Do you suspect that you’re codependent? And that you can’t find happy relationships because of it?
As a licensed and board-certified creative arts therapist, I’ve helped thousands of people identify their codependent behavior and improve their relationships.
And today, you’ll learn how to overcome codependency in relationships.
Want to learn more? Read on.
What is codependency?
Codependency was first researched in the 1950s and identified in spouses of alcoholics.
It’s not a diagnosis as such. But codependency is a learned behavior that affects your ability to have healthy and satisfying relationships. Over-caring, the inability to set boundaries, and the need for recognition and affection are all signs of a codependent partner.
Codependent individuals often form relationships that are emotionally destructive, one-sided, and/or abusive. Often, codependency is learned from watching other family members behave in a codependent manner.
If you’re codependent, you might have low self-esteem and look for things outside yourself to feel better. You might have addictions (substance or work, gambling, or other behavioral addictions) and you feel it’s hard to be yourself.
- Confusing love and pity
- A sense of responsibility for the actions of others
- Tend to do more than their share at all times
- Tend to get hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
- Unhealthy dependence on relationships
- Extreme need for recognition and approval
- Problems with boundaries and intimacy
Overcoming codependency requires you to learn new and healthy behaviors and unlearn old ones. We’ll look more at recovery below, but first, let’s take a look at what codependency looks like in relationships.
What is a codependent relationship?
Codependency refers to a relationship between two people playing two different roles: the caretaker and the dependent. The caretaker is referred to as the “codependent” and the dependent is considered to have a mental health disorder, called dependent personality disorder. The codependent partner is considered to have more resources and generally be more capable and they do not have the same diagnosis.
The caretaker (codependent) adopts a habit of consistently prioritizing the wellbeing and happiness of their partner above their own. Ultimately, they stop seeing their value and purpose without this person. Their behavior often becomes compulsive and defeating, while they take on a martyr’s role and see themselves as victims.
As a result, codependents feel a sense of reward from feeling needed. And because their behavior is compulsive, they feel they can’t break away from the cycle that causes it.
More often than not, the caretaker was the parentified child in a dysfunctional childhood home that smoothed things over to avoid conflict.
The dependent partner, on the other hand, often has significant feelings of low self-esteem, self-doubt, shame, guilt, and fears of failure. They tended to absorb the dysfunction in their childhood home and recreate it in their adult life.
Both the caretaker and the dependent party preserve their sense of identity and self-worth through their codependent relationship. Codependent partners need to be physically and emotionally close to someone to get their needs met.
How do caretakers and dependents behave in relationships?
As you now know, there are two parties to a codependent relationship — the caretaker and the dependent. But how do they behave? Here’s what you need to know.
So let’s take a closer look at the caretaker using a case study. Mary is a cisgender lesbian woman, with a big heart who takes pride in her profession as a nurse. Mary identifies with the caretaking, rescuer role in codependent relationships, because when she finds herself attracted to someone, she has a habit of prioritizing their needs over hers.
Mary believes she has to earn love and approval. That’s why she feels drawn to partners that are “challenging” or “edgy,” who made her “work for it.” But if Mary met a partner that gave her love and affection too freely, she found them “too boring,” or “too nice” and questioned the truth of their affection, because they didn’t seem to need her, and/or she hadn’t had to work hard enough to earn it.
Mary has a tendency to think, “If they need me, they won’t leave me” And so, historically, her partners would tend to take her for granted, while refusing to commit to her long-term, but also refusing to let the relationship end.
Mary would then blame herself for not loving her partners well enough to inspire them to want to love her better.
But in truth, Mary actually went through great pains to withhold her uncomfortable emotions and deepest desires during the relationship, so as not to burden her partners with her problems, thinking this would ultimately keep them around. Thus, Mary felt if she took on all the responsibility for what went wrong in the relationship, then it must be within her power to fix it. But this “fix it” attitude left her with a harsh inner critic, and she often came across as aloof or judgemental to her more sensitive and emotionally volatile partners.
While Mary adored her lovers for vicariously expressing all the painful feelings that Mary couldn’t allow herself to feel, and believed she was holding space for them to do that, they often wound up accusing her of being emotionally unavailable, and expressed feeling alone in the relationship. Inevitably, they would leave her, which only wound up “proving” her deepest fear: that she was unlovable and unworthy, that she hadn’t performed well enough, and that somehow she was “too much” while at the same time “not enough.”
Let’s take another example of a dependent, John.
John is a cisgender heterosexual man, who recognizes the dependent pattern in his current relationship with Jenny, a cisgender heterosexual woman.
When prompted, John usually has no issue speaking his mind, but sometimes he can come across as angry or abrasive or overly emotional in his delivery. At the beginning of the relationship, Jenny adopted a habit of inserting herself into the conversation and glossing over his words, restating them in a more palatable way, and or sometimes even apologizing for his manner.
On the one hand, at the moment, this made John feel ashamed, and condescended, but on the other hand, he started getting more social invitations and holiday cards. Over time, John became convinced that Jenny must have better judgment than him, as well as “the gift of gab”, and so he became quieter and quieter in the relationship, silently acquiescing to Jenny’s way of doing things.
John also has a tendency to procrastinate, but sometimes he needs that fire under his ass to get things done; pressure tends to motivate him!
But the stress upsets Jenny, who tends to make his problems her problems, and now John feels guilty for stressing Jenny out, which makes him needy of her reassurances that she still loves him anyway.
Then John starts to feel angry for being so needy, and resents Jenny for trying to fix everything for him. He feels an impulse to fail just to spite her, and get her off his case. Why even bother if she’s just gonna swoop in and do everything for him anyway?
It reminds him of his childhood, when every time he tried to do something for himself, someone else would redo it or show him the “correct” way, which was always “better” than his way. Still, John has become dependent on Jenny to do this, because deep down, he doesn’t trust his ability to succeed on his own.
Lastly, like his father, John also tends to struggle with anxiety in social situations and drinks too much to compensate. Then, when he inevitably embarrasses himself, once again, Jenny swoops in and saves the day, getting him home safely.
And while John is glad to see her–in fact, he was the one who called her for a ride–on another level, it just proves to him that he is not capable of taking care of himself, and doesn’t truly deserve his partner, either.
This creates tremendous doubt and ambivalence within him, which bleeds into his rather loud and frequent arguments with Jenny, who feels confused by his mixed signals; after all, he’s the one asking her for help, but then bites her head off when she accommodates him; from Jenny’s perspective, its as if no good deed goes unpunished.
In the end, John often winds up looking and feeling like the perpetual bad guy.
What are the most common signs of a codependent relationship?
How do you recognize a codependent relationship? Here are five major signs to look out for. I also outline them in this quick video:
1. People pleasing
Most people feel some urge to be liked and want their loved ones to be happy. But if you feel like you have no choice in the matter, people-pleasing becomes detrimental. If you can’t say “no”, you don’t get what you need or even know what you need.
Both the caretaker and dependent partner can be guilty of this dynamic. That said, it’s a more common behavioral pattern for the caretaker.
2. Lack of boundaries
Boundaries mean that you respect the other person’s right to their own feelings and autonomy. You acknowledge that their reality and experience might be different, but just as valid as your own.
But codependent partners tend to struggle with recognizing, respecting and reinforcing boundaries — their own and/or their partner’s.
As a codependent, you might have difficulty realizing that two different realities and experiences can exist harmoniously in a love relationship. A relationship should be a safe space to honestly communicate and negotiate your needs.
You might also think that you are responsible for your partner’s happiness.
In the extreme, instances of manipulation, over-control, ambivalence and confusion, as well as abuse and victimization can result from a lack of boundaries, in codependent –or what we might even call “toxic” relationships.
3. Poor self-esteem
Codependent people don’t tend to have very good self-esteem. One of the partners, the caretaker, needs the other person’s approval or to feel they are of service to have a sense of purpose and “goodness” about themselves.
The caretaker might control their partner through shame and “the martyred syndrome,” by communicating, “Look at all I do for you, and what have you done for me lately?”
The dependent partner, on the other hand, is very sensitive to criticism and guilt trips as a result of depending on the validation from their partner that they have a right to think their thoughts, feel their feelings, and need their needs.
The dependent partner then learns how to wield their power in victimization, which is a way of persuading others to have sympathy and act on your behalf, while avoiding taking on too much responsibility for affirming and validating themselves.
The caretaker’s identity is based on pleasing others and feeling responsible for their wellbeing. That’s why you might react to situations, rather than act based on your own free will.
You might find yourself being defensive or easily internalizing criticism. You might have partly lost touch with your own wants and needs, so it becomes harder to be proactive and access a sense of purpose from your own (rather than someone else’s) inner light and fire.
Dependent partners are sensitive to criticism and shame because they distrust their own value and worth and often question who they are fundamentally.
If you’re dependent, you might take things too personally and have a disproportionately defensive response to even the slightest request, any expression of displeasure, or a constructive comment.
This defensive response might look like total denial of accountability and self-aggrandizement, or becoming deeply depressed and a total hapless victim.
5. Poor communication
Codependent couples often find it difficult to communicate effectively.
If you’re the caregiver, you might often be unaware of your own wants and needs, and when you are aware of them, you may be reluctant to express them for appearing too burdensome, or revealing your suppressed neediness.
You may feel like caring for the other person is the most important thing or you may fear upsetting the other person by asserting yourself.
As the dependent, you might be in the habit of communicating dishonestly and want to maintain safety and connection through manipulation and control.
Learning how to communicate honestly, authentically, and effectively, however, is crucial to breaking unhealthy patterns in relationships.
If this sounds familiar, you are going to want to pay attention here. You see, what if beneath these roles of a codependent dynamic, caretakers and dependents are actually struggling with the symptoms of an insecure attachment style? And to understand how to overcome codependency in relationships, you need to find out how to heal your insecure attachment style?
That’s what we’ll look at next.
Attachment styles and codependency in relationships
What are attachment styles and how do they apply to codependent relationships?
Attachment styles are four instinctual blueprints for how you’ve learned to give and receive love in your childhood, but also through your adult romantic relationships.
The different attachment styles are:
- Anxious attachment or Open Hearts: Individuals that want a lot of closeness with a partner.
- Avoidant attachment or Rolling Stones: Individuals who want more space.
- Fearful avoidant/disorganized attachment or Spice of Lifers: Individuals that both want and fear closeness.
- Secure attachment: Individuals who are comfortable with closeness and separateness in relationships.
If you want a quick overview, take a look at this quick video I made about attachment styles:
The thing is:
You need to recognize how your attachment style is motivating your thoughts and behaviors on the subconscious level.
While caretakers or rescuers are often associated with anxiously attached open hearts, avoidantly attached Rolling Stones can inhabit the caretaking role as well.
In a nutshell, anxious caretakers often take on too much responsibility, sacrificing themselves for their partner’s benefit. You may act unfailingly loving and compassionate, almost to the point of saintly, while repressing anger, hurt, or resentment. Good deeds earn admiration and approval, while affirming your rightness, your specialness, your worthiness, and moral superiority. But the endless performance often leads to also feeling depressed and anxious, as well as ironically, a deeper feeling of being unseen and unacknowledged.
Avoidant caretakers keep themselves emotionally separate and coolly disconnected in order to keep things running smoothly. They may struggle to be emotionally present in a healthy situation, but have learned how to function well in crisis situations. Therefore, they may gravitate towards those most likely to need their calm and collected orderliness – namely, people who are perpetually in crisis. For the avoidant caretaker, it is easy to prioritize fixing a partner, over emotionally bonding with them.
The dependent partner can have any insecure attachment style. For instance, as a fearful-avoidant, a dependent might anxiously ask the caretaker to save them– but then resents their partner when they show up on the white horse, because it means that once again they failed to do it for themselves. And so, they cannot love their caretaker partner without constantly holding themselves in comparison to them.
In either case, however, you might notice the attraction fading if either the caretaker or the dependent partner becomes increasingly self-possessed. That is because they are outgrowing the similar wound that functioned as a point of attraction between them, in the first place.
How to overcome codependency in relationships
By now, you’ve learned A LOT.
At last, it’s time to take a look at how to overcome codependency in relationships.
In other words: how to heal your insecure attachment.
You see, healing your attachment wounds will help amplify your attractive energy, boost your confidence, and allow you to show up to your relationships as your most vitalized self, even amidst difficult circumstances with a sense of felt security.
You bring this sense of felt security to all your relationships, including your romantic ones.
Felt security will help you feel more clear on what is your “intuition” versus what’s “reactive attachment” impulses, so that you don’t feel out of control when a powerful emotion pops up unexpectedly.
You’ll also feel that you have increased clarity around your own values and how highly you prioritize them, so that you can articulate your needs with greater specificity, and thus GET THEM MET, as well as emotional boundaries and how they function for you, so you don’t slip into a habit of emotionally leaking (or dumping) all over your partner, and/or becoming too rigidly controlling, withdrawing and withholding.
And you’ll feel like you have an easier time discerning compatibility with a partner or potential partner, so you don’t feel like you’re spinning your wheels, learning the same old lessons all over again.
But a romantic relationship won’t “save” you
That said, finding a partner won’t mean that you automatically overcome codependency.
So often we think, “Once I finally meet ‘the one’ all the pieces will be in place, and I can relax and start enjoying myself.”
But the enjoyment has to start long before that.
You need to have the right model for it — irrespective of what your relationship status looks like.
Experience has taught me that it’s not complicated to learn how to emotionally connect in an authentic way, when you have a deep understanding of your attachment wounds and how to heal them. But, it can be difficult without the right tools, and if you have no pre-existing models.
That’s what we’ll look at next.
How to overcome codependency with this grounding exercise
One of the most effective ways to overcome codependency is through body activation, arts experientals, and cognitive reframing. And today, I’ll share an arts-based experiential activity you can use right away to increase feelings of self-security.
Why an arts-based experiential activity?
If you have attachment wounding, it’s likely that you weren’t afforded an optimal environment that would help you recognize and optimize your feeling state on the internal level.
Your focus might be more on what’s going on outside of you to get your needs met versus internally.
But the body is actually the primary organizer of experiences. And the way it organizes experiences is through symbols.
So, if you go to a therapy session and the therapist asks, “How does that make you feel?”, you might find it hard to answer that question.
Why? You just haven’t had the chance to formulate a vocabulary on a symbolic level.
And therefore, it’s a lot harder to formulate vocabulary on an emotional level.
And that’s where this exercise comes in.
My own students have used it to get results. For instance, here’s how Daina got clarity on her anxious attachment:
An exercise in six steps
If you want to follow along, you can watch my video where I explain the exercise:
There are six steps to the process and you’ll need some colored pencils and a piece of paper, so put them in front of you. Ready? Let’s go.
Take a deep breath.
Notice that with every breath, your chest, lungs, and ribs expand. Focus on your inner space; when you breathe in and out, that space keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Do you notice an inquiry, such as anxiety, a stressor, or a question? Something that’s restless within yourself.
Imagine dropping that inquiry down into your body. Where does it land in your body?
Notice it. Take a breath.
Now, take one of your colored pencils. The color you choose should represent that inquiry (stressor, question, and so on). You might just impulsively reach out for a color so it’s not necessarily an active thought. If that color doesn’t feel right, choose another one.
Express the color you choose on a piece of paper.
Assign a shape to your drawing. It can be whatever- a square, circle or scribble. Whatever comes up for you.
You can either decide on the shape before you start drawing or let it emerge.
Next, think back at your inquiry. What if there was a line associated with it and your shape/color? It could be anything- a thick or short line, a scribble, or a zigzag, for instance.
You can use a different color for this (if it feels right).
Look at your drawing. How much of the page is it taking up? Where is it in comparison to your body? For instance, if I see my drawing as my torso, I’d draw my feet, arms and head to the shape.
If your image was to make a sound, what sound would it make? You can make the sound or associate sounds with it (such as, say, violins, a song, or the quality of a voice). You might listen to that sound and write down what sound you’re thinking of.
Last, consider movement. If you would imagine where in your body you placed your shape and the movement would stem from that place, what would it look like? How does it make you want to move?
Notice the movement. Is it rhythmic? Jerky? Fluid?
Done? Great. Now, assign a feeling word (or a descriptive word if you can’t find a feeling) to each of these steps (color, shape, line, composition, sound, and movement).
With this information, you get a lot of information about your intimate layers. It’ll be easier to connect with someone on a more intimate level because you’re more aware of your own intimate layers.
Got it? Now you know how to use this exercise to take one step closer to overcoming your codependency.
That said, your healing is a process. There’s no silver bullet that will wipe away codependent behavior in a day.
Understanding your attachment style is key, though. To find out what YOUR attachment style is, answer the questions in this quick attachment style quiz:
Over to you!
There you have it! Now you know how to overcome codependency in relationships.
Have questions about codependency in relationships? Let me know in the comments section below.