Being codependent in a relationship is all too common. As children, we get shown a concept of true love that is, as many of us later in life find out, quite unrealistic. Young girls look at the scenes of classic Disney Princess movies like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella with big, glistening eyes, wondering when they will find their very own Prince Charming. These movies teach us that life can be dramatic and full of hardship, but once we find our prince or princess and seal the deal with a kiss, those hardships will magically disappear, and we will live happily ever after. Because once we find our prince or princess, we will feel whole.
This concept of feeling incomplete without “the one” has set the standard for the attitude towards love relationships for most people. The whole idea of Juliet not being able to live without her Romeo sounds, in theory, very romantic. But as we are finding out over time, this way of thinking is also very unhealthy and can leave us feeling unhappy in our relationships and even in our lives.
And because we have been fed this idealogy of true love and what it’s supposed to be like, most of us enter a relationship with sky-high expectations. We want our partner and the relationship to tick all of our boxes, and we want to make sure that we tick all of their boxes as well. Of course, we can have a preference for certain qualities we look for in another person. An example of these qualities is that we want our partners to treat you with kindness and respect. This is a very basic need and not unrealistic to ask of your significant other at all. But when we expect our partners to meet all of your needs, all of the time, we might unwillingly set ourselves, our partner, and the relationship up for failure.
Codependent in a Relationship
When one or two people in a relationship seek to validate their sense of self-worth through one another, we are talking about a codependent relationship. The definition of codependency varies among psychologists. One of the simple ways to explain codependency is that one is overly attached and preoccupied with their partner, to the point of losing their own sense of self.
A codependent person is usually so disconnected from themself that their devotion to the relationship and their partner outweighs their own needs, whether physical or psychological. Codependency in relationships displays some very dysfunctional patterns. Examples of these patterns are people-pleasing, low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, anxiety, reactivity, ineffective communication, jealousy, controlling behaviors, manipulation, poor/no boundaries, and not having or pursuing personal goals or interests outside the relationship.
There’s very little to no room for both partners in a codependent relationship to be themselves in full honesty and authenticity. To be autonomous and to grow as an individual. Instead, one or both partners try their best to do everything they can to keep their significant partner happy and in a relationship with them, at all costs, even if that means ignoring their own needs and feelings. They rely heavily on their partner because, without the other person, they believe that they will feel incomplete. The relationship has become completely intertwined. When this happens, we are talking about enmeshment, a pretty common but problematic relationship dynamic.
What Causes Codependency?
Codependency doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has its roots in specific causes. We all have been part of codependent relationships at some point in our lives. In fact, the first codependent relationship we have is with our parents or caretakers. As infants, we have no choice but to rely fully on our caretakers for meeting our needs. Because without them, we would have little chance of surviving, especially when we are in the first years of our lives.
Our childhood and family conditioning become our relationship blueprint. If our parents’ or caretakers’ relationship was messy or even traumatic, then that can determine how we feel and behave in other relationships later in life. When children grow up in dysfunctional families and learn that they are unworthy, stupid, bad, incapable, and sometimes even the cause of family dysfunction. This can create belief systems that can make it easier to get involved in codependent relationships as adults.
Even though the relationship dynamics in childhood might have been scary, confusing, or traumatizing, we can still carry them into our adult relationships. Suppose we haven’t spent time working on ourselves and our trauma after breaking free from our family dynamics. In that case, we are likely to attract relationships in which these dynamics can be reenacted. Not because we want to, but simply because they might be all we know.
You Can Heal From Codependency Patterns
If you recognize yourself in the spectrum of codependency, know that this is not a permanent condition. It is possible to break free from these traits and behavioral patterns. They may have served you as a child or in other relationships as a strategy for survival. But it’s vital to understand that these strategies are no longer needed and can even cause problems in your relationships. You can heal codependent patterns in yourself and heal your relationships to become more happy, healthy, and sustainable.
Now that we looked at codependent relationships, you may have noticed what patterns are present in your relationship. If this triggers any feelings of shame or guilt, try to have compassion for yourself and your partner. Your relationship is not yet doomed to fall apart. Relationships are not easy. Even gurus and spiritual teachers refer to relationships as the hardest yoga you’ll ever do. But if both partners commit to putting in the work, you can move away from codependency and create a relationship dynamic that is healthier and more secure. A type of relationship is also known as an interdependent relationship.
An Interdependent Relationship
In an interdependent relationship, both partners in the relationship are autonomous individuals. They know very well who they are, what their needs are, and how to meet them. They both know what they value and put effort into pursuing their personal goals. The emphasis in an interdependent relationship is not expecting the other person to fulfill all of their needs because they are already capable of doing this themselves. Therefore, the relationship becomes a safe space in which both partners can express themselves fully and don’t have to compromise or abandon their own sense of self.
In a codependent relationship, there is the belief that one needs the other person. There are expectations and demands. In an interdependent relationship, both partners know they are in charge of fulfilling their needs, and so they come from a place of wanting the other person. When both individuals see their partners as people they are choosing to share their lives with, rather than seeing them as someone there to service their every emotional or physical need, they experience less conflict and more attraction. True love can flow freely from a heart-centered place in this empowering space, helping the partnership feel secure and stable.
Independence vs Interdependence
One might think that when both partners stand fully in their autonomy and individuality, that would be defined as an independent relationship. However, there is a clear difference between independence and interdependence. Being independent means that one believes they don’t need anyone outside of themselves to fulfill their needs. An independent relationship can work very well for some people. But it can also cause partners to drift apart because there is this attitude of “I don’t need anyone”.
You Are Not Codependent For Having Basic Human Needs
There is a lot of emphasis in our society on being entirely self-sufficient and that it is not OK to need other people. Codependency has become a catch-all for certain human behaviors that are very normal. One can quickly be labeled ‘too needy’, which can cause a lot of confusion and insecurity. So let’s get this clear: it doesn’t make you ‘codependent’ if you have a need for connection, love, attention, and reassurance. It makes you human. To strive for complete independence and move away from codependency is to deny who we are by our true nature: relationally dependent and community-oriented human beings. That’s why reaching a state of interdependence is important.
The Key to Interdependency
Interdependence means that one is fully self-sufficient but sees the value in joining forces with another individual. There is this deep understanding that both partners bring their highest selves into the relationship to create a synergy that helps both individuals and the relationship thrive to the fullest. An interdependent relationship is considered the most healthy relationship and, therefore, the kind that we might strive toward.
The way to a healthy, interdependent relationship is to maintain a sense of self. Especially when you recognize some codependent traits in yourself, here are some things you can do to move away from codependency:
- Prioritize mental and physical self-care
- Checking in with your feelings and needs on a regular basis
- Know what matters to you and what you like/dislike
- Say “no” when you need to. Healthy boundaries are key in every relationship
- Spend more time with friends and family outside of the relationship
- Pursue your own passions or hobbies
- Speak up more and voice your personal opinions
- Don’t be afraid to be honest, authentic, and vulnerable
When doing the deep inner work to heal our patterns and relationships, it is important to keep in mind that we are responsible for our own behaviors. By focusing entirely on others’ faults and flaws, we can not heal the relationship patterns that no longer serve us. If we keep believing that everything is always happening outside of us, we take away our own power and responsibility to change our patterns. As the twelfth slogan of the Buddhist Lojong Slogans advises us: “drive all blames into one”. It is our responsibility to own our experiences and to let our partners have theirs.
Relationships Are Hard Work
If we want to move from being codependent in a relationship to a more interdependent relationship, then we need to have the patience for the time it takes. It requires hard work and commitment from both partners. It takes deep self-awareness, personal reflection, and collaboration. Both partners will make mistakes and slip back into old dysfunctional patterns every now and then. Old wounds and fears can come up, even the best relationships can get messy sometimes and feel like hard work. And it is in those “mistakes” where the lessons are hidden. That is where we can find the key to our personal growth. Relationships are the greatest opportunity to learn to understand and heal the deepest and most vulnerable parts of ourselves.