How do you tackle codependency in your relationship?
I keep meeting clients who have been branded ‘codependent’ and have been shocked into finding out more.
The word ‘codependency’ originated as a description of people living with an addicted person. Codependents were seen as people who were so busy taking care of their addicted loved one that they forgot to take care of themselves.
In more recent times, the definition has grown to describe people who feel great dependence on certain loved ones in their lives and feel disproportionately responsible for the feelings of the other.
As the phrase has moved into popular culture, I hear it being increasingly misused to describe all manner of relational dysfunction. I worry that in that confusion over what codependency means, there is a risk that people who are experiencing it might miss the warning signs and thus the opportunity to take steps to address the problem.
Some simple adjustments to a codependent relationship can help but they can only be made if the problem is noticed in the first place.
The giver and the taker
Codependency is the result of a specific relational dynamic.
An imbalance in the relationship develops, with one person being ‘the giver’ and the other becoming ‘the taker’. The giver assumes responsibility for meeting the taker’s needs to the exclusion of acknowledging their own needs or feelings. The taker accepts it all and often has minimal empathy for the hard work of the giver.
This inequality in relational power can seem exploitative and sinister but in reality, it normally comes from a good place. The giver has good intentions and they just want to help the taker, who is experiencing difficulties. The taker – rather than being selfish – is often wrestling with difficult mental health issues such as addiction, depression and anxiety and struggles to see beyond their challenges.
The problem is that the role of the giver can become compulsive and defeating. The giver can lose sight of their own needs, and their happiness becomes contingent on the mood of the taker. On the flip side, the taker loses the opportunity to take responsibility for their life and fails to develop the resilience and coping skills required to manage their situation.
I worked with a client whose partner was experiencing ongoing depression and crippling anxiety and needed constant reassurance and support. My client was initially happy to provide this but then started to realise – as the demands grew – that they had little life outside of this role and it was compromising their ability to work.
How does codependency develop?
People who become codependent givers tend to be psychologically predisposed to care for others. In common parlance, they are often ‘people pleasers’. These tendencies will have been developed when they were growing up.
As children, they might have been expected to meet the needs of others and this will have been an important ingredient to being accepted and loved by their family. Ultimately, it influences the giver's sense of self – that they can only be loved if they put the needs of others above their own. To this end, they become unable to set personal boundaries and say no to the demands of their partner.
Codependency is not just reserved for romantic relationships. It can develop in parent-child and familial relationships, between friends and even at work. I worked with a client, who despite being a career-oriented adult, still had many of their material and psychological needs met by their mother – who was still very present in their life. Until it was addressed, it made maintaining romantic relationships impossible for my client because it felt to new partners that there were always three people involved.
Not all codependent relationships start that way. Initially, the demands of the taker may seem normal, with the giver enjoying the opportunity show their love and compassion and provide support. But, as the relationship develops, codependents are drawn into providing unhealthy and unsustainable levels of support.
In time, the unhealthy dynamic becomes normalised and increasingly hard to address. The giver can struggle to lower their commitment or remove themselves from the relationship since they experience the other person relying on them so much. The taker often has no incentive to change the situation.
Hallmarks of codependency
A potential codependent giver might feel extreme desire to rescue others and fix their problems. They often flatter others and put them on a pedestal. They don’t like confrontation and would rather please another. They often have little time for themselves.
Once in a codependent relationship, the giver provides support at great personal sacrifice and often with little recognition for their efforts.
The giver often accepts the power imbalance in the relationship and may start seeking permission for them to perform routine tasks, will often back down if there is disagreement and will feel bad about themselves even if it is the other person who is being rude.
When counselling the giver in a codependent relationship, a recurrent theme is that they don’t know who they are anymore. The taker becomes such a dominant part of how they meet and interact with the world that they lose their sense of self.
The first step to challenging codependency is to recognise you have a problem. A person can only do something about it if they realise they are in a codependent relationship.
I worked with a client who was struggling to manage their partner’s demands but was still convinced it was an interdependent relationship. My idea of interdependence is that both partners are working to meet each other's physical and emotional needs in appropriate and meaningful ways. They are connected individuals, clear about their own needs, and able to assert them as required, but are also able to compromise if support for their partner is needed. As we explored interdependence, it became clear to my client that there was little reciprocity in their relationship despite there being a lot of love between them.
My client had been the child of a demanding, alcoholic parent and had taken on significant caring duties from a young age, which they then perpetuated in adult romantic relationships.
Once my client’s self-awareness had grown, we moved on to identifying their personal needs and establishing boundaries to support them.
Identify your needs and values
A person’s needs are their requirements to survive and thrive. Some will be common to all, such as the physical needs of food, drink and warmth. But, others – particularly the psychological – may be more unique and relate to such issues as friendship, love and self-esteem. In a relationship, important emotional needs might be affection, acceptance, trust, validation and empathy.
Values are a conscious choice to act in a certain manner to meet your own needs. They are guiding principles for how a person wants to meet and interact with others and the world. Examples might be equality, justice, kindness, honesty and taking responsibility.
Anyone in a codependent relationship can benefit from working out what their needs and values are. It can help set a direction for how you want to live, and whether that can be accommodated in your current relationship. They are unlikely to include criticism, control, contempt, defensiveness and damaging self-sacrifice.
Knowing what you want allows you to create boundaries around those things that are important to you.
The role of boundaries
Personal boundaries are the rules we set for ourselves within relationships to protect our needs. For example, I might want to be in a relationship with you and spend time together, but I might also need time on my own on a regular basis. Or, I might like you to send me messages on social media when I’m at home, but I don’t want to receive them at work and be expected to respond promptly.
In codependent relationships, there is an absence of boundaries. The giver believes they can only be loved if they meet the needs of their partner. The attitudes of the taker can accentuate this dynamic. If the taker is used to having their material and emotional needs met by another – say by their mother – then they have never learned to take responsibility for themselves and will be only too happy for the giver to provide.
If the taker instinctively extracts as much as possible from their partner, they will threaten the sustainability of their relationship. They need to acknowledge that relationships are not about winning or losing, and learn to explore what’s fair in partnership.
People are good at ignoring relationship problems and suppressing feelings. The best way to discover them is to check in with yourself regularly, and ask the question: ‘How am I feeling inside?’ If you notice feelings of discomfort, sadness and resentment, don’t ignore them. Explore them and try to understand what your feelings are telling you.
How to communicate about boundaries
Talking openly, inclusively and non-defensively is the key to good communication around boundaries.
If your partner does something that you like or don’t like, share your feelings with them. Using ‘I’ statements – rather than ‘you’ statements – helps to get across how you are feeling and encourages empathy. It can be as simple as “I like it when you…” or “I don’t like it when you…”. You may be a more confident sharer than your partner, so if you’re unsure that they are happy with what you are doing, it makes sense to ask the question: “Is it OK when I…”
This can be particularly important when it comes to sexual practices, for example. I worked with a client who couldn’t express to their partner that they didn’t like some of their sexual preferences, which they found aggressive and degrading. They remained silent because they were convinced their partner would leave. Through a process of improved communication and boundary creation they were able to identify and agree on a mutually pleasurable set of sexual practices and maintain a healthy relationship.
The challenge for givers in a codependent relationship is to learn self-respect, while for takers the lesson is about developing respect for others.
The giver, in particular, needs to be assertive around their needs. When a boundary is required, they need to be prepared to say “no” clearly to their partner, explain why and then stick to it. I accept that this may sound easier than it is and that codependent relationships often involve challenging situations with difficult people that can complicate boundary setting. That’s why if you are struggling with codependency issues I would encourage you to seek professional support from a counsellor or psychotherapist.
In a healthier interdependent relationship, there will be some days when one partner gives more than the other, and on others takes more depending on the circumstances. Developing this ability to flex and interact cooperatively, through the use of effective communication, is a hallmark of a loving and sustainable relationship.