What is codependency? This behavior involves two people, usually in a relationship, enabling one another, whether that includes addiction, bad behavior, or irresponsibility. Two individuals rely on one another “for approval and a sense of identity.”
I didn’t think I was a codependent person until I was slammed into reality one night in a Barnes & Noble aisle. There I was, sprawled under the four shelves labeled “Addiction,” desperately thumbing through each book with shiny streaks down my face.
I knew I was in a codependent relationship at that moment.
My husband’s painkiller habit escalated to full-blown substance abuse and addiction, and, at that point, sitting in that aisle, I felt myself crumbling under the weight.
Family and friends regularly told me how “strong” I was for keeping everything (including my marriage) together all these years, but I had no strength left.
The more I researched codependency, the more I saw every issue that plagued my adolescence and new adulthood: indecisiveness, insecurity, toxic boyfriends, and a chronic need to control all huddled under one umbrella term.
For the first time, I understood myself — and every woman in my family — in a new, brighter light.
Most codependents attract troubled or dependent people into our lives, and our chronic “helping” and “fixing” unknowingly perpetuates the cycle.
We’re very nice, responsible, loving people — we just have weak and stunted boundaries. We love to the point of exhaustion, neglecting our own needs and wants to take care of other people. We’re always there to help or give advice, often without anyone asking for it.
Believe it or not, codependency is a very subtle dysfunction.
It’s like a low-boiling simmer that heats up our lives just enough to be uncomfortable, yet bearable.
In a lot of ways, the sacrificial, martyr-like role of codependence is totally culturally acceptable, especially for women, but that doesn’t make it healthy.
“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior,” said Melody Beattie in her groundbreaking book, “Codependent No More.”
Since writing that book nearly 30 years ago, a wealth of research and insight has developed on the subject. In fact, Beattie wrote an updated handbook, “The New Codependency,” which may have been the most important, eye-opening book I’ve ever read.
I’ve read books, attended conferences, and started my own therapy program to address the deep roots of codependency issues in my life. Through it all, I’ve seen a few common denominators.
If you struggle with self-love, perfectionism, or chronic people-pleasing, you might be a codependent partner. If you’re an obsessive worrier with control issues, then you also might be a codependent person. If you’re a master at gauging how other people feel, yet your own feelings are a little fuzzy… you get the idea.
Here are the signs of a codependent marriage to look for in your own relationship.
1. You’re dating or married to an alcoholic or addict (any kind of addict).
And/or you have a history of attracting damaged people into your life. You cannot be the sole supporter. It is not your sole purpose to get them sober, they need to want it to.
2. You do things for your partner that he or she can and should be doing, all in the name of love.
In fact, maybe your mother or sister repeatedly tells you that you help this person a little too much. It’s nice that you want to help, but they can do things too.
3. You let your partner have his or her way.
And then you feel overwhelmed with negative feelings of anger and resentment.
“Look at all I do for you!” Is a common phrase in the codependent’s vocabulary.
4. You feel responsible for your partner’s actions and behaviors.
No, they are their own person with their own actions.
5. You’re always talking/worrying about your partner’s issues.
In fact, you make them your issues.
They are not yours. Yes, you can tackle them as a team, but it should not just be you tackling them.
6. You’ve allowed irresponsible, hurtful behavior in your relationship.
Not just physically, but emotionally or financially. Instead of walking away, your deep compassion for this person makes you want to stay and help.
This is not good because it teaches them what you will tolerate.
7. Your partner’s mood affects your day.
In both good and bad ways. Sure, you don’t want your special person to be upset, but that shouldn’t ruin your day.
8. You always want to know what your partner is doing or thinking.
And you often get involved in his or her business. This is a waste of time and energy and is horrible for your mental health.
9. Your partner’s needs always seem to be met, while your needs and wants are ignored.
They are the focus of the relationship leaving you out to dry. Your partner’s happiness is all that matters.
10. You have trouble pinpointing your own feelings and thoughts, or you diminish/deny how you feel.
This isn’t healthy on all levels. One, you need to have individuality in relationships. Staying true to who you are helps you from getting lost in the relationship. And two, your feelings deserve to be known and validated.
And if any of this makes you say, “Oh my gosh! That’s so my mother!” that’s another sign of some deep codependent programming, as this is a learned dynamic. Codependents (and addicts, for that matter) are almost always children of codependents, passed down like a family legacy.
Of course, the roots and symptoms of codependency are individual and nuanced. Some codependents have next to no boundaries around things like their health and happiness, while others have developed walls so tall and thick that no one can get in.
And some codependents are also dealing with addictions, known as “Double Winners,” so their experience is different than mine. All in all, though, codependency is an emotional dysfunction that affects so many aspects of life.
Taking care of our needs — really loving ourselves — isn’t selfish or narcissistic, it’s actually incredibly healthy. Expecting reciprocity and respect from our partners isn’t unrealistic, it’s love.
And allowing someone to hurt us, like an addicted husband, says more about our self-respect than it says about them because we’ve allowed it into our lives.
Recovering from codependency has been like coming home to myself.
Recovering from codependency has meant maturing in all the ways I needed to mature. Recovering from codependency also saved my long-term marriage, proving that the only way to change other people is to change ourselves.
Here are some tips to help if you struggle with codependency:
1. Set boundaries
And stick to them!
2. Listen actively.
Listen to your partner and vice versa.
3. Make time for self-interests.
Make time for yourself. Get a hobby or something you like to do.
Interdependence is not codependence.
Healthy interdependence suggests that “partners recognize and value the importance of the emotional bond they share while maintaining a solid sense of self within the relationship dynamic.”
Though it is often confused with codependency, there’s not the same. A codependent person tends to “rely heavily on others for their sense of self and well-being. There is no ability for that person to distinguish where they end and their partner begins.”
Michelle Horton is the founder and editor of EarlyMama— a site that proves young motherhood doesn’t have to define or limit us.