Codependent Relationships: Understanding them is the key to overcoming them
When it comes to codependency, understanding is often the first step in healing.
by: E.B. Johnson
Romantic relationships always have a bit of complexity to them, but codependent relationships are especially complicated. Though these relationships are obviously dysfunctional, unsatisfying and even abusive — the injured parties involved keep coming back for more despite all the red flags and warning signs.
It’s easy to pass judgement, but leaving a codependent relationship isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are an array of reasons people choose to stay when they should walk away, and they range anywhere from childhood trauma to low self-esteem or sexual confusion. Codependency is a dangerous relationship dynamic that can destroy lives if it’s not identified and dealt with. But that takes knowing the signs and understanding this toxic pattern of love and loss.
What is codependency?
Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic and behavior that is learned, being passed down from one generation to the next. It impacts both our emotions and behaviors, affecting our ability to have healthy or satisfying relationships with deep and lasting connections. Those who are codependent are often those we see as having a “relationship addiction”, flitting from one brief fling to the next — with every short-lived romance ending in a dramatic show of sparks that would make The Young and the Restless blush.
Those who suffer the curse of codependency form relationships that are one-sided, destructive and downright toxic. When they love, their partnerships are emotionally destructive and often abusive, and it seems as though they go out of their way to find spouses and lovers that are unsuitable.
Who does codependency affect?
Codependent relationships are not suspended to the realm of romantic entanglements only. The relationships we form with our parents, our siblings and even our friends can also be codependent ones, most often manifesting in situations of drug or alcohol abuse, as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Dysfunctional families that regularly deal in anger, pain, shame or fear are breeding grounds for codependent cultivation, and they are often ignored by family members and friends who would rather pretend the issues don’t exist.
However the partnerships come together, the result is always the same. The codependent person sacrifices his or her needs in order to take care of the other party. Placing their needs behind the needs of the other party (who uses the opportunity to take advantage of the situation) they lose touch with their own needs, desires and sense of authentic self. The damage is done, but both parties are often too lost to see it.
The warning signs of a codependent relationship.
When it comes to codependent relationships, there are always red flags and warning signs abundant. The problem, however, is that both the parties involved are often so hurt and stuck in the traumas of their past that they don’t even realize they’re also trapping themselves in a toxic cycle of pain and abandonment.
The warning signs of a codependent relationship are always clear, but they’re not always heeded. If you or someone you know is manifesting one of these symptoms, they might be struggling with a codependent relationship.
Putting in the extra work.
One of the first signs of a codependent relationship is a gradual shifting of responsibilities into a one-sided affair. Slowly, one person will start filling in the gaps and taking on the responsibilities of the other person in order to stay connected or prove their worth. As the first partner pulls back their time, effort, love or attention, the other partner instinctively gives more, picking up the pieces and committing to something that clearly shouldn’t work.
A loss of boundaries.
Often, a codependent person fails to grasp the importance of boundaries. As they compromise more and more of themselves, they begin to believe that this over-giving is what it takes to “make things work”. They start to view their boundaries as a thing that must be sacrificed on the altar of their partner’s happiness and that leads to a codependent trap that’s hard to crawl out of.
A need to “fix” the other party.
While a codependent relationship can start out like a fairy tale, it soon descends into the unhealthy trap that we recognize all-too-well. Healthy relationships are formed when both parties mutually respect one another, but in the codependent relationship that just isn’t the case. One partner always sees the need to “fix” the other party and that’s a hill that just isn’t worth dying on.
A loss of independence.
According to Erika Ettin, dating coach and founder of dating site A Little Nudge, loss of independence is another big warning sign of a codependent relationship. “In any relationship,” she told Business Insider, “it’s important to both bond with your partner but also maintain your own life. You don’t want to become so dependent on someone else that you lose who you are, or that essence that makes you unique…when you’re doing things on your own, you become a more interesting, well-rounded person, thereby a better partner to anyone.”
A need to ask permission.
If you’ve found yourself in relationship in which you feel as though you need to ask “permission” to do the things you want to do — you might be dealing with a codependent relationship. Being controlled by our partners or loved ones to this extent causes you to doubt yourself and your self worth. Making autonomous choices is a part of the human experience and one that should never be stifled for another person.
Losing contact with important loved ones.
Relationships that cause us to lose touch with the friends and family are toxic. Losing contact with those who are important is a sign that something isn’t right, and it’s often a sign that something sinister is brewing beneath the surface. Unmooring from the anchors in our life can cause us to lose our sense of authentic self and it can also undermine our strength and self-confidence.
Why codependent people stay (despite the warning signs).
There are a plethora of reasons people choose to stay in dysfunctional and codependent relationships, and those reasons can differ from case to case. There are, however, a few foundational reasons we stay in relationships that do more harm than good and they range from childhood trauma to deep-seated insecurities.
1. A delusional idea of love.
Those of us who grew up Baby Boomer mothers will know the in’s and out’s of this codependent reasoning all too well. One of the biggest factors that goes into staying in a toxic or codependent relationship is a powerful feeling of love and concern. The issue with this, however, is that this ideal of love is often a delusional one — based around romance and the idea of self-sacrifice as a noble exercise in superiority.
Most codependents picked up these delusional views of love and romance as children, where they saw love and abuse go commonly hand-in-hand. Over time, they came to internalize this type of behavior as commitment, causing them to expect abuse, manipulation and all-around nastiness to be par for the relationship course.
Though they have valid concerns about what will happen to them, they are unable to put their concern for self over their concern for their partner. They worry that if they separate themselves from their abusers, they will suffer harsh consequences or cause the other party to lose their own way. Over and over again, they rescue and enable out of a perceived sense of love or guilt, but they never get the real love they were seeking in return.
2. Dreams of change.
Our hope is a powerful motivator. Many codependents dedicate themselves to a broken partner or ally because they believe in the hope that the other party can and will change with the right encouragement. They don’t see people as people — they see them as projects — and this is thanks to their overwhelming and often irrational sense of hope, which is always misdirected and always based in ideology, rather than reality.
It’s hard to give up when you’ve invested a lot into someone, but it’s not possible to change other people — they have to change themselves.
Every relationship (even the dysfunctional ones) have their ups and downs. While the good memories can keep the hope alive, it’s important to embrace the reality of a toxic relationship with a radical sense of acceptance. Holding onto hope that partner will change is no guarantee that they will or can. These dreams of change are often precisely what keep the codependent chained to a fantasy that can never exist.
3. A sense of being overwhelmed.
Not all codependents stay out of a sense of fear or guilt or even shame. Some codependent people find themselves stuck in relationships that are damaging simply because they are overwhelmed by the idea of seeing things clearly.
Codependent relationships are high-stress and high-anxiety situations that can leave us strung out and struggling to function through our normal day-to-day tasks. This constantly feeling of pressure can leave the codependent party in a constant state of overwhelm, making it impossible to seek outside help or even look within for some sort of resolution.
4. They’re being manipulated.
It’s no mistake that the codependent person often finds themselves entangled with abusive, narcissistic and even addicted people. These are the types who know how to charm their victims at the outset, using it as a perfect cover for their dark and manipulative side. They are the kind of people that get what they want at any cost and they see in the codependent a possibility to satiate those desires.
Codependent people don’t always stick around because they want to. They often stick around because they’re being manipulated.
Narcissists and abusers have an uncanny way of making the C.D. person believe that the issues in the relationship or partnership are their fault. As things start to unwind, they slowly shift the blunt of the blame onto their partner, making them more dependent and undermining their sense of worth by maximizing existing feelings of guilt and shame.
5. Feelings of fear.
For the codependent, fear is a regular bedfellow. Fear manifests in the life of a C.D. person in a number of ways. They fear for their own safety, but they also fear for the safety of their friends, family and partners. They are told repeatedly that they aren’t good enough or are unworthy of love, so they fear too being alone and unwanted forever.
The manipulator or abuser that finds themselves attached to a codependent person will use this fear to keep them trapped, compounding an already established sense of worthlessness that continues to grow and change over time. For many codependents, it’s this overwhelming sense of fear that keeps them stuck in a situation that is less than ideal. That fear can be impossible to overcome without some radical changes inside and out.
6. Low self-esteem.
It will surprise no one that a low self-esteem contributes frequently to the turbulent relationships of the codependent person.
Many codependent people grew up in dysfunctional homes in which physical, emotional and even sexual abuse was common.
Because of this, they rise into their adulthood carrying the burden of low self-esteem and a feeling of worthlessness that often pervades into other facets of their personalities. The more abuse they suffer over a lifetime, they more they believe they deserve this abuse. It’s a never-ending cycle of self-defeat and hopelessness that takes time (and a lot of therapy) to overcome.
7. A sense of guilt.
As the majority of codependents are desperate people-pleasers, they are often motivated by a sense of guilt to stay in a relationship they would be better off exiting. Because they are so desperate for love and affection, they work exceedingly hard to avoid conflict, doing everything they can to keep those around them happy and comfortable — no matter the personal cost.
On the rare occasion that they do try to leave, the codependent person experiences an overwhelming attack of guilt, falling into the shadow of misplaced responsibility and taking on and internalizing the errors of those around them (thus nobly eliminating the suffering of those they love, but not their own).
Even when they see that they aren’t the root cause of the problem, they still worry that others will blame them; taking on the shame and the guilt before someone can cast it on to them. The codependent person lives in constant fear of judgement, scolding or just plain shame so they live their life at the behest of other, avoiding the guilt that was never theirs in the first place.
The addicted or narcissistic partner can see this conflict and sense of guilt from a mile away and will use it — frequently — to get the upper hand on / take advantage of their partner. That feeling of doing something wrong can be incredibly damaging to the people pleaser. It’s important to notice the triggers and stop the guilt before it can undermine your sense of self.
8. Feeling ashamed.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family teaches you to keep the darkest secrets of the people around you in a way that causes you to internalize that shame. For those of us who grew up in the midst of emotional chaos, keeping secrets was a matter of survival, and that guilt and that shame is something that never goes away, no matter how old you get or how far you might run.
Shame makes it hard to ask for help, so the codependent person often finds themselves in a negative feedback loop of isolation and hopelessness. Being unable to speak honestly and openly about their feelings, they are unable to validate the dangers in their environment and therefore unable to see that it is not themselves who is internally flawed.
In order to break free of toxic relationships, it’s necessary to reach out and break the code of silence that permeates dangerous and toxic partnerships. Codependent people are often too afraid to let other people know how badly they are being treated (thanks to their unqualified sense of shame) but that’s the first step in getting help and getting free of the hellish pain of codependency.
How to deal with codependency.
Because codependency is such a long-standing and deep-rooted issue, it often takes the help of a mental health professional in order to overcome. These professionals can help us to safely explore the childhood issues we have related to our view of relationships and also help us to identify the self-defeating patterns that keep us chained to relationships that no longer serve us or the journey we’re making.
If you or someone you know is experiencing the signs of a codependent relationship (or personality) it might be time to talk to someone, but no one but the parties involved can make that decision. Codependency treatment is a powerful tool that focuses on helping patients get in touch with the feelings that they’ve buried deep down within, but they have to be open to that work and ready to make the changes that come along with it.
How to avoid codependent relationships.
While undoing the intricate knots of our codependent hang-ups might be a process that takes time and a medical professional, steering clear of these unhealthy relationship patterns is not. You can avoid falling into the trap of a C.D. relationship by knowing the signs ahead of time and reaffirming your ideals and sense of self around these 5 ideas.
Settle for nothing less than what you want *and* what you deserve.
Even in that honey-moon phase or that exciting period after making a new friend, don’t overlook or minimize comments or behaviors that put you on edge or make you feel “less than”. Demeaning or disrespectful behaviors are a warning sign at any stage in a relationship, and they’re a warning sign that means STEER CLEAR. Healthy relationships are ones in which we are valued for who we are — at all times. So, if you’re feeling disrespected or dismissed, walk away before you get in too deep.
Refuse to give yourself away.
If you’re someone who leans toward “people pleasing” then it’s important to remain conscious at all times of your tendency to overcompensate. Don’t work harder than you should have to to impress someone and don’t give yourself away in exchange for being liked or loved. If someone loves you, they will love you regardless of who you are or how you are. Refuse to give yourself away and refuse to settle for less than you deserve.
Be mindful of your boundaries (and stick to them).
Before starting any new relationship — be it friendship or romance — it’s important to know what your responsibilities are and what their responsibilities are going in. Be as clear as possible about your boundaries and encourage them to be clear about theirs as well. You don’t owe anyone any piece of your private self. Draw the boundary lines and stick to them from the first jump.
Value your body and your spirit.
We live in a culture where sexual contact often seems like a recreational pastime, but it’s important to remember that our bodies are our own and are not owed (in any piece) to the people in our lives. Our bodies are not only our responsibilities, they are a critical piece of our personal boundary lines. Treat your body as an extension of your soul, and love them both, and you’ll find that you can access a deep-rooted power in yourself that you didn't’ even know existed.
Accept and live within your limitations.
While we like to live our lives as though we have no limits, that just isn’t the case. In order to avoid the trap of codependency, it’s important to accept and live within our limitations. By doing this, we can avoid relationships that constantly push us to the edge and start living a life that is authentically our own and filled with peace, light and joy. The secret to life isn’t our romantic relationships or even our friendships — it’s learning to live within the lines that truly define you.
Putting it all together…
Codependency is a complex set of behaviors and beliefs that can make it hard to escape damaging and toxic relationships. Those who are codependent often cling to toxic and dangerous partners because of a long rap-sheet of childhood traumas that keeps them stuck, scared and internalizing the abhorrent behaviors of the people around them — making it impossible to simply “walk away”.
Understanding codependency is the only way to heal, but that takes time and it often takes the help of a mental health professional. When we overcome our need to please, we can overcome the pain of our pasts but we have to accept ourselves and our reality radically and unashamedly. Everyone has a past and everyone has been hurt. The real trick to life is learning how to overcome that hurt in order to create the existence you’ve always deserved.