What is a codependent relationship?
If you have had the thought that perhaps you or a loved one are involved in a codependent relationship, chances are you first asked the question: “What is a codependent relationship?” Maybe the term has been thrown around in your workplace or at the dinner table one too many times and made you raise an eyebrow.
Relationships can be complicated. How do you know if yours is codependent? A codependent relationship is defined as some kind of reliance on a partner, friend, or family member, be it mental, physical, emotional or spiritual. In most cases, some aspect of one’s identity and/or emotional state is excessively attached to the health or dysfunction of the relationship. People in codependent relationships feel a personal responsibility for the physical, mental or emotional condition of the other.
Codependent relationships can be recognized by these signs:
- Inability to set or maintain boundaries;
- Tendency to make or demand unreasonable sacrifices to fulfill small requests;
- Constant emphasis on “focusing on the good” in the other person;
- Hope of future change or improvement of toxic behaviors;
- Conflict avoidance or tiptoeing around topics;
- Inability to resolve issues independently;
- Perceived pressure to ask or demand permission about insignificant matters;
- Guilty feeling in taking time away from the relationship;
- Jealousy on the part of one or both parties;
- Resistance to commit to the relationship;
- Controlling behaviors.
In summary, codependent relationships are characterized primarily by a lack of freedom experienced by one or both people. Many people only think of codependency in the context of romantic relationships, but relationships of all kinds can become codependent. Some examples are as follows:
- Parent to child;
- Partner to partner;
- Employer to employee;
- Friend to friend;
- Family member to family member;
- Drug user to drug user;
- Drug user to non-drug user.
If you identify with these signs and situational possibilities, you should know that you are not alone in this experience. Codependency is a slippery slope but there is hope for every situation.
Codependency and abuse
As mentioned in the above list of recognizable behaviors, codependency is often characterized by control and lack of freedom. This can very easily develop into patterns of emotional or physical abuse or manipulation. Whether the abuser’s tactics are subtle or extreme, the abuse-apology-forgiveness cycle tends to consume the victim’s mental and emotional energies, building trauma-based bonding.
Substance abuse can likewise cultivate a cycle of codependency that is difficult to break. Particularly in cases of addiction, the non-addictive party assumes some sort of responsibility for the healing and rehabilitation of the addicted person. The addicted person can in turn, as a way to cope with his or her own burdens, place that burden or attempt to place that burden upon the non-addictive person.
Can a codependent relationship be saved?
While many codependent relationships will warrant a complete separation for the health and happiness of everyone involved, you may find yourself in a relationship that is not so easy to walk away from. Perhaps the relationship in question is one to a spouse with whom you share children, or a parent whose health is failing but you desire not to neglect. You should know that there are indeed strategies for cultivating a healthier relationship, but they are not for the faint of heart.
The main principle to keep in mind here is that independent growth must precede collaborative growth. The fact of the matter is, that in order to be a healthy functioning individual one must be in control of his or her emotions, decisions, and lifestyle choices. Both parties must be committed to working through their own “issues” before addressing the problems in the relationship together. Each person must learn to be independent and stand on their own two feet before they can support the weight of another.
Healing a toxic relationship will require many radical changes, with two basic essentials, namely: taking space from the other person, and doing intensive counseling work both individually and as a couple. Be prepared to take a significant amount of time and effort to unlearn toxic communication patterns and build healthy ones.
Tips for leaving a codependent relationship
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, a codependent relationship is too toxic for saving.
Here are some ideas for how to take your efforts and energies elsewhere:
- Stop making excuses for yourself or the other person;
- Keep a log of toxic behaviors and their frequency to remind yourself of the unhealthy cycle when things “don’t seem so bad;”
- Stand up for yourself;
- Make a commitment to yourself that you can’t break;
- Build physical or technological boundaries, like filing for a restraining order or blocking their phone number.
- Break emotional and spiritual ties to this person through symbolic practices such as burning a photograph or letter.
The decision to free yourself from the trapping attachment to a toxic individual may be the most important decision you’ve ever made.
Now what? How to recover from a toxic relationship
One common root of codependent relationships is a lack of self-esteem. Self-esteem can be cultivated in many different ways:
- Examine the lies that you (or others) have instilled in your mind, and challenge them;
- Make a list of things you like about yourself;
- Practice setting and maintaining boundaries;
- Create something artistic;
- Do hard things — set goals and conquer them.
2. Surround yourself with loving people.
After months, or even years, of practicing toxic habits and internalizing negative dialogue surrounding a codependent relationship, it might take more than your own voice in your head to find encouragement. With the help and support of loving friends and family, you will emerge from periods of sadness faster and more smoothly than trying to manage this transition on your own.
3. Build healthy habits.
Sometimes we all need a reminder that our happiness is important and we are worth caring for. Try working these activities into your daily routine to restructure a life filled with positivity and balance:
- Healthy eating;
- Time with friends;
- Alone time;
- Healthy stress management;