Many people find themselves repeating the same unhealthy relationship patterns—despite their best intentions.
Consider codependency—when two people with dysfunctional personality traits become worse together. Enmeshment happens when clear boundaries about where you start and where your partner ends are not clearly defined.
Linda Esposito LCSW is a psychotherapist in Pasadena, CA (link is external) specializing in helping stressed out, sleep deprived anxious adults, and angry teens and their frustrated parents. She's especially interested in improving our collective stress management skills, and reducing the 46 million plus prescriptions written yearly for Xanax in the US. Linda also writes for The Huffington Post.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Think of the most unhappy couple you’ve ever met. (Hopefully you're not a part of this duo.) You may wonder why these people are still together. Adults are willing participants in partnerships. And as unhealthy as relationships may be, there can be gains for both parties. Common reasons for sticking together include children, finances, time invested, and fear of the shame that may come with splitting up. But the bigger issue is the belief that one or both people believe they deserve to be mistreated. (For an in-depth article about this dysfunctional dynamic, click here.)
Signs of Codependency
The traditional definition of codependency has focused on control, nurturing, and maintenance of relationships with individuals who are chemically dependent, or engaging in undesirable behaviors, such as narcissism. A classic codependency model is the alcoholic husband and his enabling wife.
Dupont and McGovern (1991) argue that codependent individuals “share the responsibility for the unhealthy behavior, primarily by focusing their lives on the sick or the bad behavior and by making their own self-esteem and well-being contingent on the behavior of the unhealthy family member.” (p. 316).
Le Poire (1992) supposed that the functional (or healthy) partner nurtures the afflicted partner when he or she engages in an undesirable behavior. This behavior is ultimately pleasant to the afflicted partner, which serves to reinforce it. The partner who controls the most rewards (which builds his or her power base) is assumed to be the powerful one, while the other is indebted to him or her (Beattie, 1987). Borrowing a phrase from my clinical mentor, Reevah Simon, “Whenever there is ongoing conflict, there is underlying agreement.” In other words, it takes two to tango, and the dependent or subservient partner may not be as weak, passive, or innocent as they appear.
The following questions can serve as a guide to determine if your relationship involves codependency:
- Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner's needs?
- Is it difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on your time and energy?
- Do you cover your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law?
- Do you constantly worry about others’ opinions of you?
- Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
- Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
The Development of Codependency
At birth, we are intrinsically vulnerable and utterly dependent on our caregivers for food, safety, and regulation. An infant’s attachment and bonding to one or more caregivers is critical for physical and emotional survival. This fundamental attachment makes the infant reliant on the needs and vulnerabilities of the caregiver.
Growing up with an unreliable or unavailable parent means taking on the role of caretaker and/or enabler. A child in this situation puts the parent’s needs first. Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. As a result, its members repress emotions and disregard their own needs to focus on the needs of the unavailable parent(s). When the "parentified" child becomes an adult, he or she repeats the same dynamic in their adult relationships.
Resentment builds when you don’t recognize your own needs and wants. A common behavioral tendency is to overreact or lash out when your partner lets you down. Lacking an internal locus of control means searching for external sources of validation and control. You might try to control your partner’s behaviors so you can feel OK. You might act self-righteous and bossy, and make unreasonable demands on your partner. And when you realize you cannot control his or her moods or actions you become disappointed, and may slide into a depressed state.
Recovering from Codependency
Treatment for codependency often involves exploration of early childhood issues and their connection to current dysfunctional behavior patterns. Getting in touch with deep-rooted feelings of hurt, loss, and anger will allow you to reconstruct appropriate relationship dynamics.
Psychotherapy is highly recommended as these personality characteristics are ingrained and difficult to change on your own. Choosing the right therapist can make all the difference in your recovery. You’ll know you’re on track when the following traits become part of your personality:
- You nurture your own wants and desires and develop a connection to your inner world. You see yourself as reliant, smart, and capable.
- You say goodbye to abusive behavior. Awareness, change, and growth are necessary for you and for your partner to overcome unhealthy relationship habits. Caretaking and enabling behavior is acknowledged and stopped.
- You respond instead of react to your partner—and to others. Setting clear, firm boundaries means that you don’t automatically react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. You tolerate other people’s opinions and do not become defensive when you disagree. You recognize that your reaction is your responsibility. You adopt a healthy skepticism regarding what others say about you (good or bad), and your self-esteem doesn't rise and fall as a result. You say no, and you accept hearing no.
When you've recovered from codependency, you no longer feel compelled to stay in an unhealthy, painful relationship. You know that you are not responsible for anyone's happiness except for your own, and so you can feel comfortable with the decision to walk away.