Why is breaking codependency so important for your mental health and the health of your relationship? To address this question, I want you to imagine you’re on a see-saw with your partner. But instead of the fun of swinging up in the air and the excitement of a ‘touchdown’ with a thud, what if you either stay stuck up in the air or remain grounded throughout? What if the positions never change?
Well, obviously the see-saw wouldn’t be fun anymore. In fact, after a while, it would feel painful and immensely boring too. Your legs would hurt, your fingers might feel sore and your heart would surely not feel the joy anymore. This is exactly what codependency in a relationship feels like – painful, lopsided, boring, unfair, and with no excitement whatsoever. Codependent relationships are when one partner is always the “caretaker” and the other partner is forever the “taker”. Such relationships are dysfunctional and can become healthy only if the partners decide on breaking codependency.
Codependency in relationships is a complex problem with research showing that its origin often stems from childhood experiences and dysfunctional families. To shed light on this complex relationship dynamic, Swaty Prakash, a communication coach with certification in Managing Emotions in Times of Uncertainty and Stress from Yale University and a PG Diploma in Counseling and Family Therapy, writes about the signs and symptoms of codependent relationships, and the steps to breaking free of codependency in relationships.
What Is Codependency?
Relationships can be tricky. The perfect recipe for a near-perfect relationship is when partners are in a healthy symbiotic relationship where they both give and take, have healthy boundaries, and can function together but are not helpless alone either.
One of the main codependency symptoms is that this balance is missing and scales are tipped in favor of one partner. In a codependent relationship, one partner’s needs and desires take up all the space, and the other partner, with an urge to be needed, exhausts all their love and energy in taking care of them. What is at stake is their own physical and mental health and their own needs.
Such codependent symptoms are often seen in relationships involving people with drug or alcohol addiction. A partner with addictive behavior looks fragile, and the other partner feels responsible for their well-being. They brush aside their own needs and start piecing together the one who’s broken. It all looks healthy and with good intentions in the beginning. This, however, changes soon when the caretaker’s own needs start to fade, and becomes a one-sided relationship.
Research that compared wives of addicts with normal women found that the former showed more agreeability and adapted more for marital stability than their counterparts in normal marital bonds. In short, codependency meaning boils down to a lop-sided relationship where one partner becomes practically invisible.
Codependent behavior doesn’t stem in a vacuum. A lot of people who show signs of codependency have grown up in families where one or both parents either have drug or alcohol addiction or are missing due to other reasons. They could be busy making ends meet, suffering from severe mental or physical health issues, fighting addictions and substance abuse issues, or something else that took most of their time. Children in such dysfunctional families often grow up walking on eggshells, neglecting their own care, and instead taking care of others’ needs to feel wanted and worthy.
More often than not, children with parent(s) who had issues with substance abuse or were alcohol-addicted grow up with codependent behavior patterns. Even as children, they would feel responsible for their parent’s actions. Quite early in life, they had learned that to placate their angry parents, they needed to either be the enabler of their addiction, their punching bags or become invisible. This fear of being abused, neglected, or not loved remains rooted in them even as adults, and they often don’t have a clue about how to break codependency habits.
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7 Signs You’re in A Codependent Relationship
One of the hallmarks of a codependent relationship is the vicious cycle that exists between the caretaker and the taker. While one partner needs someone to take care of them, the other partner wants to be needed.
Before discussing how to stop being codependent, it is important to understand the psychology behind it. Psychologists find that most codependent relationships are between a partner who has an anxious attachment style and one who has an avoidant attachment style.
People with an anxious attachment style are often needy and with low self-esteem. Studies suggest that people with this attachment style live with a fear of abandonment and often feel that they are unworthy of love. They become the caretakers to feel worthy and important in the relationship.
On the other hand, those with an avoidant attachment style are individuals who score high on self-esteem but quite low on emotional quotient. They feel uncomfortable with too much intimacy and are almost always ready with an exit plan. Ironically, the ones with an exit plan usually hold the reins of the relationship while the anxious ones always let the others control them.
Oftentimes, much before the partners, people around them sense this skewed power dynamics in a codependent relationship. It is only when the caregiver is exhausted and feels empty that they realize that they are in an unhealthy relationship and think of breaking codependency. Here are a few signs to look for if you are in a codependent relationship.
1. There is a lack of genuine communication
In a codependent relationship, the caregiver is often a people pleaser. They feel compelled to say things to placate or please their partner. On the other hand, the taker is always on the defensive and never wants to share their true feelings. Research shows that the takers in codependent relationships often exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors. While they are overly
2. Exaggerated sense of responsibility
In a codependent relationship, the caretaker often takes complete responsibility for the other person and this is often the only way they feel fulfilled. It is definitely a codependent behavior pattern, if:
- You feel excessively responsible for your partner’s well-being
- You think your partner can’t take care of themselves
- You are sure that you need to save them, even from themselves
- You jump to help them, even if they haven’t asked for help
- You feel hurt if they seem to function without your assistance
If you identify with these behavior patterns, it is time to ask yourself, “Am I codependent?”
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3. Saying “no” is not an option
Do you ever feel like you would be loved less if you refused to fulfill any of your partners’ demands? Do you find it extremely difficult to say “no” even if that is what your heart wants?
In relationships with codependent patterns, the partner’s need to fit in every situation to feel loved, liked, and accepted is so huge that they almost dissolve their own identity in an effort to merge. Selma, a participant in a study on codependency experiences, said, “… it is like the chameleon, you know, trying to fit in with every situation rather than allowing myself to be who I am…”.
4. Taking time out for yourself feels selfish
Codependent partners do not know how to prioritize themselves. Someone with codependent tendencies often:
- Spend all their time taking care of their partners’ needs
- Don’t ever list their own needs as a priority
- Feel guilty if they have time for self-care
Meanwhile, the other partner may show resentment, and even make them feel guilty for “not taking care of them” or “abandoning them”. A vicious circle that doesn’t let them break codependency habits!
5. Codependents are often worriers and anxious
Codependents are constantly worrying because they tend to be attracted to people who need support, care, protection, and self-regulation. Besides, codependent personalities are often confused about the status of their relationship.
With no genuine communication between the partners and the absolute lack of respect and absence of healthy boundaries, the codependent relationship is always on tenterhooks. To add to the woes, codependent partners feel a lack of balance in life, feel emotionally unstable, and always live in the fear that they are not good enough.
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6. Leaving the partner is not a choice
Research shows that despite all the stress and unworthiness that comes with such relationships, codependent personalities are often not willing to call it quits. Psychologists say that codependency is the worst form of addiction, with partners being addicted to being looked at as martyrs or victims. Besides, the fear of never finding love again or the deep-rooted belief of being “unworthy” makes it almost impossible for the codependent partners to step out of the relationship.
Every time someone tries to convince them that they are in an unhealthy relationship, the codependent partners often use the phrase, “I know but…”. This “but” is what stops them from giving up or calling it quits.
7. Codependent partners can’t take decisions alone
Those with codependent habits are also always walking on eggshells. Validation from their partners and a constant need to be told that they are not wrong plague their self-confidence and hits their decision-making abilities hard.
- Don’t trust their skills
- Are fearful of making wrong decisions
- Are scared of offending their partners with their decisions
- Always want someone to validate their decisions
- Can only enjoy life if they are the givers
11 Expert-Backed Tips For Breaking Codependency In Relationship
Once you realize that you are in a codependent relationship, the next questions are – is breaking the cycle of codependency possible, and can you heal from codependency? Yes, there are ways of breaking free of codependency. But the process of breaking codependency patterns is a long one and needs a lot of self-care. Take the case of Grace and Richard, discussed by counseling psychotherapist Dr. Nicholas Jenner.
Grace and Richard were married for thirty years. Richard was a covert narcissist and knew all the textbook tricks to manipulate Grace. Grace, on the other hand, displayed full-blown codependent behaviors. She often confused her sacrifices and martyrdom with her love for the family.
An otherwise timid person with no self-esteem, she used her enabling attitude to exert power and control over the family, or this is what she thought. In reality, Richard was manipulating her, and letting her control the family only as much as he wanted.
Due to his addiction, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous but soon left the group. He had multiple affairs, but every time Grace questioned him, he blamed her for everything, including his attraction to other women. Due to her codependent tendencies, Grace felt guilt for everything, including her husband’s many affairs.
When their only son left home after graduation, Grace suffered from empty nest syndrome. With Richard becoming a recluse and hardly being home, and with the son gone, she started showing signs of anxiety and depression. Even though she didn’t know the real issue, her gut wanted her to break codependency habits.
They realized the need for professional intervention and went into therapy. Grace soon realized her codependent symptoms. Now that she could see the patterns, she wanted to know how to break codependent habits. The recovery process was long and often difficult for her to see her own demons but she ultimately decided to separate from Richard and is now living her life as a successful businesswoman.
Since a lot of these relationships involve an addict and only worsen with time, the fears of a codependent relationship turning abusive and violent are very real. Breaking codependency habits is difficult but absolutely important. So if you are wondering how to stop being codependent, research proves that resilience and self-reliance are vital. Here are eleven ways in which you can break codependency and heal.
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1. Question your intentions, ask tough questions
It all starts with you. If after reading the codependency symptoms, you have asked yourself, “Am I codependent?”, you now know where you stand. Don’t brush off the symptoms because introspecting yourself makes you uncomfortable. It can also help you if you’re wondering how to break codependent habits.
Sit back and look at your behavioral patterns over the years. Codependency is an acquired behavior that often begins in early childhood. To begin with, ask yourself these questions. They are just about you, and you need to answer them honestly to know yourself:
- As a child, did I have to fend for my own emotions?
- As a child, was I the one everyone looked after or was it the other way round?
- Was I always drawn to people who needed help and care?
- Am I scared that one day I might not be needed by anyone?
- Do I love myself or pity my existence?
- Do I like being in the position of enabler?
There are hordes of questions you can ask. But with every question, there might be an emotional upheaval so start slow, but be honest. If the answer to all or most of these questions is an ugly, in-your-face “yes”, it is time to accept that you are in a codependent relationship, and it is time to break free from this toxic relationship pattern.
2. Stop feeling overly responsible for your partner
Remember the character of Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride? She constantly changed her needs and preferences based on her partners’ needs. So much so that no one even knew what kind of eggs she actually liked! Well, let your partner know what your preferences are, and tell them if you like your eggs sunny side up or scrambled. The point is, be unapologetic about your needs. Don’t feel:
- Guilty about having different choices
- Fearful that you would be loved less if you voiced your own feelings
- Like you have failed if you can’t fix their problems
- Responsible for their flaws, failures, or feelings
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3. Learn to express your wants and needs
Your codependent relationship involves you as the giver and the partner as the taker. Once the acceptance of your codependent behavior is in place (it will keep swaying between acceptance and confusion for a long time), it is time to initiate honest communication with your partner.
So far, you have always said what you thought they wanted to hear, or what you believed would keep you in control, and out of trouble. But not anymore. Let them know that you cannot and would not be an enabler of their addiction/behavior anymore. Here are some ways to put across your thoughts.
- Use “I” statements: Instead of putting them in the picture, share your thoughts and feelings using “I” statements. For example, “I feel tied down working 24*7”, “I feel alone taking care of everything”, or “I want some time to meet my needs” are some statements you can use to convey that you want to build healthy relationship patterns
- Don’t get in the blame game: Be prepared to have a tough conversation. Instead of blaming them for your codependency symptoms, talk about solutions. For example, if you are living with an alcoholic partner and you have been an enabler all these years, say, “I am here for you but I can’t help you with everything”
- Tell them what you want: It is important that you let your partner know the picture you have in your mind. In clear, honest terms, let them know what you expect from the relationship. It is not as easy as it sounds. Your partner has spent all these years as per their notion and whims, so you telling them what you want will not be taken kindly. But be firm, honest, and clear.
4. Make yourself the priority
Codependent partners spend so long taking care of others’ needs and fitting into their reality that they have an extremely blurred self-identity. When breaking the cycle of codependency, it is important that you work on rebuilding your “self”.
Self-care and self-love are the two magic tools that can boost a person’s sense of self. When was the last time you called up your friends and made a dinner plan? When did you last order food that you loved or watched a musical concert you always eye but never plan?
It is time to do all this and much more. To break the cycle of codependency, you need to make yourself a priority. Remember the saying, “Be your own superhero and save yourself”? Well, you need to do exactly that.
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5. Let others make their own choices
Over the years, codependent partners take up everyone’s responsibilities and tasks. To break the codependent cycle, it is necessary that you take off these invisible hats and let your partner and other family members make their own choices.
You would feel hurt when you realize that “you aren’t needed anymore”, but this is exactly what is required. You need to step out of the enmeshed relationships and establish boundaries clearly. So instead of compulsively trying to fix things for others or making choices for them, allow them to make their own choices.
6. Ask for help
Asking for help should be easy, isn’t it? Well, ask someone who displays codependent behaviors and they would tell you how their vocal cords get twisted and stomachs churn if they ever need to seek help. People with codependent tendencies are already shadowed by their own sense of worthlessness. If they are in a situation where they need help, they feel that all their fears have come true, and they are now exposed.
They feel that by being in a place of need, they are letting their partners know how incapable they are. If you are someone with such thoughts, remind yourself that asking for help needs strength. To be in a vulnerable state requires an immense sense of self-worth. Also, a lot of narrative around this fear is often more perceptual than real.
7. Establish healthy boundaries
Codependent people often suffer from abuse because they are not able to set firm and healthy boundaries and let people intrude into their space time and again. Because they tend to be neither assertive nor confident, people with codependent tendencies are not able to set limits for others. So, establishing healthy boundaries with your partner is an important step to codependency healing.
Set boundaries for a healthy relationship in a calm state of mind. And remember,
- Don’t be apologetic or over-rationalize when setting boundaries
- Even if your partner doesn’t approve of it, do it anyway
- Ensure that there is no ambiguity or soft ends in your boundaries
- Make sure to not overstep yourself and confuse others
- Make it about your partner too. While setting boundaries for yourself, you need to talk them into setting their own too
There are no important or insignificant boundaries, only healthy and unhealthy ones. For example, if you want to set a boundary that you wouldn’t lie to your family members or your partners’ family about their drinking habits, be clear about it. Tell them that you wouldn’t fall into the guilt trap anymore and wouldn’t cover for them.
Related Reading: 10 Biggest Priorities In A Relationship
8. Let go of the past
Codependent people often have had a difficult childhood, devoid of much care and riddled with difficult situations. A continuous sense of helplessness, along with the constant need to be loved, can leave a lasting impact on anyone. So, be kind to yourself and let go of your past.
Let yourself know through self-talk and positive relationship affirmations that you are worthy, and how others treated you is a reflection of who they are, and not you. So, whether your parent/s were unavailable due to high-demanding jobs, or their addiction, or because they were physically or mentally incapable – none of it was your fault yet you had to bear the consequences.
Be kind to your childhood, maybe write a letter to your younger self to calm them down, and move on. Till you have understood and accepted your worth, you wouldn’t be able to heal from codependency.
9. Don’t judge yourself
Codependents are one of their own biggest critics. They are constantly judging their own actions or inactions and blaming themselves for even wanting to change their behavior.
As psychologists, we often tell our clients to be a little less harsh on themselves and not judge their every move. Some things to tell yourself every day:
- I am a good person and I do what I feel is the best
- I cannot control every situation and every result
- I am capable of taking decisions
- Result does not decide if a decision is good or bad
- I don’t need validation from others to believe in myself
- I will be kind to myself
- How I treat myself decides how others will treat me
Related Reading: Making Peace With Your Past – 13 Wise Tips
10. Imagine your loved one in your shoes
The answers you are looking for are often within the folds of your own experiences and wisdom. But finding those answers there is a huge task. If you have realized that you are in a codependent relationship and want to know how to heal, there is a simple yet very effective exercise we recommend.
Close your eyes and imagine your nearest or most loved one in your shoes. Imagine them doing things exactly as you do, and being treated exactly the way you are treated by your partner. Watch them go through the life that you are living now. Think of an especially potent incident around codependency, and imagine them there.
Did you open your eyes almost in a split second? Did you feel totally incapable of watching them as you? Were you in a hurry to open your eyes and felt grateful that it was just your imagination? Your answer to these is probably a “yes”. So, think of what you would have advised them or wanted them to do. That is your cue to move forward too.
11. Seek help from friends, peer support group
Oftentimes, much before codependent people realize their shortcomings as a giver, their friends and well-wishers sense it. It is important to listen to these people, talk to them, and let them help you. Tell them about your action plan, and ask them to facilitate it for you if they can. Remember, don’t suffer in silence anymore.
Besides, it is important to have a safe space and peers you can talk to, without the fear of being judged and with the comfort of being understood. There are codependent peer groups as well – for instance, like Alcoholics Anonymous for addicts, there is Al-Anon for the families – to help in the recovery process. Sometimes, pulling each other up is one of the best ways for self-healing too. Also knowing that you are not the only one to feel this way can be one of the first steps to healing.
- Codependent relationship is when one partner’ needs take up all the space, while the other partner takes up the role of caretaker
- The giver feels the need to be needed and puts their own needs and interests aside while taking care of others
- Codependency is an acquired behavior often seen in people with a difficult childhood
- Spouses of people with addiction issues often become the enabler of their partners and feel “worthy” and “needed” while doing so
- Codependent partners have very low self-esteem and such relationships often become abusive
By now, you must have understood if you have codependent tendencies. It is important to remember that codependency is an acquired behavior, and with consistent as well as mindful methods, breaking codependency is possible, and important. There is ample professional help around. With talk therapy as well as help from friends and self, breaking free from this vicious cycle of codependency is possible. All you need to do is have the self-confidence and strength to put your needs above others, for once.
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