Are You in a Codependent Relationship?
Marriage and family therapist Tina Tessina says that in the drama section you can find Romeo and Juliet, which features a couple who felt their relationship was more important than their own lives. And over in the history section, you’ll encounter the wives of Henry the Eighth who found that marriage to the self-absorbed king could lead to misery (or worse) if they didn’t produce the son he craved.
Most codependent relationships don’t end in tragedy, of course. But they do keep people from living the full, rewarding lives they could be enjoying.
“Codependency, by definition, means making the relationship more important to you than you are to yourself,” Tessina says. “It’s kind of a weird phrase, and it doesn’t sound like it means a one-sided relationship. But that’s what it is. It means you’re trying to make the relationship work with someone else who’s not.”
The good news is that if you’re a codependent partner, you can, under your own power, find a solution to the problem.
A Closer Look at Codependency
Scott Wetzler, author of Is It You or Is It Me? How We Turn Our Feelings Inside Out and Blame Each Other, says the concept of codependency was first applied to couples in which one partner has an alcohol or drug problem.
But other issues in a couple’s lives can foster codependence too. One partner may have trouble controlling other impulses or simply not show much interest in the partnership. Then the other partner — who is the codependent one — goes all-out to try to “fix” the problem.
For example, if someone is with an alcoholic, taking care of that person or kowtowing to that person’s needs, addresses something in the codependent partner’s personality, says psychologist and author of The Emotional Toolbox,Daniel Bochner. “They have a hard time leaving it,” he says. “They get locked into trying to save their partner or the relationship over and over.”
Codependency can also arise when a partner is self-absorbed or uninterested, Tessina says. “This may happen in a relationship where only one of you is ever asking to get together or making moves toward the other one.”
Still, the codependent partner often finds some type of reward in this setup. “Probably the most significant theme is a sense of control,” Bochner says. “The other person plays the out-of-control person, and so the codependent partner gets to be the person who is in control and thus respected.”
He says the partner who is codependent can be “the better person, the smarter person, the person who’s recognized as having it all together. They’re defining themselves as strong enough to deal with it when actually they need to realize that maybe they should be taking care of themselves instead of proving their strength.”
Wetzler says simply being in a relationship — even one that’s not ideal — may also be comforting. “A lot of times, people have low self-esteem and say, ‘I’m no good, no one would want me, and therefore I have to put up with this.’ These negative thoughts are very common,” he says, “and they have a big impact on why people stay in relationships that may not be good for them.”
People who are codependent often grew up in a household with the same issues. For example, a girl with an alcoholic father could grow up to be attracted to people who drink too much, Tessina says.
“Their whole definition of love is codependent before they even start,” she says. “Most people who didn’t grow up in a codependent atmosphere aren’t going to put up with it for too long. The ones who start with the impression that love is sacrificing for my partner and putting up with whatever my partner wants to dish out are the ones who get deeply stuck in it.”
Signs of Relationship Codependency
Ask these three questions to help you identify whether yours is a codependent relationship.
Question 1: Is this relationship more important to me than I am?
Tessina says love does have a selfless element through which you want to make your partner happy. You may say to yourself “I’m willing to give a lot for him because I love him.” But you also need to say, “I shouldn’t be destroying myself to give it. If I have to do that, something’s wrong.”
Question 2: What price am I paying for being with this person?
Someone with an anxiety disorder may only realize it when she sees what it costs. For example, the price of her anxiety may be that she can’t fly somewhere fun for vacation, Wetzler says.
Similarly, it can be helpful to jot down a list of things you’re giving up to be in your relationship. Bochner says, “If you seem to always be putting yourself last, that’s not generally healthy.”
Question 3: Am I the only one putting energy into this relationship?
If your tennis partner is too distracted or not interested in hitting the ball back to you, the game isn’t going to be much fun. The same is true for a couple when only one person is putting forth any effort, Tessina says.
Back from the Brink
If you find that codependency seems to be a factor in your relationship, can it be fixed? Maybe.
Marriage counseling can help you learn more about the problems you need to work on together. Wetzler says, though, that often one partner — for example, someone with a drinking problem — needs individual counseling.
Bochner points out that you may also benefit from going to a support group. For example, if the problem is alcohol, you might benefit from a group for people affected by someone else’s drinking, such as Al-Anon.
The moment that can nudge a relationship toward healthy change is the moment you decide you’ve had enough.
“Often the thing that gets an alcoholic to go to AA, or narcissists to see that something’s wrong,” Tessina says, “is losing somebody. It’s ironic that the person who wants to stay there forever and give and give has to say ‘OK, I’m through. I’m done. I’m leaving,’ before the partner will turn around and say ‘Oh, wait a minute, I really do care about you.'”
Bochner has seen clients go through the same realization. “The willingness to leave is often what sets things straight. They have to get to a point where they have to save themselves by saying ‘I love you, but I have to take care of me.’ Then, sometimes, the relationship actually changes.”
By Eric Metcalf, MPH