BREAKING THE CYCLE OF CODEPENDENCY IN RELATIONSHIPS
While the cycle of codependency begins with two people, you only need one to break it. You may not know the term for this type of relationship dynamic, but if you’re in one, you’ll know the experience of it intimately. Melody Beattie defines it almost perfectly when she says, “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Here, I will use the term codependency to describe a relationship dynamic and codependent to describe one person’s behavior (though it’s not uncommon to find both people exhibit this behavior within a dynamic.)
Codependency is traditionally understood in the world of addiction recovery. It’s a common dynamic that develops when one person in a family is experiencing addiction. Anyone who has had a loved one struggle with addiction knows that its impact stretches far beyond the individual and affects those around them as well. Enter codependency – a desire to control the person whose behavior is (often negatively) impacting you. However, codependency doesn’t require addiction to be present in the dynamic. Codependent patterns are common in many other relationship dynamics, which can include relationships with people struggling with either physical and mental illnesses and is also commonly seen with people working in helping professions such as nurses or social workers.
The hard truth about codependency, and healing it, is this: focusing on the other person is a way to escape our own pain. Only when we truly attend to ourselves will we heal the dynamic. Below we outline some of the most important components in breaking the cycle of codependency.
Boundaries have become a more widely talked about topic over the past several years, and while they’re important for everyone, they are arguably the most important step in breaking cycles of codependency. Setting boundaries includes articulating our limits to those around us, but that’s often not the hardest part (though it can still be very challenging, especially as we first begin to learn this skill!) Often, the hardest part is reinforcing those boundaries. An example might include telling your parent that you won’t be home every holiday now that you are in a committed partnership and plan to spend some with your partner’s family. Just because you have set the boundary doesn’t mean the other person will or has to automatically respect it.
When reinforcing boundaries, we must take personal responsibility for our role in things. If your parent continues to push on this boundary and you find yourself going back on it, the most likely result is you feeling resentful and the age old saying “resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die” certainly rings true. While it’s challenging to do, codependent recovery involves holding your boundary or even setting new ones. Instead of trying to control your parent’s response to soothe your own emotions, it may be time to say, “Mom, I know this is hard for you and makes you feel sad to split holidays. It makes me feel sad too, but this is important to me and my relationship. I understand you're hurt, but I am no longer willing to continue to have a conversation about it. I love you and want the time we do spend together to be meaningful, and I hope you can respect this boundary.”
YOU’RE ALLOWED TO HAVE YOUR FEELINGS…AND SO ARE THEY
If boundaries were easy to set and reinforce, they likely wouldn’t occupy so much of the self-help space. What makes boundaries so challenging to reinforce is that they often can hurt someone else’s feelings, even if that is not the intention. The uphill battle for people in codependent relationships is to learn not only to tolerate and welcome your own emotions, but to honor the fact that other people are allowed to feel however they do. In the above example, your parent might feel sad or angry. They may express those emotions in ways that also hurt you. Breaking the cycle means honoring your emotions while also letting the other person have theirs. It may involve more boundary setting or even respecting their boundaries. It may involve taking some time away to process the feelings and then coming back together. The important part of this is making sure you have the tools to self-soothe your own emotions because trying to control someone else in the service of your own self-soothing will only continue the cycle.
SELF-COMPASSION AND LOVING KINDNESS
Working through codependency is challenging. When doing this work, it’s important to be extra kind to yourself. Oftentimes codependent behavior also includes elements of low self-worth and a lack of self-trust. Learning to honor yourself and you're worth as inherent to who you are and not dependent on serving someone else can bring up a lot of challenging feelings. Learning to trust your own emotions and what they need instead of someone else’s is also challenging. Making sure to be kind to yourself is of the utmost importance because it is common to second-guess yourself in the process. Practicing Loving Kindness meditations can be helpful in extending this compassion to yourself, as well as to others. Breaking the cycle of codependency means removing blame – it’s not about it being your fault or the other persons. It’s about listening to your emotions, what they are communicating to you, and honoring those needs.
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of codependency recovery is learning the difference between generosity and codependency. Sometimes, we truly want to do something nice for the people we love. Sometimes, our actions aren’t motivated by codependency, but rather by love and generosity. Learning to engage in the practice of self-enquiry and ask yourself why you want to do something is key. Here’s an example: you have the idea to buy your partner coffee while you’re getting yourself one. If you ask yourself why you want to do this and the answer is that they have been stressed at work and you want to signal your support and love, then that’s a green light signal to buy them a coffee! If, however, you practice asking yourself this question and are instead motivated to buy them one because they’ve been stressed at work and their bad mood has made you anxious, you may instead be trying to make yourself feel better. Working with this practice means also asking yourself how you might be able to set some boundaries (i.e. “I know you’re under a lot of stress and I want to support you. If you want to vent, I’m here, but I won’t tolerate being yelled at.”) instead of trying to temporarily control their mood.
Codependency is a challenging cycle and breaking this cycle involves a lot of practice, support, and learning of new tools. Free support groups like Al-Anon may be appropriate as well as finding a therapist that can help support you. Remember to be kind to yourself in the process. You are learning a new pattern of relating, feeling, and being. While it can be a difficult process, breaking these patterns can offer you relationships that are mutually satisfying – and that includes you.