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What You May Not Know About Codependency

Breaking free from co-dependent patterns.

Source: leviayala/Pixabay

Linda: “Did you hear the joke about the woman who fell overboard and was drowning? Her husband’s life flashed before her eyes. Did you hear about the man who woke up in the morning and asked his wife, ‘How am I going to feel today?’” Everybody laughs heartily at these jokes. But even while we’re laughing, we get the gist of the seriousness of living someone else’s life, the tragedy of not ever knowing how we ourselves feel, and how much we miss when we let others dictate our experience. We can also get a taste of how we, in our fear, let codependency drive us to be controlling, meddling in others’ lives, and try to change people.

The concept of codependency has its origins in the Addiction Recovery movement, treating the enabler of those addicted to alcohol or drugs. The term is defined as “a set of manipulative compulsive behaviors characterized by lack of self-esteem, poor boundaries, and obsessive control.” Sometimes, codependency is defined as an addiction to a person. These behaviors are learned to survive in a family experiencing great emotional pain. The behaviors are passed from generation to generation and result in a diminished capacity to participate in loving relationships.

Over-giving gets us into trouble.

Being in service is a beautiful thing. While being of service in our families and workplace, we risk running into trouble if we spend too much time and attention on others, to the exclusion of our own self-care. We can be so focused on others’ needs that we neglect our own. We are not negotiating for our own needs, drawing clear boundaries, or exercising our right to say “no”. And we are not treating ourselves with the high regard that we deserve. Our fear can bring out our manipulative, controlling behaviors. Once we admit that we are suffering from these unskillful choices, we become conscious enough to make more skillful ones.

Rather than seeing co-dependency as a disease state psychopathology, requiring years of in-depth treatment, we can see it as a learning deficit. We can reframe it as a normal stage of development, which is not a problem unless we get stuck there. Co-dependence is an inevitable and natural part of every relationship. Some people call it love, infatuation, or devotion. There is an unconscious agreement in a co-dependent relationship that you’re not going to do anything to ruffle their feathers and they’re not going to do anything to ruffle ours. There’s an implicit agreement that we’re going to let each other merge.

In every relationship, there is a stage where we lose ourselves in the other person, which is wonderful. It’s only a problem if we lose ourselves and don’t get ourselves back again. We keep the “Do not Disturb” agreement under wraps as part of the early developmental stage, until it doesn’t work for us anymore. When we recognize the toll that it’s taking on us is just too dear, we desire to progress to the next stage of differentiation.

Breaking Free From Co-dependent Patterns

When the time comes to leave this stage behind, it’s important not to judge harshly when we have shaky boundaries, trouble saying “no”, and accommodating too often. It’s commonplace when co-dependent patterns rear up, for people to think, “What is wrong with me? I keep choosing the wrong people” or “What is wrong with him; this is a hopeless case; this relationship is total madness.”

When we see what’s happening that is no longer serving us, it’s important to relate to the need for change with compassion. Instead of putting ourselves down, if we can state, “I’m in this stage of the relationship where I’m up against my edge of fear to make a change, but I WILL make that change.” On the job training is day-by-day making of more conscious choices. We will definitely save ourselves some trouble if we have an agreement with our partner that we will use what the relationship tosses up to work with each other toward the goal of a fulfilling partnership.

What To Do If You Are In A Co-dependent Relationship.

  1. Take the focus off the other and focus on yourself; do your own work.
  2. Practice compassionate self-care.
  3. Find a terrific counselor; maybe your partner will go too.
  4. Take time to be introspective to discover your own truth.
  5. Focus on your personal rights.
  6. You have the right to change your mind at any time.
  7. Let go of the notion of being a victim. Life doesn’t happen to us; we really do have choices. The way out is to recognize the choices that we REALLY have.
  8. You are free to leave if you wish. Affirm that you will survive if the relationship does not make it through the transition.
  9. You have the right to set limits, which helps set boundaries.
  10. You have the right to say “No.”
  11. Once you have boundaries and a sense of self, you CAN have real intimacy.
  12. Share your process with those who will support you sensitively and guide you productively.
  13. Learn more about the values that you adopted in your family of origin. Decide which ones serve you and which ones don’t. Establish your current values and live by them!
  14. Commit yourself to being as responsible for yourself as you possibly can.

The addiction movement called attention to co-dependent patterns, which has had a beneficial effect in showing couples (even those without a partner with an addiction) where they need to grow. But there has been some misinterpretation about healthy dependency and co-dependency. Knowing where our healthy dependency is working on our behalf, and distinguishing it from co-dependency that diminishes our well-being, is every couple’s challenge. We can learn to know the difference.