those traits, and likely have quite a few of them.
In dysfunctional families, children learn to deny, ignore, and avoid their difficult emotions. And in some families, anything other than being totally and 100% happy is considered too difficult of an emotion to be tolerated.
Growing up with an unreliable or unavailable parent also means taking on the role of caretaker. A child in this situation puts the parents’ needs first. Accordingly, they also become masters at disregarding their own needs. When the “parentified” child becomes an adult, he or she repeats the same dynamic in his or her adult relationships.
I’m Pretty Sure I’m in a Co-Dependent Relationship. What do I do?
Don’t despair! Recovery and change is possible! Take a deep breath.
Most articles on co-dependency will give you a list of activities that you can do to try to repair a co-dependent relationship. These lists are fine, in so far as they go. It IS important to set boundaries and find happiness as an individual. Spending time with relatives, friends, and family to broaden your circle of support can definitely help. It’s a great idea to find hobbies of your own! Do try an experiment to separate from each other to see what it’s like when you have time apart.
I tried that, but I keep fucking it up.
One of the consequences of being co-dependent is that seemingly easy activities regarding separation and coming back together can be majorly challenging for you. Likely there’s a reason you’re not able to do the things listed above. Without help, that is. These personality characteristics are ingrained and often quite difficult to change on your own. (Furthermore, research indicates that untreated, they tend to get worse over time. Yikes! Can you imagine another four decades of this?) With psychotherapy treatment for co-dependency, you can get better at figuring out how to have a better relationship with yourself. That’s the first step in learning how to have better relationships with other people!
Therapy can help you become more assertive and build your self-esteem. Treatment will also likely involve exploring early childhood issues and their connection to current dysfunctional behavior patterns. Getting in touch with deep-rooted feelings of hurt, loss, and anger will allow you to reconstruct appropriate relationship dynamics.
Kyra Grosman, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist. He is in private practice in Park Slope, Brooklyn and in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.