Updated: Aug 25, 2018
When I was a toddler, I had a fuzzy, gray rabbit puppet. I took it everywhere! I picked at it's fur until the poor thing was bald. To this day I'm unsure why I felt comforted by it. I was soothed knowing it was with me, that I could hold onto it and know if I had this inanimate friend, everything would be OK. I later found this same feeling of attachment to specific friends, family members, and romantic partners. I wasn't myself unless I was with them or I needed their approval before I made a decision.
Thankfully those codependent traits are no longer baked into my personality; however, they can be seen in most unhealthy relationships. Unfortunately many people aren't aware of codependency and how it can be unhealthy unless they've experienced it, they often don't recognize the warning signs, and much less know how to solve the issue.
What is Codependency and Why is it Unhealthy?
Codependency is present when you are literally dependent on someone else in the same way a child is dependent on their security blanket. This is typical of people entering a romantic relationship who share a bond over a severe misfortune such as addiction, abuse, etc. Although on the surface codependency can appear to outsiders as a strong partnership, the individuals in the codependent relationship experience something more nuanced. For the codependent couple, the relationship or their partner has become their identity and they are no longer an individual in the relationship. The reason this is unhealthy is because of the short-term and long-term effects it can have on a person's mental state. Codependency can lead to enabling, social anxiety or even anti-social behaviors, emotional dependency, and a severe loss of self.
How Can I Tell if I'm in a Codependent Relationship?
Below are indicators of a healthy relationship versus a codependent one. You may feel as though your relationship(s) fall heavily into one camp or the other, or possibly it's balanced between the two.
Each Individual is Independent (own feelings, own pursuits, own social life, etc.)
Shared Elements are Mutually Beneficial and Discussed Healthily (social life, pursuits, finances, etc.)
Each Individual Takes Responsibility for Actions and Seeks Help if Necessary
They Agree to Disagree
You are Secure in Your Ability to Move On from This Relationship if Necessary
You Hardly Do Anything Separate - Interests, Social Events, Mundane Activities, etc.
One Is A "Fixer" - Taking Responsibility for the Other's Emotions, Shortcomings, etc.
One is the "Controller" - Doesn't Always Take Responsibility for Actions or Reactive Emotions but Controls and Manipulates the Fixer Through the Same Means
You Disagree Until You Agree
Your Security in Life Relies on This Relationship Succeeding
Check Your Thoughts
Naturally, when you care about another person, there's bound to be a certain degree of codependency but it's important to distinguish between your thoughts. For instance, it's normal to think, "I wish my husband/wife were here.." and it's worth analyzing your next thought. Though the example is broad and oversimplified, it would be a good initial test for yourself to check your independence and self-reliance.
Normal/Healthy: "Who else is here? I wonder if I can meet some new people,", or "I can't wait to tell my partner about the great day I had at this event!"
Red Flag Thinking: "I guess I'll just leave," or, "I should ask if I should wait until my partner is ready to meet me. They might be mad if I enjoyed the party without them."
How to Solve Codependency?
Fortunately there are several short-term and long-term actions you take today to begin solving this problem.
First, as a survivor of a codependent relationship, I recommend to journal. Write about your experiences with your partner and how you felt. Here you can find a few journal prompts. Journaling is for you and you alone unless you choose to share it but share it wisely (with someone you absolutely trust).
- Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
- Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
- Psychology Today's more in-depth article
Support groups are also a great way to get perspective. Perhaps you're not technically codependent but you're not feeling heard, or the opposite where you're not feeling heard because you're not only in a codependent relationship but rather an abusive one. You may find multiple groups helpful and you may have to go to multiple locations to find the right group for you.
Some groups to check out:
- Codependents Anonymous (CoDa)
- Al-Anon; support group for those with partners who are dependent on substances
- YWCA; a wealth of knowledge and assistance for those experiencing domestic violence relationships. You can also see my blog post about resources for those needing to recover from an abusive relationship (coming soon).
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, explore your individuality. If continually pursued this action will have the longest lasting positive effect. Think back to when you were last happiest and what was your favorite, and healthiest, outlet? Would you be willing to do one or more of those things today? I learned how to do this for myself through Beattie's book mentioned above. When I began to realize the power in my independence, I decided to detach myself from my partner's emotions, if he was upset I didn't fix him, if he couldn't find the strength to pursue his dreams, I didn't help him, etc. I didn't do this to be cruel, I did this to encourage his own self-reliance. If he asked for help and I had time, energy, and ability, I would help him; however, it is important to note I only gave of myself to others when I was finished giving to myself.