How Codependency Wreaks Havoc on a Relationship

Dysfunctional behavioral patterns in which one is overly invested.

Posted Nov 16, 2020

Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

“I’d love to come to the party, but my husband doesn’t like those kinds of things.”

“I feel bad flaunting my raise in her face because she really hates her job.”  

“Kids, let’s be nice and quiet when Dad comes home after his long day at work because he is already really stressed.”

I have heard women and men say these and varieties of these statements hundreds of times.

At first glance, you might think, “Oh, how thoughtful that partner is.”

But if you examine these phrases a little closer, there is something hiding in plain sight: blurred boundaries.

When I first decided to write about boundaries and codependency, I knew I had to reach out to one of the leaders in this area. Terri Cole, the author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free, is a New York-based licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert. 

Terri explained that this "is a dysfunctional behavioral pattern in which one is overly invested in and focused on the feeling states, decisions, and outcomes of the other person at the expense of properly taking care of one's own needs."

Let’s go back to those phrases above. Where do we see an overfocus on the experiences of others? I have highlighted the hints below:

“I’d love to come to the party, but my husband doesn’t like those kinds of things.”

“I feel bad flaunting my raise in her face because she really hates her job.”

“Kids, let’s be nice and quiet when Dad comes home after his long day at work because he is already really stressed, and we should make it peaceful for him.”

According to Terri, focusing on trying to control how another person feels “falls into the category of unhealthy helping and inevitably creates feelings of under-appreciation, exhaustion, and resentment.”

I can completely relate to this as someone who constantly tried to make my depressed and alcohol-dependent partner less unhappy and to stop drinking. I engaged in behaviors as small as letting him order the food he wanted to throwing out all the alcohol in our house. I was completely focused on controlling his feelings without allowing him the dignity to find it himself. I was not gracious about it at all. As Terri suggests, I was resentful and wiped out (just ask any of my friends to whom I constantly complained).

Before you start blaming yourself, Terri explains this “is a pattern of learned and adaptive behaviors from childhood that become maladaptive in adult relationships. As women, we are basically raised and praised to be self-sacrificing codependents! The good news is that learned behavior can be un-learned.”

If you are ready to unlearn these behaviors, why don’t you try these four tips Terri suggests:

  1. Commit yourself to learn how to set and enforce healthy personal and professional boundaries. I recently wrote a number of blogs in this Divorce Course series that will give you step-by-step suggestions on how to set good boundaries. 
  2. Up your own self-care and focus on your own preferences, desires, and deal-breakers. Start asking yourself the important question: “What do I want?” For many of us, this is a new practice. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but with practice, you will get more connected and tuned in to your real desires and needs. In my upcoming book, Light At The Other Side of Divorce: Discovering the New You, I provide tips on how exactly to reconnect to yourself to create the life you most desire. 
  3. Use mindfulness practices to create enough inner calm to be able to hear the wisdom of your body and your intuition. These practices can include traditional meditation but remember you can always bring yourself back into the present moment by noticing your feet on the floor and your breath in your nose. Some people like using guided meditations, but many of my clients simply focus on the sensations in their body when engaging in daily activities. The next time you are brushing your teeth, take a moment to feel the toothbrush in your hand and the sensations of your teeth, gums, and tongue. Bringing awareness to the present moment is a mindfulness practice. 
  4. Take full responsibility for yourself, your choices, and your experiences, remembering you are not responsible for the choices and experiences of the other person. This is a practice and will require daily rededication. Be easy on yourself if you slip up. We all do. One way I have been able to support myself in taking responsibility for myself and not others is by waking up and making a list of the things that day that I can control and the things I cannot. Throughout the day, I reflect on the list and remind myself that the things I can control require my attention, and the other list will be taken care of by someone else. 

These tips and practices are lifelong. I have been working on releasing my codependency for over 10 years, and I still get caught up in codependent behaviors often. What is different now is that I recognize it and take responsibility for my actions.

I turn to the person whose feelings I attempted to control or manage and say, “I am sorry I got in the middle of your business. I trust that you will find your way. I am here to support you if you want me to. Let me know what you need. You are the expert on you. Not me.”  

With this simple statement, I express my love and let them be.