The first step towards breaking codependent habits is being able to recognise the signs that you may be in a codependent relationship.
What is Codependency?
Codependency refers to a psychological construct involving an unhealthy relationship that people might share with those closest to them.
It was originally thought to involve families of substance abuse, but has since grown to include other types of dysfunctional relationships. The term ‘codependency’ is often used casually to describe relationships where a person is needy, or dependent upon, another person. However there is much more to this term than a partner being inseparable, clingy or needy.
Codependent relationships are far more pathological and unhealthy.
The person who is codependent will plan their entire life around pleasing their partner. The partner (also referred to as the enabler) often needs to be needed.
The codependent person feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making drastic sacrifices for — the enabler. The enabler gets satisfaction from getting their every need met by the other person. The codependent is only happy when making extreme sacrifices for their partner; they feel they must be needed by this other person to have any purpose. The codependent has no personal identity, interests, or values outside of their codependent relationship.
The enabler’s role is also dysfunctional. A person who relies upon a codependent does not learn how to have an equal, two-sided relationship and often comes to rely upon another person’s sacrifices and neediness.
This circular interpersonal pattern is the basis of what experts refer to when they describe the “cycle” of codependency.
Signs that you might be in a Codependent Relationship
Codependent personalities usually follow a pattern of behaviours that are consistent and problematic. These patterns directly interfere with the codependent’s emotional health and ability to find fulfillment in a relationship.
Some signs of codependency include:
- Experiencing severe difficulty in making decisions in a relationship, and ignoring your own morals or conscience to do what the other person wants.
- Difficulty communicating your needs, feelings and grievances in a relationship.
- Difficulty identifying and acknowledging your own feelings and needs, even feeling guilty about thinking of yourself in the relationship – so will not express any personal needs or desires.
- Finding no satisfaction, joy or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person (enabler).
- Depending on and valuing the approval of others more than valuing yourself.
- An obsessive need for approval from the other party, and fearing abandonment or disappointing the other person. This leads to feelings of anxiety about your relationship due to the desire to always be making the other person happy.
- A poor self-esteem and sense of worth, not trusting or valuing your contribution, and using all your time and energy to give your partner everything they ask for.
- Having an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions and feelings of others.
- Excessive care-taking, controlling, and preoccupation with people and things outside of yourself.
- Staying in the relationship even if you are aware that your partner does hurtful things. Family and/or friends may try to talk to the codependent about their concerns; but even if others suggest that the person is too dependent, a person in a codependent relationship will find it difficult to leave the relationship.
- The codependent person will feel extreme conflict about separating themselves from the enabler, because their own identity is centred upon sacrificing themselves for the other person.
How did I become Codependent?
Once people recognise that they have codependent traits, they often begin to wonder where these tendencies came from.
While the answers aren’t the same for everyone, for most people it begins in childhood. Young children are extremely impressionable, and don’t have the cognitive abilities or life experiences to realise that the relationships they are seeing and experiencing aren’t healthy; that their parents aren’t always right; that parents lie and manipulate and lack the skills to provide a secure attachment.
The main reason behind codependency is often a dysfunctional family in which the codependent was raised. Research has shown that the parents of codependents are unable to meet the emotional needs of their children when they are growing up. These parents lack the emotional capacity due to their own challenges at the time, and are emotionally disconnected from their children. They are unable to give the time, love and care their children need, and so codependents develop their own means to survive, without any kind of support from their parents.
In reaction to the emotional neglect, the codependent concludes that their own needs, feelings and problems do not matter, and learn to ignore them.
If they have any needs, they learn to suppress them. In some circumstances these children even fear that if they express their feelings or needs, they might be punished for it. They might conclude that having feelings and needs contributes to their parents’ discontent, suffering and disengagement. As a result, such children learn to suppress their own feelings and needs and ultimately, by the time they grow up, they completely disconnect from them.
The codependent starts feeling responsible for whatever their parents are feeling, and how they are treating their child. Children start feeling that somewhere they are responsible for what their parents are going through. It is this very behaviour that is carried forward into all their future relationships ie being responsible for others, while ignoring one’s own feelings!
In these types of families, the child may be taught to focus on the parent’s needs and to never think of themselves. Needy parents may teach their children that children are selfish or greedy if they want anything for themselves. As a result, the child learns to ignore their own needs and thinks only of what they can do for others at all times. These situations cause gaps in the child’s emotional development, leading them to seek out codependent relationships later.
Codependency may also result from caring for a person who is chronically ill or disabled. Being in the role of caregiver, especially at a young age, may result in the young person neglecting their own needs and developing a habit of only helping others. A person’s self-worth may form around being needed by another person and receiving nothing in return.
Children that grow up in abusive families might learn to repress their feelings as a defense mechanism against the pain of abuse. As an adult, this learned behaviour results in caring only about another’s feelings and not acknowledging their own needs. Sometimes a person who is abused will seek out abusive relationships later because they are only familiar with this type of relationship. This often manifests in codependent relationships.
Breaking Codependent Habits
Many feel that they will lose who they are if they are not codependent. However, that’s not usually the case.
In reality, we become more ourselves when we are less of what others expect from us. Breaking codependent habits is a huge gift we can give to ourselves — the victory of growing away from it will balance out our responsibility to ourselves and to others.
The key to repairing and ending codependency is to start protecting and nurturing yourself. That might sound like a selfish act, but it will return you to a place of balance. Others will come to understand that you now respect and are protecting yourself from over-commitment or abuse; and if they don’t understand, they may not be someone who is open to growth in their own relationships.
A person can learn to become less codependent and regain a sense of self and independence in their own lives, however it usually takes working with a therapist to effectively do this, since the behaviours of codependency were learned over many years and are deeply ingrained. It takes both time and practice to apply healthy behaviours.
Individual or group therapy may be beneficial, since it encourages the person to explore their feelings and behaviours as an individual outside of the relationship.
People in codependent relationships may need to take small steps toward some separation in the relationship, such as finding a hobby or activity they enjoy outside of the relationship. A codependent person should try to also spend some time with supportive family members or friends.
Codependents who were abused will need to recognise past abuse and start to feel their own needs and emotions again.
Breaking codependent habits in your relationship will also mean that the enabler needs to realise that they are not helping their partner by allowing them to make extreme sacrifices.
Through communication training, assertiveness and creating healthy boundaries, both the codependent and enabler can learn how to break these habits and create positive change in their relationship.
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
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