As a relationship therapist, I see codependence all the time. Put another way, I see codependence as frequently as, say, Jennifer Lopez sees bronzer when she looks in her makeup bag. (And that’s a lot.) Codependence – which I’ll define in a moment – is one of the biggest problems people have in relationships, and it always leads to a breakup or festering resentment on both sides. The good news is that you can break free from this problem.
What exactly is codependence?
Codependence was a term originally developed by self-help guru Melody Beattie, and she actually developed the concept to describe the dynamic that develops when a person is in a relationship with an addict. Yet codependence today refers to something broader, where a person loves another and loses himself or herself along the way in the effort to stay fused. The codependent mindset says, ‘Let’s do everything together and be all things for each other so that we never, ever end up alone.’ High stakes, right?
The main problem with codependent relationships? Too many rules! Though many of the rules are often unspoken, both members of a codependent couple are keenly aware of what is and what is not allowed in the relationship. I see a couple in my practice who always manages to fight about the same thing: She wants to meet friends for drinks after work for happy hour, but he wants her to invite him or to hang out at home with him instead. For him, he feels anxious when she chooses the social company of others. That she sometimes wants social time without him feels like a major threat. On the surface, he acts angry and bothered, and he shuts down or picks fights. Deep down, however, he is scared and nervous. He is afraid that her spending time with others will take her away from him – for a few hours in this instance, but potentially forever if she were to meet someone else who replaces him. Codependence is a terrible existence because so much anxiety bubbles under the surface. No one is truly happy in a codependent relationship, and no one has the freedom to say “no,” draw boundaries, or have any real sense of independence.
The difference between people who are codependent and those who are not…
If you’re not codependent, it’s difficult to relate to the mindset. If you’re not codependent, you like yourself enough and you trust that you will always have a partner who’s there to love you. Accordingly, you would never worry if your partner was doing a regular happy hour with co-workers because you trust that your partner will keep coming back to you because 1) the love is real, and 2) you’re simply worth coming back to.
Examples of codependent behaviors: pushing your partner to be sexual even if your partner isn’t interested at the moment; wanting to join all the same extracurricular activities as your partner; making your partner feel guilty when he wants to do something without you; getting jealous if your partner shows an interest in making a new friend; and trying to convince your partner that good or happy couples should do everything together.
Examples of codependent thoughts: ‘If she spends too much time away from me, she will find someone else;’ ‘I’m not happy when I am single;’ ‘I could be replaced;’ ‘If he really loves me, he will want to share everything with me;’ ‘Happy couples should always get along and should never be angry with each other.”
How to stop being codependent
If your instinct tells you that you might be codependent, the best thing you can do for your relationship is to go home and ask your partner if he or she ever feels claustrophobic in the relationship. Hint: Everyone in a codependent relationship secretly feels claustrophobic – even you, though you may not admit it yet to yourself. Ask your partner the following questions: “Can you give me specific examples of what I do that makes you feel claustrophobic so that I can be more sensitive to your feelings and actually try to change? Do you resent me for it? If you’re angry, I promise I won’t freak out. I will sit with it and think about it.”
Unlike Jake Gyllenhaal’s cowboy love in the film Brokeback Mountain, you can “quit” codependence. When one person in a codependent relationship starts to change, the entire relationship dynamic starts changing. After all, codependence can only survive if both partners are sick with the same romantic flu. If you and your partner have a truly codependent relationship, draining the swamp will require many honest conversations, a trip to the bookstore’s self-help section, and at least several months to truly learn new ways to relate to each other.
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He 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.