For a very long time, I could not decipher between codependency and love. I thought that if we love someone, we put that person’s needs before ours and make their happiness our business.
It is true that love is unselfish. When we have children, their needs have to come before ours. We are not going to let our baby cry for hours from hunger in the middle of the night because we feel like sleeping when the baby would rather be awake and eating. We will drive our children around to activities when we are tired or would rather be doing something else. Acting responsibly as a parent is part of what it means to love our children.
However, when we always put the other first in our adult relationships, at the expense of our own health or well-being, we may be codependent.
Codependency is a learned behavior. We watch the actions of our parents when we are children. If our mother or father had a problem with boundaries, was always the martyr, could never say ‘no’ to people, and had unhealthy ways to communicate, we most likely learned these behaviors and brought them into our intimate relationships.
Children who grow up with emotionally unavailable parents also are at risk for being codependent. They often find themselves in relationships where their partner is emotionally unavailable, yet they stay in the hopes that they can change the person. No matter what happens, they won’t stop hoping that one day things will be good.
The subconscious hope is that the other person will see all the love we give and be inspired to change. We believe that if we just hang in there and give our love, understanding, and support, we will finally get the love that we desired from our parents. This thinking is destructive if we do not have healthy boundaries that protect us from physical or emotional harm and signal to our partner that their abusive behavior is not acceptable.
The worst part is when we do not realize what is going on and continue to live in a loveless partnership because we have never learned what a good partnership looks like. Codependent people do not believe that they are worthy of love, so they settle for less. Often, they find themselves taking mental, emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse from their partner.
People who are codependent often look for things outside of themselves to feel better.
They form relationships that are not healthy, looking to ‘fix’ the other person. A person with codependent tendencies may find themselves in an intimate relationship with a person who has addiction issues that cause them to be emotionally unavailable. Their partner or they themselves may be workaholics or develop some other compulsive behavior to avoid the feeling of emptiness in the relationship. This is easier in the short term than looking within and dealing with emotions.
How to Tell if You’re Codependent
If you are in a relationship that you think may be codependent, the first step to independence is to stop looking at the other and take a look at yourself.
If you honestly say that you agree with the following statements, you may be codependent.
- You tend to love people that you can pity and rescue.
- You feel responsible for the actions of others.
- You do more than your share in the relationship to keep the peace.
- You are afraid of being abandoned or alone.
- You feel responsible for your partner’s happiness.
- You need approval from others to gain your own self-worth.
- You have difficulty adjusting to change.
- You have difficulty making decisions and often doubt yourself.
- You are reluctant to trust others.
- Your moods are controlled by the thoughts and feelings of those around you.
Codependency is often seen in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), although this does not mean all people with codependency issues also meet the criteria for a diagnosis of BPD.
The Relationship Between Codependency and Addiction
One of the many problems with a codependent relationship is that you may be inadvertently enabling a partner’s addiction. In your attempt to show your love by “helping” your partner, you can discourage him or her from seeking the treatment necessary to get sober.
- You justify your husband’s drinking by saying he has had a stressful day or needs to relax.
- You make excuses when your girlfriend can’t come to social functions because she is under the influence of heroin.
- You let your boyfriend borrow your prescription opioids whenever he complains of any minor discomfort, even though you’re worried about his growing dependence on the medication.
- You quietly take on extra responsibilities around the house or in parenting your children because your partner is always under the influence.
- You find yourself frequently apologizing to others or doing favors to repair relationships damaged by your partner’s drug or alcohol abuse.
- You risk your own financial future by loaning money to your partner to cover debts incurred from substance abuse.
Addiction impairs judgement and critical thinking skills. This makes it very difficult for someone with a substance use disorder to see that he or she needs help. When you go out of your way to prevent your partner from experiencing the consequences of substance abuse, you make it less likely that he or she will acknowledge that a problem exists.
Loving someone with a substance use disorder can also cause your codependent tendencies to spiral out of control. When your partner is behaving erratically due to drug or alcohol abuse, it’s easy to resort to using codependent behavior in your fight to maintain a sense of control over chaotic surroundings. This creates a vicious cycle that traps both of you in a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship.
Healing from Codependency
The good news is that codependency is a learned behavior, which means it can be unlearned. If you love your partner and want to keep the relationship, you need to heal yourself first and foremost.
Some healthy steps to healing your relationship from codependency include:
- Start being honest with yourself and your partner. Doing things that we do not want to do not only wastes our time and energy, but it also brings on resentments. Saying things that we do not mean only hurts us, because we then are living a lie. Be honest in your communication and in expressing your needs and desires.
- Stop negative thinking. Catch yourself when you begin to think negatively. If you begin to think that you deserve to be treated badly, catch yourself and change your thoughts. Be positive and have higher expectations.
- Don’t take things personally. It takes a lot of work for a codependent person not to take things personally, especially when in an intimate relationship. Accepting the other as they are without trying to fix or change them is the first step.
- Take breaks. There is nothing wrong with taking a break from your partner. It is healthy to have friendships outside of your partnership. Going out with friends brings us back to our center, reminding us of who we really are.
- Consider counseling. Get into counseling with your partner. A counselor serves as an unbiased third party. They can point out codependent tendencies and actions between the two of you that you may not be aware of. Feedback can provide a starting point and direction. Change cannot happen if we do not change.
- Rely on peer support. Co-Dependents Anonymous is a 12-step group similar to Alcoholics Anonymous that helps people who want to break free of their codependent behavior patterns.
- Establish boundaries. Those who struggle with codependency often have trouble with boundaries. We do not know where our needs begin or where the other’s end. We often thrive off guilt and feel bad when we do not put the other first.
Self-Care Is Not Selfish
As you’re working to break the cycle of codependency, it may seem like you are being encouraged to behave in way that is selfish and unfair to your partner. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In a healthy relationship, both people have fully formed identities outside of their time together. They each bring unique attributes to the table—creating a partnership that allows both of them to grow and thrive.
Watching a loved one struggle with drug or alcohol addiction is heartbreaking, but you won’t be in any position to support your partner’s addiction treatment unless you make time to address your own mental health needs.