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Are You Stuck in a Codependent Relationship?

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She’s the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.

Ever Wondered, “Am I Codependent?” Take the Three Question Codependency Quiz:

  1. Are you persistently frustrated, upset, or angry at your partner’s inability to make changes?
  2. Do you believe that your relationship problems would be resolved if only your partner would change?
  3. Do you feel like it’s hard for you to be happy, because of things that your partner is doing or not doing?

If you answered “Yes” to all three questions on the codependency quiz, you might be struggling in a codependent relationship. Instead of listing the “signs of codependency” and then telling you what to do (yawn) let me tell you a story, instead…

The Typical Codependent Relationship

Our  marriage counseling session has barely started before Jen launches in. “He did it again!” Her husband Scott sits, face reddening as he looks at the floor. “I found another empty beer bottle in the trashcan in the garage!” Condescention dripping from her voice, Jen continues on to recount in detail all the times Scott has upset her, let her down, or damaged her trust, “Just in this past week!” Drinking too much. Playing video games for hours. Coming home late. Leaving messes for her to clean up. Failing to follow through with household tasks. As usual.

Jen is livid, but also self-righteous in her victimization. Scott is ashamed, but also sullen and angry. Nearly every time we meet for marriage counseling, both of them agree that Scott’s behaviors are problematic (specifically, for Jen) and that they should change… but then they don’t. Scott says he wants things to improve between the two of them, but appears to put more energy into defending himself and minimizing Jen’s feelings than he does in actually modifying his behavior. [Listen: How to Communicate With Someone Who Shuts Down]. For her part, Jen has many, well-developed ideas about what would help this situation. If only Scott would eat healthier foods, drink less, take his supplements, start antidepressants, lay off the video games, have better friends, exercise more often, read a particular self-help book, go talk to someone, talk to her, join a team, be more like her, and/or mow the lawn when he said he would, things would be better.

Jen sincerely believes that if only Scott would change, they would finally be happy.

In the meantime, Jen exists in their relationship in a “perma-mad” state. [Listen: What to Do When Your Partner Is Always Upset]. She is vigilant, always alert for Scott’s latest misstep or transgression. She churns with anxiety about what bad thing will happen next. She interrogates Scott about his coming and goings, preemptively preparing for the next disappointment that is certain to come. Jen also “over-functions.” Because she doesn’t trust Scott to not let her down or disappoint her, she constantly reminds him, nags him, or, just does necessary tasks herself…. becoming more resentful with each passing day.

From Scott’s (rarely articulated) perspective, everything would be fine if only Jen could relax. He views her as being super high strung and looking for problems where none exist. He’ll agree that he does overdo it with booze sometimes. There was the DUI last year. Yes, he probably spends too much money and has overdrawn their bank account on numerous occasions. He does tend to procrastinate. Often he just doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do, even if they’re important to his wife. But in Scott’s mind, who doesn’t do those things sometimes?

Scott views himself as a normal, easygoing guy, and views Jen as “just never happy.”  However, her constant criticism of him makes him feel bad about himself… and also angry. It’s hard for him to express his anger (which he believes would lead to World War 3, anyway) so his feelings often are expressed in other ways. The not quite hidden beer bottle in the garage, and the “just one more game” played downstairs online while the healthy dinner she prepared for him slowly cools on the table, are evidence of both his attempts to soothe his feelings… and assert them.

Scott wishes that Jen could just accept him for who he is, and get off his case. He does not want to participate in her plan for his life, which feels emasculating and controlling to him.

But the problem is that Jen doesn’t want the Scott that is. She wants the Scott she believes he could be.

So. Here we are in marriage counseling. They’re both looking at me expectantly. Where do we go from here?

The Core Myth of Codependence

“I need you to be a certain way so that I can be happy.”

People who have codependent tendencies put a great deal of energy into attempting to make their partner change into the person they want and need them to be. In doing so, they often become increasingly angry, anxious, and resentful. (As their partner, paradoxically, continues to sail along, believing that things are okay except that their partner is inexplicably angry all the time.)

People with codependent tendencies also, unintentionally, wind up taking the responsibility for change away from their partners and heaping it on to themselves. The more they seem to care about change, the less their partners do. Over time, this power imbalance leads codependent types to lose much of their personal power in their relationships, because how they feel becomes totally dependent upon whatever their partner is doing or not doing. (Hence the term, “codependent.”)

In this case, Jen believes that her happiness, her sense of stability, and her life satisfaction is tied to whether or not Scott is behaving well. Bad news for Jen is that he’s often not. So she’s going bananas, while it’s very easy for him to be dismissive of her.

It is an exhausting way to live. It’s also ineffective.

The Core Anxiety of Codependence

“If I give up control, this will all fall apart.”

It’s very scary for people with codependent tendencies to take a step back and focusing on themselves and what they need, and take responsibility for their own lives, instead of blaming their partners for “making them feel upset” and demanding that they take the responsibility for change. Why? Because it’s really scary to let go of the illusion of control. Jen believes that if she released her vigilance and command, like a puppeteer withdrawing their hand from the suddenly inert plush body of a puppet, that Scott will collapse and cease to function. Allowing Scott to do as he will makes her feel like their shared life will fall apart. And it might. He very well could drink too much, overspend, not follow through, ruin his health with junk food, and waste his life playing video games.

But he’s actually pretty much doing that anyway, with or without her vigilance, nagging, and going about her life in a white rage. Her control doesn’t really have that much of an impact on him. It’s just making her ill, stressed, and unhappy.

When you dig down, deep into the core anxiety of codependence, it’s often not about all the bad things that could happen. (They’re usually happening anyway.) The scariest thing about stepping back from control is often the realization that your partner may never be who you want or need them to be. And that puts the security of the relationship on the line.

As exhausting and maddening as codependence can be, it often feels safer to be perpetually angry, but still committed to “the dream” of what your relationship could be, if only. Because as soon as you give up the illusion that you have control over your partner, you give up hope that you can harrass them into changing. You have to accept the fact that they might not. Then YOU have some serious soul searching to do, about what you want for your life, and whether you’ll be able to find it in this relationship.

The Core Truth of Codependence

“You are only in charge of you, and you can only control yourself.”

On the up-side, when a formerly codependent person stops attempting to control others, and instead starts taking responsibility for themselves and the quality of their life — independent from whatever their partner decides to do or not do — they immediately start to feel happier, more confident, and at peace.

For example, let’s say that over the course of our work together, Jen started to turn the focus away from Scott and back towards herself. She realized that in her vigilance and anxiety about the state of his life, she had been neglecting her own. She started to think about what was fun for her — and it was NOT being an angry shrew all the time. She started putting time and energy into positive relationships and taking better care of herself. She started thinking about what she needed to do, to secure her future… independently of Scott. (Over whom, she was realizing, she had no control).

This exploration led her to feel newly confident in her ability to take care of herself, no matter what. She became committed to keeping her side of the street clean. She stopped nagging Scott, and allowed him to be who he was. She did not enjoy being perpetually angry, and so she let it go. One consequence of her acceptance of Scott, as-is, was that she did not feel as much of a desire to connect with him. In getting in touch with herself, she realized that she did not really enjoy hanging out with him when he’d been drinking too much, so she stopped. She realized that she was tired of sitting around the house while he played video games all night, so she started making plans to do other things.

She also let him experience the natural consequences for his decisions (the hangovers, being late to work after staying up all night online, the late-fees and overdraft charges on his now-separate bank account), instead of angrily rescuing him or berating him into “behaving.”  She didn’t hate Scott, she wasn’t mad at Scott, she was just resigning herself to the fact that Scott was who he was. As she became more healthy and less codependent, she started to feel less interested in continuing to participate in an unhealthy relationship system.

Through all this great work, she started to take her power back.

And that started to scare the s**t out of her husband.

The Paradox of Radical Acceptance and Personal Responsibility

“If someone wants to be a good partner to you, they will be… but it’s up to them.”

The truth was that this entire time, Scott was a very nice man who really did love his wife. He didn’t love the way he felt after overdrinking, and after gaining so much weight. He felt like a screw-up after playing video games all night and being late to work the next day. He too, wanted to be better with money. While he would never tell Jen this, he actually liked how it felt when his car was clean, and he got places on time. He secretly wished he could be the competent, proactive Guy Who Gets Things Done just as much as she did.

However, with Jen harping on him all the time, it had been impossible for him to connect with those feelings of personal dissatisfaction — the core motivator of growth. (He’d been too busy being defensive and annoyed with her, and building a case in his head for why he was right and she was wrong). However, when Jen stopped harassing him, he began to feel increasingly anxious about himself. As he experienced his wife finally “accepting” him for who and what he was, he was left to sit with the truth of his life… and he didn’t like it either.

The result was that Scott started to feel intrinsically motivated to change. He began to come upstairs and have dinner with Jen because he wanted to. He stopped drinking after one beer, because he wanted to show her (and himself) that he could be in control of his drinking. He started inviting himself to the gym with her, much to her surprise, because he liked how energized he felt afterword. He found a budgeting app, and set up a system to keep his spending under control. He spontaneously mowed the lawn, and experienced satisfaction in both the healthy-feeling physical exertion and the knowledge of a job well done.

As they spent more time together, and Jen observed the changes he was making, she started to experience Scott as the guy that she’d wanted to be with this whole time — the real Scott, underneath the anger and passive-aggressive belligerence. She naturally felt more attracted to him again, and rediscovered her genuine love and appreciation for the great guy he was.  As he became more committed to bringing his best self to the table of this relationship, so did she. Jen began to feel not just tolerance, but genuine gratitude for the complementary strengths that he brought to their relationship, like his fun, easy-going nature, and his generosity. Over time, their bond was healed, and without a power-struggle.

When Jen stepped back, it allowed Scott to step forward. When she stopped trying to control him, it allowed him the opportunity to experiment with controlling himself. Paradoxically, Jen’s commitment to her own health and happiness motivated Scott to pursue his own. No screaming, nagging, threatening or caretaking involved. Amazing.

Codependency Recovery

This story has a happy ending. Of course, writing about how to untangle yourself and your relationship from the crazy-making system of codependency is far, far easier than the hard reality of actually doing it. It is very challenging to change the way you operate in intimate relationships. (Many people with codependent tendencies grew up attempting to control / protect a parent long before they ever met their partners.) It requires a great deal of self awareness and commitment, not to mention anxiety management skills. This is a slow process, often measured in months. For some, years.

The key to recovering from codependency is support. If you’re struggling with this issue in your own relationship, here are a few of my favorite resources to help support you on your journey of growth:

Codependent No More: This classic self-help book by Melody Beattie is subtitled, “How to stop controlling others, and start caring for yourself.” While there are newer books on the subject of codependency, her lay-person’s perspective is warm and real, and rooted in the foundations of the Al-Anon movement.

Al-Anon: As the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) movement grew, it became apparent to the partners of people struggling with serious problems, that they had personal growth work to do too. Al-Anon groups are wonderful places to meet with other people in the same situation, and learn tools and strategies to take your personal power back. Al-Anon groups are happening all over the world. Find one here: http://al-anon.org/

Individual Counseling or Coaching: It can be easy for people stuck in codependent relationships to think, “Why should I go to therapy or coaching, when my partner is the one with the problem??” However, relationships are systems: What you are doing does impact the situation. Gaining self awareness about your own patterns, and new alternatives, can help you get your personal power back and create a happier, and more stable life for yourself — no matter what your partner does.

Couples Counseling: Most of the time neither partner in a codependent relationship is really happy with the way things are going. If both partners are willing to do the work, he easiest, most direct way to change a relationship system is to work with an experienced couples therapist or marriage counselor who can help both of you uncover the patterns that are keeping you stuck. Ideally, (as we say around here) you can both grow together, instead of apart.

Here’s to your liberation…

Xoxo, Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Growing Self Counseling & Coaching

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