Breaking Out of a Codependent Relationship

Breaking Out of a Codependent Relationship

I’m sure you’ve heard the term “codependency” sputtered around the New Age circles and self-help crowd. But what does it actually mean?

Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT describes this buzz word:

“Codependency is characterized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs.”

Codependent relationships are not healthy relationships where both parties support each other and maintain healthy boundaries, that’s interdependence. With codependency, there is an imbalance and unrealistic expectations of the other partner. 

Let’s look into the symptoms of codependency to get a better understanding if you’re in a codependent relationship or not.

Symptoms of Codependency

According to Lancer, codependency symptoms are seen as follows. Note that not all of them are necessary to qualify as being codependent:

  • Low self-esteem. Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame.Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.
  • People-pleasing. It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.
  • Poor boundaries. Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else. Some codependents have rigid boundaries. They are closed off and withdrawn, making it hard for other people to get close to them. Sometimes, people flip back and forth between having weak boundaries and having rigid ones.
  • Reactivity. A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.
  • Caretaking. Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help. Moreover, they keep trying to help and fix the other person, even when that person clearly isn’t taking their advice.
  • Control. Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. You wouldn’t want to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism, so that they don’t feel out of control. Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.
  • Dysfunctional communication. Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.
  • Obsessions. Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.” Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present. This is one way to stay in denial, discussed below, but it keeps you from living your life.
  • Dependency. Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Others need always to be in a relationship, because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.
  • Denial. One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem. Usually they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem. Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. They might be in denial of their need for space and autonomy. Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.
  • Problems with intimacy. By this I’m not referring to sex, although sexual dysfunction often is a reflection of an intimacy problem. I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.
  • Painful emotions. Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions. Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about being judged, rejected or abandoned; making mistakes; being a failure; feeling trapped by being close or being alone. The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

I grew up in a codependent household. My father was emotionally unavailable and my mother was codependent upon him. This led to volatility in emotions from my mother and I watched an unhealthy relationship modeled as the “norm”.

It wasn’t until my early adulthood when I finally got sober from alcohol and drug addiction that I also faced off my with codependency issues. I learned a lot about my unhealthy behaviors I exhibited in relationships.

Not knowing how to be healthier, but knowing that the way I was living was unbearable, I sought out therapy and more 12-Step Programs for my relationship issues. I wanted to learn a better way to approach love.

I did a lot of introspection and faced off with my demons around self-worth and needing male approval. I started choosing healthier relationships over time.

However, old habits die hard. 

Almost 10 years sober now, I managed to find myself in a codependent relationship. The good thing is that I discovered this after just a couple months, and once I realized it, I have consistently worked to fix my side of the problem and discover my own strength in myself while not losing myself in my boyfriend’s experience and emotions.

After reading the list of codependency symptoms from Lancer, it probably sounds stressful to imagine having a partner who is codependent upon you. There is a lot of dysfunction when one person has codependency issues. But what happens when both parties are codependent?

My Codependent Relationship

My current boyfriend and I met after six months of long-distance phone calls and Facetimes. Communication was the only thing we had during that half of a year, enduring pangs of wanting to be with each other while navigating COVID. 

We were forced to open our hearts and share vulnerably as a result of circumstances and so naturally I assumed that when we finally met we would maintain this fantasy relationship.

I was wrong.

Upon meeting for the first time and immediately living together, our communication skills were trampled by past trauma and fearful stories that played on repeat. The communication and vulnerability were thrown out the door. 

Our pasts came back, haunting us as we navigated this new relationship.

Both of us being strong-willed (aka stubborn), independent, and plagued with unhealed wounds from old failed relationships, our skills of communication took a nose dive to the bottom of the ocean, leaving plenty of room for fear and external combustion.

In the first couple of months I allowed myself to get swept up by the flurry of emotions. We mirrored each other’s reactiveness and played defense against perceived slights or attacks, ever so quick to lash back at the other.

When I finally realized that our trauma was being triggered by the other person, I was able to view our interactions from a more objective space. Rather than assuming that my boyfriend wanted to hurt me with his words, I recognized that he was being thrown into fight-or-flight mode by something I said or did, causing him to react, rather than respond out of love.

“For someone with a history of trauma, being around anything that reminds them of a traumatic experience (also known as a ‘trigger’) can make them feel like they’re experiencing the trauma all over again.”
Source: Arlin Cuncic in Verywell mind

When trauma is triggered in the body and brain, we either fight, flee, or freeze. Well, when it comes to my boyfriend’s and my relationship trauma, apparently we fight.

How Trauma Affects Relationships

“Trauma is a bitch.”
-Anyone with PTSD

Trauma is an unpleasant and all too common occurrence. Not only does it shift us into less evolved humans, but it puts us into a lower frequency. Healing from trauma is already difficult, but it gets even more complicated when being triggered by your partner and trying to heal while still in the relationship.

Codependency is a result of some trauma of the past, which can be from feeling emotionally or physically neglected or abused by our caregivers as children that has led us to fear abandonment or to seek out emotionally unavailable partners. Therefore, by healing the trauma, we can heal the root of codependency.

The International Society For Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) reports that trauma has a very severe effect on relationships:

“Living through traumatic events may result in expectations of danger, betrayal, or potential harm within new or old relationships. Survivors may feel vulnerable and confused about what is safe, and therefore it may be difficult to trust others…Anger and aggression may also arise because, after traumatic experiences, a person may feel threatened very easily. This defensive aggression is a natural reaction for a person who feels threatened.”

Since both my boyfriend and I have experienced severe trauma in the past, we exhibit behaviors from the above explanation perfectly, as well as the codependency symptoms from the earlier list by Lancer. 

We hold a deep fear that the other person is either going to leave or discover that we are unworthy of love, leading us to fight and defend ourselves because we feel unsafe anytime a perceived threat occurs.

Unfortunately trauma is not something that can be healed overnight. I have been actively recovering from it for several years and I still find myself triggered.

The key is to realize when trauma is being triggered in ourselves. This allows us to have the awareness to not react with anger or aggression. Instead, we can pause, recenter ourselves, calm our nervous system, and respond appropriately.

Without this awareness, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of defensiveness and attack. I believe this to be essential in healing a codependent relationship. 

If we can learn to own our emotional experiences, we are closer to maintaining healthier relationships. By not engaging or reacting out of trauma, we can use our mental faculties of reason to assess a situation with a clear head, rather than the reptilian brain.

From my experience, trauma recovery not only heals unhealthy relationship patterns, but also mental illnesses. After years of trauma work, I was able to get off of my medications for bipolar and depression. Ultimately, I believe that trauma recovery will alleviate a myriad of symptoms the brain responds with to protect the self.

I’m working to maintain my own emotional equilibrium; like a sturdy boat, staying upright through the tumultuous waters. The storms will come and go and I am learning how to steer and captain my own ship. It takes a lot of self-awareness and emotional maturity to navigate these waters independently.

Emotional Maturity Yields Healthy Relationships

When someone doesn’t have the emotional maturity to acknowledge, accept, process, and deal with their own emotions, they often throw them around at other people, hoping they’ll stick somewhere.

Owning our emotions takes resiliency and compassion. If we don’t love ourselves, we are unable to fully embrace and move through emotions; rather, we see them as weakness or we see ourselves as victims of other people. 

In order to have a healthy processing of emotions, the person needs to have a level of awareness that allows them to take ownership and accountability, while still gentleness to welcome the emotions and feel them fully, then let them go.

Emotional maturity starts within our own experience, and consequently, trickles out to every one of our relationships. To improve family relationships, romantic relationships, or friendships, we must initiate the change within ourselves. Watch the external world shift around us by shifting our internal world.

I think in my current relationship, we are growing in our emotional maturity. We both are perpetrators of the victim mindset and will blame the other person for our own emotions. This destroys intimacy and is not what either of us want for the future.

One day, I hope that we develop healthy boundaries within our own emotional experience in order to be able to process and dis-identify the emotions from the other person. When we can own our own experience, feelings, and thoughts independently from the other, that’s when we will break this cycle of codependency and build our relationship around interdependency.

Right now, it’s work. But with anything that’s hard at first, the more you practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes. 

Gaining mastery of ourselves through the awareness of our bodies, minds, and hearts, we are growing closer to each other and further away from codependency. We are healing our past trauma within the container of our relationship by working hard to communicate, even when we fight.

By remaining open to having the uncomfortable clearing conversations, despite our internal fears, we are able to maintain a trajectory towards our best selves. Our focus on love and the future timeline of a healthy and thriving relationship sits at the helm of our ship, guiding us towards smoother waves and deeper waters.

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