If asked to picture a codependent couple, you might imagine a hunky-dory pair who does everything exactly the same: talking, walking, and dressing. The truth about codependent couples, however, is quite different. Though there are many different versions of codependence, they all share the same underlying problem: They try to control their partner and they aren’t comfortable on their own.
The term “codependent” emerged as a way to describe the relationship dynamic between an addict and his or her emotional caretaker. For example, Person A has a habit of getting too drunk, passing out, and arriving late to work the next day, so Person B tries to do everything possible to keep Person A on-track. Person B tries to control the behavior of Person A not out of spite or malice but to help keep the relationship functional. The caretaker’s fear is that, without their help, Person B will set off on a downward spiral that leads to more problems – sickness, the end of the relationship, a lost job, or even death.
In a codependent relationship, both individuals are codependent – not just one, no matter how extreme one member of the couple may seem to be. In the example above, the person who drinks too much depends on the caretaker to clean up their messes, both literal and figurative; the caretaker depends on the person who drinks too much to need him or her in order to survive. No one in a codependent relationship is truly happy. When the codependent attaches to someone and the relationship gets bad, the codependent feels unable to leave his or her partner. Instead, he, like all codependents, will stay because the alternative of being alone is too threatening.
See, the M.O. of the codependent is to avoid separation at all costs. This approach requires that the codependent abandon his own emotional needs in order to keep the relationship going. In other words, he loses himself. Over time, the term “codependent” has expanded to include couples in which there is fear around separations and attempts to control each other’s behavior. I will give you another example below of what a codependent relationship looks like.
Alec & Mandy
He Wanted: Alec wanted to go out with his fiancé to a bar or restaurant once in a while on a Friday or Saturday night. He liked the festive atmosphere and simply enjoyed going out.
She Wanted: Mandy, Alec’s fiancé, was a homebody. She didn’t like bars or crowded restaurants because they were too loud. She said she would rather cook dinner for him at home.
What Happened: They never went out and he grew resentful of his fiancé. He rarely went out with his buddies because he didn’t want to leave her at home, imagining she would feel bored and alone. Alec grew increasingly frustrated and Mandy called me to set up a couple’s therapy appointment because they had stopped getting along.
Alec and Mandy present a common codependent dynamic in relationships: the two partners feel completely different about the same activity or issue, and one shaves off a part of himself or herself to keep the other happy and to avoid rocking the boat. This couple had to learn to accept their differences, and let each other socialize separately once in a while. The couple had to change.
Breaking the Codependent Pattern
Men and women who are codependent can change, though the codependent urge is powerful. In order to break the pattern, the codependent needs to follow a few simple steps.
Confess your resentments. You need to have an Oprah-like sit-down with your partner so that you can explain that you want to break the codependent pattern and plan to start doing so immediately. Explain that you have been learning about codependence and now understand that codependents tend to swallow their feelings, which causes resentments to grow. Share some of the resentments you have toward your partner and then invite your partner to do the same.
Read Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie. Codependent No More is the kind of book that can become your friend, one you can keep on the nightstand and leaf through every few days for a tune-up. The book includes a chapter on anger which is especially helpful, as many codependents swallow their anger and need to learn how to express it appropriately.
Spend more time alone. The number one way to reduce and ultimately stop your codependent approach to relationships is to spend more time alone. You will feel the urge – even compulsion – to text, call, or go be with that person but you should take an hour and spend that time alone instead.
Focus your attention on something and be productive. Try a workout, pay your bills for the month, or get lost in a good book. Spend at least a couple more hours per week alone than you would have spent in the past, and you will soon find that you feel less anxious, don’t focus as much on your fellow codependent, and start getting tuned back into what you need and want for your life.
Remember that codependence requires that you lose parts of yourself in order to keep the relationship going, and it’s time to get the old you back.
Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.