How to Overcome Codependency and Save Your Relationships

November 19, 2023

We can be quick to pathologize dependency in relationships. We see independence as the chief quality to achieve in our relationships and if somebody claims to not need anybody else, we see them as somebody who must have secure relationships. As if not caring about staying connected to family members or ever having concern about a friend leaving the friendship is a good thing. I believe this is a learned behavior and conditioned societal standard for fear that if we do not gain a high sense of independence, ewe will be exhibiting codependent traits.

However, in order for health relationships to exists, we need to engage in some level of dependence. Where we are aware of our own needs and recognize that choosing to get those needs met in another person is something that leads to healthy relationships. The best way to describe this is with the word "interdependence."

Having an interdependent relationship is not the same as having a codependent relationship. Similarly, having a relationship of antidependence is another example of having an unhealthy relationship. There are certainly definitions of interdependence that have some more clinical jargon, but to break it down into layman's terms I like to go with the following:

Interdependence: The ability to be really close to you while holding completely onto me.

I love this definition because it balances both having a full sense of self while recognizing that it is good to have needs of others. I believe that the ability to hold this balance is something that we are born with.Three year olds have some of the greatest confidence in the world while recognizing that they cannot meet all of their own needs. My three year old tries to do literally everything for himself and is so proud whenever he accomplishes it. But he’s also not afraid to express his emotions and seek emotional support from my wife and myself.

Signs of Codependency

Let’s recognize right off the bat that we all have codependent tendencies. Nobody is free of exhibiting some unhealthy behaviors in relationships and we are going for progress over perfection.

One of the biggest signs of codependent individuals is “I feel what you feel.” Codependent people have such a hard time allowing someone to feel a particular emotional experience without also taking on that emotional experience. When we are in a cycle of codependency we are not able to separate out that somebody is having their own experience and that the relationship is not in peril each time

Leading into this, another sign we experience is unhealthy boundaries, which I like to use a similar definition that we use for codependent patterns.

In healthy boundaries I tell you who I am. In poor boundaries I let you tell me who I am. When we are engaged in more codependent behaviors we might look to our romantic partner to "tell us who we are." Although this does not necessarily only show up in romantic relationships. We can have codependent relationships we people in our family of origin or are friends. People can often swing to the other side of the fence when they try to set boundaries, but really end up erecting a rigid walled off portion of themselves. Boundaries are not walls and remember, we are seeking after interdependence. It is good to take into account how we affect other people and receive feedback from others. I believe that when we are in our healthier relationships we are able to slow this process down quite a bit more.

Let's take two ways of looking at the same example. You are meeting a friend for lunch but end up being late because traffic is bad. You arrive and your friend tells you how you're being really inconsiderate for not respecting their time.

A codependent, without boundaries response might look something like this: "You're right, I'm so awful and a horrible friend. I don't know why I am treating you so poorly."
An antidependent, walled off response might look something like this: "Well if you can't wait for me for a few minutes then maybe we shouldn't be friends anymore."  

I find that a lot of people believe that the second response, even though it is rude, shows a higher sense of self worth. You know that you should be given grace to some extent and are fine leaving the relationship if is causing you stress, and we do this all in the name of healthier boundaries. But this response reeks of antidependence, which again is not what we are trying to achieve.

An interdependent, boundaried response might look something like this.

You take a moment to check in with your body about how that assertion is sitting with you. You recount in your head if you are consistently late and are able to do an accurate of appraisal if this is something that needs addressing in your life. Additionally, you are able to appraise the other person a bit more and question if they are bringing some of their own stress into the relationship. Is this a hot button issue for your friend? Is there a good reason for that? After putting this all into the equation, you might come up with something like this: "You're right, I was late and that was inconvenient for you to have to wait for me. Thanks for your patience and I apologize for not being here on time. I value this friendship and hope that you can see that even with me not being on time."

If you are noticing that this last portion was quite a bit longer than the first one, that's because it is, and for good reason. In order to break out of habits of codependency or antidependence, we need to be able to slow the process down enough to check in with what's going on in our body and not have a walled off or without boundaries response.

Additionally, when we are engaged in good adult relationships, we allow the other person to have their own response and reaction to the information that we gave them. Perhaps your friend is not okay with that response and does not forgive you. Perhaps they have an expectation that you are never late to anything ever again. You can repeat the process and check back in with your body about how you feel about that. I know for myself, I would have a hard time agreeing to those sorts of rules and I would question if my friendship with that person was a dysfunctional relationship. But either way, I would allow my friend to feel that way, being able to hold that they considered that to be inconsiderate, but as I check in with myself I do not see myself as an inconsiderate person.

Back to our good boundaries: I am able to tell you who I am, I do not let you tell me who I am. I of course allow you to give me information about your experience of being in relationship with me, but I will reflect on that and decide if it's something that warrants more of my attention. When we are engaged in interdependence we have a much higher ability to trust our own feelings.

What To Do

We should also note, that just because we are in a relationship with a codependent feel does not mean that it is one that consists of emotional abuse.

If you do find yourself in a relationship with an abusive partner it is usually best to create some greater forms of separation at first as to gain some safety to reengage in the relationship. Similarly, I know a number of couples therapists that will not begin couples therapy while one person is engaged in substance abuse. There are times when we do need to create a more walled off approach to a relationship in order to set the relationship up for a chance to succeed in the future.

If you are struggling with codependence, the first step is to gain a higher sense of comfort in being by yourself.

Go for a long hike by yourself or enjoy a nice solo dinner. Practice doing things with your own company and reflect on what it is like to be by yourself. For some people this can feel very uncomfortable at first and we might notice the itch to take out our phone and text somebody else. As you fight that urge though your body can learn that it is okay to spent time without the care of others.

As always, when we are trying to establish new ways of being in relationship, seeking out professional help can be a great option. Learning some new tools can help us process our past experiences and recognize whether or not they continue to serve us. If you are struggling with codependent parents, I find that seeing a family therapist can be very beneficial as it creates a space to work on interpersonal dynamics and understand the process in which we relate to family.

Resources -

Finding the right therapist can feel daunting, but we hope that it doesn't stop you from getting started. Our team is ready to help you find the right therapist for you, and even talk you through our additional services if there is a right match for you.

Our online membership is a great place to get more tools and resources such as this gratitude practice. Sign up for a free membership to get started! Boundaries, Attachment, and Window of Tolerance would all be great options to start with.

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