How to navigate a codependent relationship
Codependency is a concept that is very often overused and misused in the relationship context. The current world where there is access to the internet and social media, has meant that certain concepts (buzzwords) get used carelessly, and are applied incorrectly. Millennials and Generation Zs have very different life experiences to generations before them, who grew up without technology, and pre-social media. Through social media, these newer generations tend to be very conscious of their mental health and well-being, and they are more explorative in terms of sexuality, gender, and alternative types of relationships outside the traditional monogamous realm.
Through social media, pop psychology and pop psychologists become real and contagious. This paradigm shift has also meant certain psychological concepts get thrown about, and at times this becomes harmful. People tend to self-diagnose, which is problematic and unhealthy.
As a therapist who works with individual clients and couples, l have on numerous occasions been asked by clients, family, or friends what codependency means. People often enquire whether l think their relationship or their parents’ relationship is (or was) codependent.
When I ask what their understanding of codependency is, it’s very clear that the meaning is skewed, and there are inconsistencies in what it means for different people. This concept needs attention, and exploring what distinguishes a codependent relationship from a healthy relationship is necessary.
A healthy relationship is nourishing and helps us grow, while codependent relationships are emotionally depleting and exhausting.
What defines a healthy relationship?
Healthy relationships are made up of two individuals, who are both emotionally mature, and interdependent. Using metaphor, they are pouring into each other’s cup - a synergetic couple, which is continuously enriching each other’s lives. Each partner can self-define in the relationship, and outside the relationship. There is an awareness of unique needs subjectively, and the partner having unique needs.
Having a definition also means that there are boundaries which are firm and permeable, in service of the relationship. Each partner can self-validate, and self-soothe. This means they don’t get consumed by emotions, and collapse during conflict. Conflict does not mean a catastrophe. They use the relationship as a source of nurturance while nurturing each other, and the relationship itself.
What defines a codependent relationship?
In a codependent relationship, there is no self-definition in one or both partners. The couple experiences each other as one entity. They are in a state of symbiosis. According to Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson (1988), this symbiosis is either a hostile dependent one “I hate you, but l can’t live without you” type, or enmeshed “we are so in love with each other, and we are the same”.
In the hostile dependent relationship, this is a couple that fights all the time, yet they stay together even though it hurts. On the other extreme, the enmeshed couple is conflict-avoidant, even though it hurts. They do whatever they can to keep the peace and not rock the boat. This is defensive.
In any codependent dynamic, each partner is unable to self-validate and needs the other to create an identity and a definition of the self. The commonality in these two types of symbiotic states (hostile dependent and enmeshed) is that there is no definition and no boundaries. The couple is locked in a state of merger; according to Bader and Pearson (1988) just like a newborn baby and the mother. There is no growth as there is no space for it. The reason why it becomes a codependent dynamic is that there are two people who are co-creating this dynamic. They both play a role, need each other, and have a function for each other.
Developmental milestones and developmental arrests
Taking a developmental approach, Bader and Pearson (1988) view a relationship as an entity, which evolves in the same fashion as a newborn baby, who must achieve specific developmental milestones. The initial stage of a relationship is symbiotic, which is necessary for the couple to fall in love, bond, and meet the attachment needs.
This is akin to the baby in a state of merger with the mother, unaware of her as a unique being, with needs. However, the baby needs to separate from the mother and develop an awareness of the mother as a separate entity. The couple needs to be able to do the same and succeed in this process of individuation.
The couple who remains in the symbiotic state is in the same primitive stage of early infancy (Klein, 1946), where the baby has no sense of separateness from the mother. The baby needs to reach certain milestones and develop the awareness that mother is a separate entity who has her own needs and feelings- she is a human being, she gets hungry, she needs to eat as well, she has feelings etc.-the couple has to do the same.
This state of individuation is what enables the partners to grow and recognise each other’s needs, and create a definition of “l”, “you” and “we”. When this developmental task has not been achieved, the couple’s development is arrested, and they remain stuck in the symbiotic stage, where they are in the throes of codependency.
Codependency in action
Due to the lack of definition in the codependent dynamic, the subjective needs of one or both partners are neither acknowledged nor met, since the focus is on “us”, “we”. There is no sense of “l” and boundaries do not exist. This situation creates a dynamic where one or both partners start trying to control and manipulate each other in order to have their needs met, while maintaining this state of oneness. There is a push-pull and emotional manipulation. Controlling each other does not work because there are two different people, with different needs. They simply can’t define them individually.
When our needs are not met, it’s natural to start building anger which turns to resentment. Resentment is an overflowing bank of anger, which has been unprocessed for a long time. For the hostile dependent codependent couple, this culminates into anger outbursts and destructive cycles of arguments, verbal fights, physical fights, silent treatment etc. For the nonfighting, conflict-avoidant enmeshed couple, they will pretend that nothing is happening, while their resentment is amplified. This codependent dynamic is very difficult to break as both partners are unconsciously caught up in a vicious cycle and play each role very well. It serves both partners because they are fearful of abandonment.
It is vital to keep in mind that these are unconscious dynamics. Some couples are aware of their emotional dependency on each other, and they do not want to confront it, while others come to therapy because the dependency becomes too painful. Other couples are not aware of their codependency until they come to either couples therapy or individual therapy.
The psychodynamics of codependency
The primary drive of codependency is fear of abandonment. Fear of abandonment is fundamentally related to our drive for survival. Our ancestors lived in batches because they looked out for each other. Abandonment meant death; being mauled by wild animals. The very primitive part of our being seeks safety everywhere and, in relationships, the need for safety becomes even more amplified.
In a codependent dynamic, the phantasy is that “If I assert my needs, he/she will leave me” and “If he/she leaves, l won’t survive”. Since safety is an innate need, unconsciously when there is an impending threat of abandonment, our sense of safety is threatened and one feels incredibly vulnerable. Therefore, symbiosis is for safety reasons, yet it’s also unhealthy as it means we do not grow. It's stifling as in reality it turns into neediness, control, and other obsessive behaviours.
People with anxious attachment styles (Bowlby, 1969) are likely to end up in codependent relationships. These people often lack self-esteem and have a very fragile sense of self. The relationship itself gives them a definition, and they don’t have any other definition outside the relationship.
If the relationship ever breaks down, these people will struggle to recover because their sense of self is very much anchored in that relationship, and they need their partner to make them feel whole. As children, their parents were inconsistent in how they emotionally responded to them. Keeping a close distance becomes their way of mitigating the abandonment threat and staying safe.
Ways to navigate a codependent relationship
To identify whether or not you are in a codependent relationship, the initial questions you need to ask yourself are:
- “Can I be with my partner without losing myself?”
- “Who am l, outside this relationship?”
- “When does giving become depleting myself and neglecting myself.”
- “When does giving become an entitlement from my partner?”
- “Am l whole without my partner?”
Move on to exploring whether you go into patterns of extreme highs and lows with your partner. Reflect on whether you can assert your needs from a subjective place of “l”. How is this received, and do you feel safe?
Ask yourself whether your feelings and needs are acknowledged. Then start by identifying what you want in the relationship that you are not getting, and what feels like a sacrifice for your happiness. Learn to assert your needs and feelings from a subjective place of “l want”, “l feel”, “l need”…
If you think you are in an unhealthy codependent relationship, seek help from a qualified couples therapist or individual therapist who will help you explore your situation and work through it. Many couples move from being in a codependent relationship to having a healthy interdependent relationship through doing the work in therapy. A lot of it is related to our early wounding around abandonment and rejection.
Bader, E., Pearson, P. (1988). In Quest of the Mythical Mate: A Developmental Approach To Diagnosis And Treatment In Couples Therapy. London: Routledge
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Klein, M. (1946). Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 99-110.