codependency quiz: Man and Woman marionettes, attached to strings.

EVER WONDERED, “AM I IN A CODEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP?” 

TAKE THIS THREE QUESTION CODEPENDENT RELATIONSHIP QUIZ, AND FIND OUT.

As a couples counselor and marriage counselor who specializes in helping couples grow together, I frequently encounter couples struggling in a codependent dynamic that is dragging them both down and making it difficult for either of them to feel good about each other. Interestingly, many of them understand that somethings up (that’s why they are in marriage counseling) but have absolutely no idea that they are in a codependent relationship. They’re just blaming each other for the problems, and often feeling really helpless to boot. 

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I will always do a thorough relationship assessment with new couples in order to figure out what’s going on so that I can provide meaningful assistance in fixing a relationship. I want couples counseling to be effective, and in order to mend a relationship we need to know what’s really going on first. 

When I suspect that a couple is stuck in a codependent relationship pattern, here are some of the questions I ask to test my hypothesis. (I’m sharing this informal “codependency quiz” with you too, so you can think about whether your relationship has codependent tendencies):

Here are my “Codependency Quiz” questions: 

  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. Over time, Jen became increasingly fearful that her relationship was failing, which led her to become increasingly activated, aggressive, and upset about what Scott was doing or not doing to improve the situation.

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. He can’t say this to Jen, but he actually feels terrible that she’s upset all the time. Yet, he also feels that she’s being not just unfair, but critical, controlling, and aggressive to the point that this relationship is not feeling emotionally safe for him any more. 

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 Codependency

“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.

Grow, Together.

Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.

The Core Truth of Codependency

“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).

Prior to this, Jen legitimately had no idea that it was her own codependence that was contributing significantly to this dynamic. She sincerely believed with all her heart and soul that Scott was the problem. While it required humility to say, “Holy crap, am I codependent??” As soon as she did, it gave her a completely different understanding of what was happening in the relationship and — paradoxically — an authentic new level of control. Not over Scott of course, but over herself. Finally, she could do something tangible and effective to improve her relationship. (Which was what her intention had always been). 

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 you can’t make them do it.”

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.

If someone wants to be a good partner to you, they will be… but you can’t make them do it.

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 afterwords. He found a budgeting app they could use to manage finances as a couple, 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, healthy 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: https://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, working on yourself, and finding new alternatives to your old scripts and emotional reactions can help you get your personal power back and create a happier, and more stable life for yourself — no matter what your partner does.

Marriage Counseling or 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, the 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 and Coaching

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23 Comments

  1. I am happy to come across this article, extremely helpful i must confess. I have been trying for years to understand what exactly happened in my relationship and why I suddenly chose to face my career and happiness instead of the constant work on making changes in my partner which usually end in frustrations and anger. Now I have a better understanding and in a beautiful relationship with myself and my daughter.
    Thank you so much!

    1. How wonderful! Congratulations Doris. It sounds like you’ve done amazing growth work, and made really positive changes both for yourself and your daughter. I’m so glad that this article gave a voice to your process, and validated your decisions. Thank you for sharing your story of empowerment — I bet it will bring both comfort and inspiration to others who hear it. All the best to you and your family… Lisa

  2. Hi Dr. Lisa,

    My name is Lauren. I’m writing because I have just started listening to you, Dr. Lisa and you are amazing! I’m hoping you can help me out with this..
    My girlfriend (we’ve been together 1 1/2 years, but have known each other for 20 years and we are both 36 years old), she keeps lying to me about anything where she feels shame (ie: drinking or smoking cigarettes) or she will lie to avoid conflict or confrontation. I don’t feel like I can trust her anymore and I’m torn as to what to do because I love her. She cries and admits she is wrong but then she’ll do it again a week or two later!
    Please help!! I can’t take this anymore and I just feel like I’m at my wits end and on the verge of leaving her.

    Thank you,
    Lauren

    1. Hi Lauren, Thank you for your kind words, and for being a listener of the Podcast. You’re why I make them!
      Great question you bring up, and one that I think many people can relate to. It’s so hard when you’re trying to have an honest, authentic relationship with someone who lies. I want to commend you though – it sounds like you have so much compassion and insight as to WHY your partner lies: She feels shame and guilt about her behaviors, and wants to avoid upsetting you. While I obviously don’t know what the deal is with your GF specifically, I have worked with enough people struggling with addiction to know that often times when people persist in behaviors that they feel badly about and that are causing problems in their relationship… it’s because they have an addiction. If that is the case with your girlfriend she may want to stop but feels unable to. It may be worth encouraging her to get involved in some personal growth work to address her unhealthy attachment to substances.

      In the meantime I would encourage YOU to take extra good care of yourself, invest energy in other parts of your life, do some soul searching around what kind of relationship you want to be in, and what kind of person you want to be. Remember, we can’t control others, only ourselves. Here is a podcast to support you on YOUR journey of growth: What To Do When Your Partner Has a Problem. While I sincerely hope that your girlfriend is able to grow and evolve into the kind of partner you want and need her to be, it sounds like you are already on a great path of self actualization and I have every confidence you will create a positive reality for yourself either way.

  3. Awesome article! Allowed me some closure on a few relationships where I finally realized why I chose certain partners. Great example to use and glad it ended happily for this couple.

  4. Amazing. After all the searching in the world to try to figure out what the heck happened to our relationship, and early on may I add, she outlined this w exact precision.
    I know he’s a good man.
    I know I’m a good woman.
    But the barrier was kind numbing. I couldn’t see through to the actual issue.
    I had so many questions. Like is he really a narc, and that never truely defined itself. I knew it wasn’t true…but couldn’t prove anything one way or other.
    And then this simple, loving and unbiased article, that blamed neither party for the nine sense, outlined my life exactly. (Minus the drinking part but add in our own trouble)
    It was so easy to see myself in this, and even easier to see him.
    Now I get it.
    It doesn’t make me less angry.
    But it does make me far less scared. And that helps a ton in eradicating actual issues and seeing clearly.

    A long road ahead.
    But now, I know where I walk. And that’s a really freeing feeling I’ve been looking 10 years for.

  5. I’m so glad to know that this was helpful to you Raign, and that you found these ideas to support yourself and your partner on this important journey of growth. Wishing you all the best, Dr. Lisa

  6. I am happy to come across this article, extremely helpful i must confess. I have been trying for years to understand what exactly happened in my relationship and why I suddenly chose to face my career and happiness instead of the constant work on making changes in my partner which usually end in frustrations and anger. Now I have a better understanding and in a beautiful relationship with myself and my daughter.
    Thank you so much!

  7. How wonderful! Congratulations Doris. It sounds like you’ve done amazing growth work, and made really positive changes both for yourself and your daughter. I’m so glad that this article gave a voice to your process, and validated your decisions. Thank you for sharing your story of empowerment — I bet it will bring both comfort and inspiration to others who hear it. All the best to you and your family… Lisa

  8. Hi Dr. Lisa,

    My name is Lauren. I’m writing because I have just started listening to you, Dr. Lisa and you are amazing! I’m hoping you can help me out with this..
    My girlfriend (we’ve been together 1 1/2 years, but have known each other for 20 years and we are both 36 years old), she keeps lying to me about anything where she feels shame (ie: drinking or smoking cigarettes) or she will lie to avoid conflict or confrontation. I don’t feel like I can trust her anymore and I’m torn as to what to do because I love her. She cries and admits she is wrong but then she’ll do it again a week or two later!
    Please help!! I can’t take this anymore and I just feel like I’m at my wits end and on the verge of leaving her.

    Thank you,
    Lauren

  9. Hi Lauren, Thank you for your kind words, and for being a listener of the Podcast. You’re why I make them!
    Great question you bring up, and one that I think many people can relate to. It’s so hard when you’re trying to have an honest, authentic relationship with someone who lies. I want to commend you though – it sounds like you have so much compassion and insight as to WHY your partner lies: She feels shame and guilt about her behaviors, and wants to avoid upsetting you. While I obviously don’t know what the deal is with your GF specifically, I have worked with enough people struggling with addiction to know that often times when people persist in behaviors that they feel badly about and that are causing problems in their relationship… it’s because they have an addiction. If that is the case with your girlfriend she may want to stop but feels unable to. It may be worth encouraging her to get involved in some personal growth work to address her unhealthy attachment to substances.

    In the meantime I would encourage YOU to take extra good care of yourself, invest energy in other parts of your life, do some soul searching around what kind of relationship you want to be in, and what kind of person you want to be. Remember, we can’t control others, only ourselves. Here is a podcast to support you on YOUR journey of growth: What To Do When Your Partner Has a Problem. While I sincerely hope that your girlfriend is able to grow and evolve into the kind of partner you want and need her to be, it sounds like you are already on a great path of self actualization and I have every confidence you will create a positive reality for yourself either way.

  10. Awesome article! Allowed me some closure on a few relationships where I finally realized why I chose certain partners. Great example to use and glad it ended happily for this couple.

  11. Amazing. After all the searching in the world to try to figure out what the heck happened to our relationship, and early on may I add, she outlined this w exact precision.
    I know he’s a good man.
    I know I’m a good woman.
    But the barrier was kind numbing. I couldn’t see through to the actual issue.
    I had so many questions. Like is he really a narc, and that never truely defined itself. I knew it wasn’t true…but couldn’t prove anything one way or other.
    And then this simple, loving and unbiased article, that blamed neither party for the nine sense, outlined my life exactly. (Minus the drinking part but add in our own trouble)
    It was so easy to see myself in this, and even easier to see him.
    Now I get it.
    It doesn’t make me less angry.
    But it does make me far less scared. And that helps a ton in eradicating actual issues and seeing clearly.

    A long road ahead.
    But now, I know where I walk. And that’s a really freeing feeling I’ve been looking 10 years for.

  12. I’m so glad to know that this was helpful to you Raign, and that you found these ideas to support yourself and your partner on this important journey of growth. Wishing you all the best, Dr. Lisa

  13. Glad it worked out but video games and drinking and the real possibility of losing his job?

    He didn’t respect her. She should have left.

  14. Absolutely, awesome article to read. Married to an alcoholic who’s been sober for 24 years now and it’s still a struggle for me. It’s all about him and his daily routine and I feel alone and empty. But, I made this commitment when I married him and trust God to help me day by day, moment by moment.

  15. Teresa, good for you (and him) on working through recovery together! It’s no small feat. Do you have support yourself? In recovery, so much support is offered to the sober person – but loved ones need a community in this, too. Whether a support group, family and friends, or working with a therapist, you deserve to have help in this recovery process, too. And I wonder if you’ve tried couples counseling together yet? Keep up the incredible work. Best, LMB

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