Everyone laughs when I tell them that I wrote Codependency for Dummies. But codependency in relationships is no laughing matter. It causes serious pain and affects the majority of Americans, both in and out of relationships. I know. I spent decades recovering.
There are all types of codependents, including caretakers, addicts, pleasers, and workaholics, to name a few. They all have one thing in common: They’ve lost the connection to their core. Their thoughts and behavior revolve around someone or something external, whether it’s a person or an addiction.
It’s as if they’re turned inside out. Instead of self-esteem, they have other esteem, based upon what others think and feel. Instead of meeting their own needs, they meet the needs of others, and instead of responding to their own thoughts and feelings, they react to those of others. Hence, they have to control others to feel okay, but that just makes matters worse. It’s a haywire system that leads to conflict and pain and makes emotional intimacy difficult. (Learn more about symptoms of codependency.)
Some people criticize the codependency movement and say that it’s created more loneliness. They argue that relationships are nurturing and that we’re naturally meant to be dependent. I couldn’t agree more, but the point is that codependent relationships are not only painful, but are sometimes destructive. Codependents have problems receiving the good stuff that relationships can potentially offer. Many choose partners who are unhealthy.
Codependency for Dummies explains the differences between codependency in relationships and healthy interdependent relationships, between healthy caregiving and codependent caretaking, and understanding the boundaries between responsibility for yourself and responsibility to others, something that eludes codependents.
Not all codependents are caretakers, but if you are, you have a hard time listening to other people’s problems without trying to help, sometimes even feeling responsible and guilty for their feelings. This creates high reactivity and arguments of blame and guilt. Couples blame each other for their own feelings and defend themselves when their partner shares his or her feelings.
Boundaries and Intimacy
What’s missing is a sense of separateness between them – called emotional boundaries – that your thoughts and feelings belong to you. “I’m not responsible for your feelings, and I didn’t make you feel them.” Weak boundaries make real intimacy difficult, if not impossible. For that to happen, you need to first have a sense of separate identity and feel safe enough to express your true feelings without feeling afraid of being criticized or rejected.
This is where the codependent core issue of low self-esteem comes in. When your sense of self is weak, you’re afraid of rejection and abandonment, but on the flip-side you fear losing yourself when you get attached in a relationship. You tend to give up your needs to accommodate your partner, sometimes letting go of outside friends and activities you used to enjoy. Even when your relationship isn’t working, you feel stuck or trapped. Contrary to common belief, many codependents aren’t even in relationships, because they’re afraid of losing their independence.
If you’re dating, you might pursue partners, but never really get a commitment, or you distance yourself, but never really leave. It’s a two-step dance that’s even done in marriages, but creates constant pain in the relationships, highlighted by fleeting moments of closeness – just enough to keep the dance going. Some couples give up on intimacy entirely.
Codependents have a dilemma. If you can’t say “No” without feeling guilty, you end up resentful from agreeing to things you rather not. Due to fears of rejection, you avoid taking positions at all costs – like a clever politician, you’re indirect and don’t want to say anything that might upset someone else. Additionally, due to guilt and low self-esteem, codependents are always explaining and justifying themselves.
Codependent relationships suffer from no conflict at all, because partners hold back their feelings, or irresolvable conflict because they don’t communicate well or can’t compromise. Improving your communication by learning how to be assertive, how to set boundaries, and how to handle verbal abuse is a vital part of recovery.
Codependents spend their precious lives worrying about things and people over which they have no control. Healing from codependency starts with getting to know yourself better, honoring yourself, and expressing yourself. Here are some tips:
- Practice on saying “No.” Remember, “No” is a complete sentence.
- When someone tells you a problem, just listen. Say, “I understand. That’s a real problem.” Period!
- Identify your feelings throughout the day. Journal and share them.
- When you don’t feel great, ask yourself what you need. Try to meet that need, and reach out if necessary.
- Do things that make you happy. Don’t wait for someone else.
Building a relationship with yourself leaves you with no time to worry about someone you can’t control. That’s how you heal codependency.
©Darlene Lancer, 2012
What Is Codependency? – Codependency in Relationships and Codependent Relationship information provided by Darlene Lancer, MFT, author of Codependency for Dummies provided by Darlene Lancer, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Codependency for Dummies
My husband is co-dependent and he is driving me crazy. He never expresses what he really wants or needs. I’m afraid to ask him to do simple stuff like pick up the kids because I know he’ll always say yes when he should have said no. He resents me for it later and makes himself out to be a victim. Will your book “Co-dependency For Dummies” be helpful for me or is there something more geared towards the spouse of a co-dependent? I want him to get better! I feel like I’m either being smothered in his attention or given the silent treatment because he resents doing something for me that he really didn’t want to.
Codependent couples usually come in pairs, so you be codependent and not know it. For example, in how you react to his pouting and resentment. He may be passive-aggressive.
Thank you for all your helpful blog articles. I’ve read several today, as I am dealing with family drama coming from two different narcissists. I’ve been working on my recovery from abuse for decades now, and it’s an ongoing process. I have made a lot of progress regarding my codependency, but it takes more conscious effort when dealing with my family of origin or narcissists like dear old mom and dad and stepmom and grandma… Yeah. Anyway, I really appreciate your contributions and helpful advice.
See “Dealing with Toxic Parents”, “Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers”, and get Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People,
My husband of 20 years has recently shared with me he has been diagnosed with codependency by his psychologist. He controls the finances and has encouraged me to stay home with our children. Last year I learned we had multiple loans and most of our debts had gone unpaid for years, so many unnecessary secretes. He is now convinced I am a narcist and am trying to control his life. Everything I say is perceived as an attack. He has justified lying to me due to living in a life of fear that I have created accusing me of always making him feel small. When I ask him what I am doing that makes him feel I have spent ‘20 year putting him in a box’ and I must always be ‘right’. He continues to attack me rather than let me know what I have done wrong. He accuses me of not listening even though I have begged him to tell me what I am doing that I need to change, he refuses to tell me.
I’m afraid after his diagnosis he has determined I am responsible for the last 20 years of his life, I thought we had a loving relationship. Now he tells me I have abused him the entire time. Until I discovered he has been lying I thought we were close. I don’t want to leave him but I am so heart broken and anytime I question any portion of our day he accuses me of abuse. He has torn down every portion of the person I am. Is this normal codependency behavior? Can this change or should I move on?
His therapist has only heard his side of the story. Insist on couples counseling, but also study and practice being assertive with my ebook and webinar. You may be totally right and justified, but if your delivery comes across as complaining, criticism, or nagging, which may be understandable given his resistance, in his mind it’s abuse.
I have CFD as my codependency bible. I have grown a lot as a person and getting to know myself. I have found I really resent people when I try to “please” them. Another thing I noticed, unfortunately, my religious community seemed to encourage codependency in me. There was not a lot of boundaries between me and my church. Being selfless is often prized their and talking about having a self is well selfish. I still have more growing to do. I appreciate your posts and your book!
I’m so glad you’re being helped by CFD. What you describe is a common misinterpretation that many believers have. See my blog on “Your Primary Spiritual Relationship,” which explains the concept of self-love. When we’re able to set boundaries and do things willingly, rather than trying to please someone, there’s no resentment. See How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits on setting boundaries.
My ex-husband (after 35 yrs of marriage) left me for a codependent relationship/marriage to a borderline personality disorder drug addict. he is now getting divorced, in therapy, Al-Anon, on meds and says he never stopped loving me and wants to start over. He appears to be working on his problems, but I still get the feeling that he is transferring his codependency to me. Everything he does, he asks if he pleases me, do I love him, enjoy being with him. Am I wrong to see all these red flags? Although I never stopped loving him, I am hesitant to let my boundaries down – what if I get hurt again? What if he does this to me again?
These are real fears and it’s understandable that you’d hesitate because you might be left again. I’m not sure how his “codependency” affects you, but your working on yours and your recovery can change the relationship dynamics.
I am currently reading Codependency for Dummies, hoping it will keep me strong. I’ve been in a codependent relationship for almost 10 years. We were 15 when we started dating. He is very controlling and demanding–amazing at manipulating me into thinking I’m the problem, but I know I’m not. I am very unhappy. I decided to take action today and left. Deep inside me I know it’s the right decision–he’ll never change. But I’m terrified of being alone or making the wrong decision. I keep thinking I should go back–but it’s out of fear, not love. I need to stay strong but it’s so hard. I love him and hate him so much at the same time.
Decisions based on fear or guilt are never in our highest interest. Do what is the most loving act for you.
I really enjoyed this. Thank you for sharing.
I felt like I was reading a description of myself. All of my romantic relationships have ended because I was described as needy. Well I have been dating this guy for the past 3 months and my emotions are based if I see him or not. I don’t contact him everyday but I think about him constantly waiting by my phone to see if he will call or text me. Most of the time, I initiate contact. This wasn’t the norm in the first month. We have both expressed that we liked each other but I am afraid to have a discussion with him about what he wants from this “relationship”. I’m afraid he’ll not agree. I feel like if I have that talk then I can move on. Everyone is telling me to let him initiate next contact but I feel that if I don’t I’ll be a nervous wreck. I have just started seeing a therapist to help me with my codependency but what can I do in the moment to help me overcome these feelings of anxiety?
Great question, Krista. The answer is to learn to focus on your self. Build yourself, your life and your self-esteem. How to do that is contained in my Dummies book with lots of exercises and tools to help you take your attention off of him. Follow my 14 tips for letting go. The reasons you’re so anxious are explained in my new book on shame, with 40 pages of self-help exercises to heal. Also read my blog on obsessions.
“Building a relationship with yourself leaves you no time to worry about someone you can’t control. That’s how you heal codependency.”
This is a great thought — something I’m working on after being in a narcissistic/codependent relationship for many years. I gave up so much of what I wanted to do and be in an attempt to please a person who in the end abandoned me. It’s hard to build a relationship with yourself after so many years of focusing on someone else, but it’s two years out and I’m doing better!
I always love to hear success stories. thank you for posting this! Often we don’t even know what we want, but trial an error helps us know ourselves better. Take action and reap the rewards. Best wishes on your journey!
Excellent article, Darlene! I especially appreciated the part where it’s healthy to listen to other people’s problems without automatically having to help. I continue to use your healthy outlook for my Denver and Boulder clients who are continuing to deepen intimacy through healthy relationship boundaries, energetic breath work, Family Systems Theory, the Enneagram of Personaltiy, and Gestalt work. Thanks for your prodigious output of high quality information!