Breaking Free of Codependency

When I finally sobered up and extricated myself from an abusive relationship, I knew I needed help. That same year Melody Beattie published her book, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. The year was 1986 and Melody’s book was very popular in recovery circles. I found her book, and recovery groups for codependents, very helpful in my quest to free myself from my dysfunctional relationship patterns.

At that time, the term “codependent” mostly referred to people like me who were looking for the strength and support to stop enabling an addict or alcoholic. We were learning that the best course of action was to detach with love, and let the addict hit their “bottom.” But fast-forward about thirty years and the term codependency has evolved to entail much more than the relationship between an addict and their enabler.

Today, the term refers to the codependent dynamics in relationships that often do not involve substance abuse or other addictions. In fact, codependency refers to unhealthy relationship dynamics that often exist to greater and lesser degrees in many relationships. Rather than just being a maladapted response to being in relationship with an addict or alcoholic, codependency is actually a dysfunctional family dynamic handed down from our parents, and from their parents, and from their parents’ parents. In other words, codependency is a relatively new term but the dysfunctional relationship dynamic it refers to has been around for a very long time.

I like how Melody Beattie defines codependency in her more recent book: “Codependency,” she says, “is about normal behavior taken too far.” And “It’s not so much what we do as why we’re doing it.”

One of the values of the concept of “codependency” is that it helps us to see when our normal behaviors have gone “too far,” and have morphed into dysfunctional patterns in our relationships. Seeing this can help us to move toward healthier patterns that create happier interpersonal interactions.

Taking a look at your less-than-functional coping styles can give you a window into why some of your relationships might not be thriving in the ways you would like them to.

The author Melody Beattie has written more about codependency than just about anyone, and she says: “When we cross the line into the Codependent Zone, we’ve usually got an ulterior motive for what we do.”

In my experience, those ulterior motives usually lead to hurt. We hurt others when we use them to achieve our aims. And we hurt ourselves when we are less than honest about our motives, because it reduces our chances of achieving the intimacy most of us want.

The culture of codependency also dictates that we don’t talk about our deepest truths. Instead we manipulate and acquiesce and assume.

While a common characteristic of codependency is an excessive reliance on people or a particular person for approval and a sense of identity, what many people miss is that excessive reliance on another person can show up in unexpected ways. For instance it can manifest as the need to control others.

The fact that both “weak boundaries” and “controlling behaviors” are codependent coping styles, can be confusing. But whether we allow someone to dominate us or we try to dominate them, our motivation is nearly identical. We are attempting to control outcomes instead of showing up authentically.

The siren call of codependency is: “After all I have done for you!” Those words communicate the expectations common to most codependents: “I suffer for you because that is how I express my love and now you OWE me!”

It is a nonconsensual expectation. If the expectations had been discussed and agreed upon, then there might be a legitimate grievance if the agreed upon terms had not been met. But assuming and expecting in the absence of mutual agreement is a violation of the rights of others. And even when done in the name of self-sacrifice and giving, violating the rights of others never leads to healthy outcomes.

Both weak boundaries and controlling behavior work together to create a codependent dynamic

The journey from a relationship mired in dysfunctional and codependent patterns to a healthy and interdependent partnership requires each member of the relationship to learn how to assert healthy boundaries. And it also requires each person to learn how to fully respect the boundaries of the other.

The essential ingredients to a healthy boundary include:

  1. Keep the focus on your feelings and behavior
  2. Decide what you find acceptable and unacceptable treatment of you
  3. Assert your healthy boundaries by calmly communicating them to others
  4. Know what actions you will take if your boundaries are violated
  5. Follow through by taking those actions when your boundaries are violated

If you feel like others owe you (or you owe them), then you might be resorting to codependent thinking. Codependency compromises your level of authenticity and your ability to assert and honor healthy boundaries.

But if you are able to show up fully, speak your truth honestly, assert your boundaries with comfort, accept the boundaries of others without fear or resentment and accept care from others without feeling guilty, indebted or resentful, then you are well on your way to creating healthy and life-affirming relationships.

Below is a list of ten things you can do to shift the codependent dynamics in your relationships to the interdependent dynamic that fosters fulfilling and enlivening interactions with others.

Ten Steps to Move Past Codependent Traits:

  1. Put the Focus Back on You
  2. Eliminate Expectations of Others and Start Meeting Your Own Expectations
  3. Don’t Obsess or Worry About the Other Person – Detach with Love
  4. Don’t Judge or Label Yourself or Others
  5. Pursue Your Own Interests and Joy
  6. Meditate and/or Start a Spiritual Practice
  7. Don’t Try to Change or “Fix” Others
  8. Journal Your Feelings – Emphasis on Feelings instead of Logical Analysis
  9. Practice Self-Love and Self-Acceptance
  10. Get Professional Help and/or Find a Support Group

These are steps you can take to heal and transform all your connections to others. Everything begins with healthy boundaries.

It’s important to know that what we want might not be what our loved ones want. And that despite our best efforts to anticipate what others want, the better, healthier course of action is almost always to simply ask for what you want and need while showing curiosity about the other person’s desires and preferences. In doing so, we show respect for each other. And we create the emotional safety that fosters trust and intimacy.

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