How to Stop Being Codependent
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.
How To Stop Being Codependent
Overcome Codependency and Get Your Life Back
If you’re in a codependent relationship, it’s time to stop. But how? How do you stop being codependent?? Today’s relationship podcast is going to show you how to spot the signs of codependence, understand why codependent relationship dynamics take hold, and then offer real-world strategies to stop the madness and cultivate healthy interdependence. Really!
I know as a Denver marriage counselor and online couples therapist who’s spent years helping couples get unsnarled from emotional enmeshment, that many couples struggle with codependent relationships. Codependent cycles drag everyone down, and relationships feel miserable when they’re happening.
I know from firsthand experience as a marriage counselor that codependency recovery is possible, but it takes a lot of self awareness to spot it — much less break free from a codependent cycle. It’s hard work, but it’s the only thing that can stop feeling angry and frustrated with your partner, and start feeling good about yourself and your life again.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we’re discussing on the podcast today. (To skip the commentary and just listen to the episode, scroll down to find the podcast player.) Or, here’s the link to listen to How To Stop Being Codependent on Spotify, and here it is on Apple Podcast. Subscribe to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast while you’re there!
What is Codependence, Anyway?
“Codependence” is a pop-psychology term that was birthed in the Al-Anon movement. Back in the mid-century era, counselors who treated patients with substance use disorders began to notice common elements in their partners. They were often completely anxious, often angry, and absolutely hyper-focused on what their alcoholic partner was (doing or not doing) at the expense of their own wellness. They were over functioning in response to their partner’s under functioning, and were mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted as a result.
They were termed “codependent,” and the Al-anon movement was launched in efforts to help the “partners of people with a problem” get emotionally un-fused from their spouses in order to not just feel better and more in control of their lives, but stop trying to “fix” their partners. (So that their partners could have the space to do the work of recovery, or fail.)
Nowadays, the term “codependence” is tossed around like popcorn at the movies in our popular culture as a short-hand way of describing everything from feeling highly attuned to another, to financially dependent on another, to simply being reactive in relationships.
But when marriage and family therapists like myself talk about “codependence” and what it means, we’re actually referring to something much more specific: Codependence is a problematic level of over-involvement and enmeshment in a couple or family that leads to anger, anxiety, and — usually — a great deal of frustration.
In a codependent relationship one person is usually working really hard to try to control, “help,” manage, monitor, coach, or assist the other into acting they way they want them to. As you can imagine, these efforts are not just unproductive, they lead to a really problematic “parent / adolescent” type of dynamic in a couple. In the language of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, a pursue / withdraw relationship cycle predictably ensues with the “helping” spouse becoming increasingly frustrated with their non-compliant partner, who in turn, views their spouse as unnecessarily controlling and hostile (and becomes defensive and avoidant as a result). Not fun for anyone.
If a codependent relationship dynamic has been happening for a long time, it can take the assistance of a really good marriage counselor to help a couple get unfused and achieve healthy interdependence again. Ideally, you can nip it in the bud!
The Problem With Codependent Behavior
Here’s the sneaky thing about codependent relationships that is easy to miss: When you become codependent, you feel like you’re “helping” or “protecting” your partner, or trying to get them to be the person you want and need them to be in order to have a good relationship with them. But over time, often unintentionally, your happiness becomes almost entirely reliant on their actions or behaviors. Maybe you think your partner isn’t doing enough or that your lives will fall apart if you don’t do everything you feel needs to be done. Whatever the case, codependency will drain you of your energy and take away your sense of empowerment for your happiness.
Furthermore (oh, the irony) when codependent relationship dynamics are happening, it makes it less likely that the “under functioning” person is less likely to change and grow. Crazy, but true. (I will explain to you all about why that is in the podcast, promise!)
In this episode, I define what codependency is and paint a picture of how and why it manifests in our relationships. I will be explaining how to shift away from codependency so that you and your partner can flourish together. Through this episode, I hope you can enter a space of healthy interdependence with your partner.
Codependency Recovery Stages
In order to empower YOU to make positive changes in your relationship and learn how to stop being codependent, in this episode I’m covering information that will help you:
- Understand what makes a relationship codependent.
- I’ll ask you some of the same “codependency quiz” questions I ask my clients to help determine if their relationship is codependent
- Learn how to become more self aware around codependent relationship characteristics (so you can stop participating in them!)
- Discover the importance (and methods) of taking back your power, either in codependence therapy, or on your own.
- Learn about the steps you can take toward recovering from codependency as a couple.
- I offer some examples of what codependency recovery stages look like in action, so you have a roadmap for YOUR relationship.
Thanks for joining me in the How to Stop Being Codependent podcast today. I hope it helps you, and that you subscribe to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast on Spotify (or wherever you listen) to take full advantage of all the resources, tips, and info I create to support your journey of growth each and every week. It’s all there for you!
P.S. Did learning about codependence and “how to stop being codependent” is making you think of someone you know is struggling with this situation, I hope that you share this information with them.
P.P.S. If that person you’re thinking of is your spouse or partner, and you’re fearing that you two may be in a codependent dynamic together, a super low-key thing to do to begin creating change is to simply listen to this podcast together and discuss it. If you want to take your DIY, kitchen-table couple’s therapy session to the next level, here’s the link to take our “How Healthy Is Your Relationship” quiz together too. Establishing open communication is always the first step to creating positive change! — LMB
How to Stop Being Codependent: Podcast Transcript
Access Episode Transcript
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
That song is called Ophelia. The artist is Les Hayden and I chose that song for us today, not for his lyrics so much but because of the tone of the song, I think, but also to have the opportunity to speak with you about the lesson of Ophelia. If you remember from your high school Shakespeare days, Ophelia was a character who was so overly involved in her relationships with other people, that when those relationships were disrupted, it absolutely ruined her. And I know that’s kind of heavy, but I thought it was an appropriate kind of symbol for our time together today because today we’re going to be talking about something that has that impact on people, might even be impacting you, and your life, and your relationships—and the term for it is codependence.
When we talk about codependence, we’re talking about being so focused on what other people are doing or not doing, particularly our romantic partners, and feeling like unless and until they can get it together, you cannot be at peace, or happy, or satisfied with your life. And so, so much energy goes into trying to help another person function at the level that you want them to function to, that in the meantime, you yourself are just awash in stress and anxiety and anger and all kinds of negative emotions that takes such a toll on you.
So on this episode of the podcast, I wanted to explore this topic with you in particular, so that you can understand what it is and how it shows up in relationships and kind of think about whether or not it might be happening in yours. But also, I’m going to be leaving you with some ideas that you can use to begin shifting this dynamic so that you can feel happier and more at peace and more in control and, paradoxically, create positive change in your relationship without all of the drama and stress and pain that you might be experiencing now. I know that sounds crazy when you let go you have more opportunity for change, but it’s so often the case, particularly when it comes to relational dynamics. So lots of exciting stuff planned for us today.
And if this is your first time listening to the podcast, I’m so glad you’re here. I’m again Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, I’m the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, and I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I’m also a licensed psychologist. I am a board-certified coach. And I am here with you every week sharing love, happiness, and success tips and strategies and insights that are all designed to help you and also to be responsive to what it is that you are needing.
So today, we are talking about codependence, and I also have all kinds of podcasts ready and available for you—anything from communication and improving your communication and your relationship to understanding how to handle different situations and your relationship with your partner. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe to this on iTunes, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, wherever you like to listen and scroll back. I had years worth of podcasts, and they’re all available for you, and every single one of them hopefully has an actionable takeaway that can help you improve some area of your life, your relationship, your career. So I hope you take advantage of all of it.
And also, it’s not just me, in my practice growingself.com we have over, I think, 40 at this point therapists, couples counselors, coaches who I work with all of them very closely. And in addition to me and this podcast that I do, they are always putting together blogs and articles and answering listener questions. And so, anytime you want, cruise on over to the blog at growingself.com and you can see not just my thoughts but all kinds of expert advice and take advantage of it because it is all there for you.
How to Stop Being Codependent
Alright. So let’s talk about this situation. Let’s talk about codependence and why this is so important. And as you know, if you listen to this podcast, I always try to design shows around your needs and what I’m hearing from you guys about what’s important. And lately, I’ve been getting so many questions coming through the blog at growingself.com, Facebook, Instagram, that are all some variation of, “Dr. Lisa, how do I get my partner to do XYZ? Or to stop doing
XYZ? Let me tell you about this terrible thing that my partner is doing or not doing and how upset I am about it. How do I get them to change?” That’s the gist of a lot of the questions, and in honesty, like I think that that is the energy that drives a lot of people into couples counseling is that the perception is that they are having unhappiness and distress in their relationship because of the things that their partner is doing that is making them absolutely crazy. And they’re just beside themselves, they do not know how to get them to change or improve the situation, and there’s lots of fights around this, and it’s just so exhausting.
And so we hear about this a lot, and I think even more so lately, like so in addition to me, I get this podcast and other things for our practice, and I also see my own clients, certainly. But I also am at this point in a supervisory role, and so every week, I’m in multiple consultation groups with other counselors and coaches on our team, talking about different cases, not people’s names or anything—it’s all de-identified—but part of what responsible, ethical therapists do in order to be as effective as possible is case consultation with other professionals in order to say, “Here is a situation. How would you guys handle it?” In order to make sure that we’re always handling things really appropriately, and doing the very best we can to make sure that the work is always effective for our clients.
And in so many consultation groups lately, I’ve also been hearing about my colleagues, working with couples who are struggling with these codependent dynamics that are very entrenched and very powerful and hard to change. And the reason why it’s so important for us to be talking about is because until it changes, it is really impossible to, paradoxically, effect the change that you would like to see in your relationship.
What is Codependence
So the first thing I want to talk with you about is just a little bit more about what codependence is and what it refers to. And just to be perfectly transparent, the term “codependence” is not a psychological term. It is not in the DSM. It is very much like a self-help pop psychology kind of term that came to be through the recovery movement, like AA. And you know that, essentially, back in the day, alcoholics were the focus of treatment. They would go to groups, they would have sponsors, they would have their meetings, they would have their work. And it became clear over time that it wasn’t just the alcoholics that needed help—their partners and their families were also really struggling. And what counselors in the recovery movement observed is that the partners, the spouses in particular of alcoholics, would be a mess. They would be so angry, and they had characteristics in common. They were often very high in anxiety, they were often very angry, and they were often spending a lot of time and energy trying to control or police or supervise or improve or protect their alcoholic spouses at the expense of themselves, and also, really unsuccessfully.
And so because of that, there was a whole separate wing that was created which you’ve probably heard of called Al-Anon, which is a separate type of support group and growth process specifically for the partners of people in recovery. And that movement is designed to help people become un-enmeshed and un-codependent from their partners and really just start focusing on themselves and their own happiness and well being again, which paradoxically, for reasons that we will discuss, changes the dynamic of the relationship system and makes it even more likely that their alcoholic partners will heal and grow in addition to helping to helping the codependent person feel a little bit better.
So that is where this came from. And so certainly, codependence, the term itself is often heard or found in, in those sorts of circles. In my experience, yes, that is absolutely one of the applications of it in our counseling practice. But there are also different ways that it shows up in relational systems that are not necessarily specific to addiction, recovery, and addiction recovery stuff is really not what I am talking about here on the show. If you are in a relationship with someone who has a substance use disorder, I would encourage you to get involved with addiction specific treatment because that will be more helpful to you. And if you would like to look into Al-Anon, you can just google Al-Anon meetings. They’re all over the world, and they’re free, and I’m sure they’re online at this point. So very easy to get involved with if you’d like to do that.
But outside of addiction’s recovery, people will throw around the term codependent all the time, and it means really different things to different people. And so when somebody comes into the office and says, I am codependent, and I want to talk about that, or whatever, that my very first question is, what does that word mean to you, just to be sure that we’re kind of on the same page. Because here’s what it means to me when people talk about codependence or what it means generally. It means that they need their partner or someone else, a family member, sister, brother, whatever, to behave in a certain way, or be a certain way, in order for them to feel a certain way; they are essentially trying to regulate their emotions through someone else’s behaviors. I know that sounds a little bit weird, but they ‘re—so that’s why there’s all this energy going into trying to control other people because they are attempting to regulate their own anxiety or sense of safety through the behaviors of another person as opposed to what they feel in control of.
And so this can take a few different forms, there is a kind of codependence that I actually think of is more like an emotional enmeshment. And that happens when someone cannot feel happy if their partner is upset for whatever reason, angry, sad, stressed, whatever, that they’re so sort of enmeshed together, that they will put all kinds of energy and effort into trying to get their partner to cheer up or feel better, or be happy again. And until their partner does feel better, the person who’s attempting to upgrade that change feels really bad and anxious, and it’s like they cannot be okay if their partner is not okay. Or if their partner like, gets angry or upset, they kind of fall apart or feel super angry and upset in response. Like there’s this emotional enmeshment within a system that almost prevents people from being able to behave independently of each other. And that creates a lot of reactivity and problems in relationships.
Another aspect of codependence is people who tend to feel like really anxious or unsettled or not. I don’t want to use the word unsafe and like a literal physical unsafety but like, kind of insecure or not at ease, or not calm or relaxed unless their partner is doing certain things or saying certain things or behaving in a certain way. And that when their partner doesn’t do what they need or want them to do, they feel very agitated and anxious. And again, it turns into efforts to control their partner and try to get their partner to be different in order for them to feel secure and well. And then, of course, there’s the addictions recovery aspect of this where this sort of dynamic is often very pronounced.
But what I see more often in our practice is kind of like a functional codependence. So it’s either somebody who doesn’t like the way their partner behaves or doesn’t like the way their partner communicates or doesn’t like the way their partner prioritizes time or feels unhappy that the partner isn’t like more of a team player in their home. And just to be very clear, that it’s absolutely okay to be upset about any of those things, I mean, nobody likes that, right? But the difference with a codependent dynamic is that there is this like, hyper-focus around what is my partner doing or not doing. And I’m going to try to control them, change them, police them, monitor them because unless they change, nothing is ever going to be different. So there’s like this exclusive focus on changing of the partner trying to get the partner to be different. And unless and until that happens, I am going to be so unhappy and upset.
And again, it’s this like, external locus of control, because when a codependent person goes into that place, they are absolutely dependent on what another person is doing for their own sense of happiness, or security, which as you can imagine, puts them really into a place of powerlessness and dependence because they are unable to feel okay, independently. Hence, the term dependence. They’re dependent on their partner for their own sense of well being, and attempting to change the way they feel by controlling someone else’s behavior. And of course, as you can imagine, because it is essentially impossible to control someone else or change someone else, people who have a codependent orientation to relationships usually feel absolutely exhausted and depleted, and resentful, and angry, and so incredibly frustrated because they feel so, so powerless, and they’re putting so much energy into trying to get their partner to change so they can be okay, and it’s not working. So it’s a really difficult space to be in.
And so, first of all, the very, very, very first thing that we always do with codependent dynamics is, first of all, we have to raise awareness in either the couple if people are coming in together, or if it’s an individual person who’s coming in for help on their own to talk about how incredibly distressed they are about what’s happening in their relationship, which also happens. The first thing we have to do is get clarity around what’s going on, and helping people, if this is what it is, but helping people figure out how much of their power and time and energy and mental energy, emotional energy are they giving away to this codependent dynamic without even realizing it.
So let me ask you some of the questions that I often ask clients who are grappling with this. Question one would be: Do you persistently feel frustrated, upset, or angry at your partner’s inability to make changes? You’re kind of always annoyed that you really want them to be doing something different, and they’re not, they’re going to keep doing it over and over again. That would be a clear one that there’s a codependent dynamic at work. And particularly if that question number one is yes, and it is also coupled with a true answer on this question, do you believe that your relationship problems and like even life problems would be resolved if only your partner would change in some way?
And then thirdly, do you personally feel like it’s hard for you to be happy? Or you feel good about yourself in your life because of things that your partner is doing or not doing? And so if you answered yes to all three of those questions on my little mini codependence quiz, you may be struggling with a codependent dynamic in your relationship. And if so, I have a lot of empathy for that because you are likely feeling really annoyed and stressed and like even hyper-vigilant a lot of the time, it’s a very difficult place to be in. And so that’s why I wanted to talk about this today, in order to give you some, some clarity and some strategies.
So I feel like we’re kind of talking about this in theoretical terms right now, and sometimes I think it’s easier to illustrate examples by telling you stories instead. So one example that immediately comes to mind to illustrate this, and I think so many of us can relate to, is one couple who is kind of a mishmash of many couples, but if we were to distill it all down coming in, and one person is sitting on the couch, or in the video session, and just like vibrating with anger and annoyance about all the things that their partner is doing, and can’t wait to tell me about it. And legitimate things like, “I found another beer bottle in the trash can when he said that he wasn’t going to drink on school nights,” or “He said he was going to mow the lawn, and he didn’t,” or “She came home late again, and I can’t make plans, and I feel like she’s always leaving me holding the bag with housework, or kids or whatever, going out with her friends,” like they’re the type of complaints can be endless, and they vary.
And just to say this, what I’m talking about in this podcast here with you is going to be in the spectrum of like garden variety codependent dynamics. And if you had the unfortunate circumstance of being in a relationship where there’s really serious stuff going on with your partner like substance abuse problems or serious like mental health issues that are untreated, you’re probably going to resonate with some of what I’m talking about, but the strategies won’t work as well in that situation because it’s a different animal. And I would refer you to other podcasts that I have created on related topics, I think one was called, What to Do When Your Partner Has a Problem, and I think I also did a podcast a while back around, you know how to get somebody else to change if they have really serious stuff. So scroll back through the episodes, and you’ll find them.
But this situation that we’re talking about is a couple where one person is absolutely so frustrated, so angry, and also oftentimes feeling very, like self-righteous in their anger, really feeling like their partner is behaving so badly, and that they just can’t stand it anymore. And they’re starting to, many times, like lose respect for their partner, but really just putting so much energy into trying to get their partner to change, and sometimes it’s nagging, and sometimes it’s arguing, and sometimes it’s just doing things for them, but sort of resentfully. I mean, it can take all sorts of different forms. And that is the sort of operating emotional space that the partner who’s like really wishing the other person could be different days and all the time.
And then on the other side of this, the person who is the “changee”, that is the person in the relationship that has been identified as the one who has all the problems that need to be changed, is often feeling incredibly resentful, sullen, withdrawn, often puts just as much energy into minimizing their partner’s feelings. “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. You need to lighten up, it’s not that bad. It’s fine.” That is often this dynamic, and it becomes a very well-developed and entrenched relational dynamic where one partner is pursuing the other, in efforts to get them to change, respond, listen, do something differently. And the other person in response is withdrawing and becoming less emotionally available, less responsive, less often considerate, and thoughtful. And so then what that leads to is an increase in the anger and resentment and kind of pursuing of partner number one. And so as you can imagine, this gets more and more intense over time.
And I think we can all relate to this experience, probably even on both sides. I mean, I think everybody who’s been in a relationship over five years has at least at some point had well-developed ideas about what their partner should do in order to make things better. So following my partner, exercise more, drink less, eat healthier foods, or took antidepressants, or stop playing so much video games, you know, I mean, whatever, “Then it would be better for us.” And on the other side of that, I think many of us can also relate to being the recipient of that kind of criticism, and that constant like feeling like you’re never doing anything, right, and that you’re not quite good enough the way that you are, and how bad that feels.
So, that’s the dynamic on both sides. And so that’s many times where people start when they come to us for couples counseling. And I just, I wanted to kind of like bring that to life a little bit more to see if any of those things are things that you could relate to. And the problem is, really, that what happens is that over time, couples become more and more polarized and to each of these positions. The partner who is righteously indignant, is becoming more and more convinced that they have the answers, and their partner needs to do XYZ, and every time they don’t do XYZ, it is more information that their partner can’t meet their needs, or be a good partner, or that they’re ever going to have the kind of relationship or like that they want, and kind of falling into this despair. And also, it creates a dynamic where the person who is really like in that codependent place, will oftentimes become extremely hyper-vigilant to notice. “What is he doing? Did he clean the kitchen? Did he take out the trash? Did he drink too much? What is going on? Or…”
I don’t want to make it very gender-y. It happens with both ways with men and women that happens, same-sex relationships, but there’s this like constant on edge of, I have to monitor and police and nag and almost like supervise my partner to make sure they are doing the things that they need to be doing. In order for us to have a good life together. It’s like, I need to make my partner be the person that I need them to be. Because the person as they are, I don’t totally like them. I don’t trust them. I doubt their competence. I don’t think they make good decisions. And I feel like if I wasn’t making them do what they needed to do and be who they needed to be. Our lives would fall apart. Important things wouldn’t get done. bills would go unpaid, things would bounce, we wouldn’t have groceries, we wouldn’t get places on time the kids wouldn’t get their needs met.
And as you can imagine, to be in this space where it feels like you are the one that has to be the policeman or policewoman of everything and like always kind of on guard to make sure that things are happening the way they are, or should be rather, it is absolutely exhausting. It is so stressful. It feels like you can never let your guard down, you can’t relax.
And I just wanted to say this to kind of like, bring some empathy into this because I think that there’s like a caricature stereotype. A naggy person or controlling? We’d like to throw the word controlling around, “Do it this way. Do it that way. Why didn’t you blah, blah, blah?” It’s very easy to see a person who is inhabiting in that space as being overbearing, or overly, what’s the word, controlling, I think, is the one that comes up most often. And can we all just agree, though, that the emotional experience of people who are behaving that way, is one of anxiety and fear.
I have personally never met anyone who is behaving in ways that are controlling who has not, when I help them talk about what’s going on, shared that they have this overwhelming sense of like fear and anxiety about what would happen if they stopped being “controlling” if they just let things go and stopped paying attention to what’s happening and what should be happening and who’s doing what things would actually fall apart.
And also, I don’t think I’ve ever met a “controlling” person who has not wished and longed on a very deep level, to relax and to be in a safe place with a person that they trusted to just handle things for them so that they could finally rest and feel taken care of and supported and not have to be worried and on eggshells that if they aren’t vigilant for five minutes, something terrible is going to happen.
People who are in this space are over functioning. And they are overly alert and overly active in a relationship, because it feels like they have to be. So if you are listening to this podcast, and you are in a relationship with someone, and you feel like they are nagging at you and criticizing you and being overly controlling, and like why don’t you do this, you should be more like, I would invite you to consider why that might make sense from their perspective, and that you have a lot of power to change the system because they will step back in direct proportion to their experience of you stepping forward, they would love nothing more than to say, great, you cook dinner, I’ll be over here and they would love to do that. But they might not trust you to do that.
So there’s that to consider. It’s really important to think about systemic dynamics in these situations. Because the alternative is that if we’re not aware of the systemic dynamics, the alternative is to develop a narrative about your partner and the type of person they are and that leads to all sorts of things.
So for example, if you label your partner’s being controlling and unreasonable, and that’s just the way they are, that’s like their character, their personality, where do you go from there, right? And it’s usually not true, there’s always a reason why people are the way they are. And a reason that is very understandable. And that we can work with that you have to see your partner with empathy. So I wanted to leave you with that.
Now, let’s talk about this from the other side. So if you are the one who has been really just putting in so much energy to try to get your partner to understand and to change, you may have noticed that it’s not that effective. I mean, really, like, most people who are doing this and engaging in these kinds of codependent behaviors are trying over and over again, to get their partner to be different and listen to them and respond to them and do things a different way. Or they give up and just start doing everything for their partner because they have lost confidence in their partner’s ability to follow through. And it takes such a toll on you. And the thing that can be hard to see when you’re doing this is that when you put so much energy and effort and take so much responsibility on yourself, for things, you actually make it less likely that the other person is going to step up and do things differently in response to you. And I know that’s incredibly frustrating because it feels like you’re trying to make things happen and you’re trying to protect yourself and the family and even them by doing all that you do. But paradoxically it leads on a systemic level, to a persistence of the problem that you are seeking to change and I mean, reflect on this, if you will.
Is it true that the more you care about change and what your partner is doing or not doing, it seems like the less they care, or the more they fight you on it, or the more they tend to minimize and dismiss what you’re saying. That is what happens over time it creates this power imbalance and even though it may feel like the person who is doing the running around and being upset and trying to get things to be different, feels like the dominant personality in the relationship, in truth and in practice, you actually become disempowered and have much less power. Then you’re kind of passive partner as the months and years progress because you are killing yourself and putting in all this energy and effort. And they’re like watching you around, run around like a crazy person. Like you need to relax. Just chill out. And so that doesn’t work.
Stages of Codependency Recovery For Couples
And now that we’ve kind of talked about the dynamics of codependent relationships, I’d like to turn our attention to the emotional kind of underpinnings and what can change it. And so the thing that is really important to understand, and the part that gets missed for many couples in this dynamic is that people get so focused on what is happening, or isn’t happening or what the partner is doing or not doing, the attention is much less about their internal experience and about the feelings underneath all of this on both sides than it is about the signals or the behaviors or the communication patterns. And so I think it’s really important for people who are in the active side of a codependent relationship, to really make contact with the level of fear they have around what could happen if they stopped, and to really get a handle on how much of their own personal power and their own happiness and their own satisfaction with their life is really so highly dependent on what their partner is doing and on the relationship itself. Because that in itself can be just a huge awakening, like, “Oh my gosh, I am spending most of my time being anxious and upset about this, what this person is doing or how they’re behaving and I can’t live like that anymore.” And it’s in that kind of moment of recognition that that power gets taken back.
And now I’m talking about this as usual, like, it’s an easy thing, people often don’t arrive to this place without a lot of growth and work that is achieved through either individual therapy or coaching or through couples work is where people can move into the space where they’re like, you know what? This whole control thing has been an illusion anyway, even though I am managing my anxiety because I feel like I am in control of the situation. I am really quite objectively not in control of the situation because these things keep happening. And you know what? I don’t want to do this anymore. This is not good for me and there’s also an increase in anxiety when that happens. Because you know, if somebody stops being the police person, your partner might drink too much or spend too much money or not follow through with things or ruin their health with junk food or waste their lives playing video games. But can we just agree that they’re basically doing that anyway, with or without your hyper-vigilance, they’re just like trying to hide it from you and fighting with you about it.
And so what is a much more productive space to go into, is this idea and this new recognition that for many people, the core of the anxiety is around the practical matters, certainly, but when you really dig down into it, there’s almost this like, existential crisis that comes out around, “Can I be with this person? Can I maintain my marriage and my family with this person? Because it feels like I can’t. What is happening now feels unsustainable to me. And so I am twisting myself into pretzels trying to get my partner to be a partner with me so that we can have a nice life together. And I’m so afraid that if they won’t do it, I will have to go.” And that’s like this, this core like fear that many people make contact with when they begin grappling with this. It’s very, very powerful, and can be very interesting to make contact with and share in a vulnerable way with the partner who has been creating so much pain, that you feel has been creating so much pain because it really turns it into being less about them, and more about you and what you can tolerate and what you can’t and what your options are in the situation.
So, many times, what this kind of exploration leads to are productive conversations between two people where there’s like a new recognition of why the struggle is happening and that really powerful and understandable like noble intentions and attachment needs, both people are bringing to the table. Many times on the other side of this, people who have been functioning in a manner that is different than how their partner would like them to be sometimes is feeling very withdrawn because they feel like they’re going to be rejected anyway, whatever they do is wrong. So why even try, or they feel like there isn’t space for them to bring their own way of doing things to the table in the relationship, like, and so they really feel minimized and diminished, so they kind of give up and stop trying in some ways.
But they’re also underneath of that can be a very real experience where, believe it or not, some people have arrived in adulthood, without having the same set of skills around getting things done. Prioritizing activities, managing time I mean, to be very, like task-oriented, and a planner, and like, executive functioning skills, if I do this, then this will happen. I shouldn’t stay up too late playing video games, because I have to get up for work in the morning. And, it is not that unusual, like, well, it doesn’t happen all the time. But sometimes when I’m working with couples who have this kind of dynamic, we discover that the partner, who has been maybe struggling to do some things that is creating a lot of anxiety and stress for their spouse, has undiagnosed ADHD that has never been recognized or dealt with or treated. And so they’re behaving in a way that isn’t actually consistent with adult success, and it’s driving their partner insane. But they really legitimately do not know how else to be because they’ve never talked about it before. They’ve never considered it before.
And sometimes couples work turns into almost coaching around; how do you keep track of what needs to be done throughout the week? So that your partner doesn’t have to be the one who’s always managing the time and the activities for everybody. How do we begin to develop those skills? So that you can do these things. So I just want to float to the possibility that it isn’t always that a partner won’t do these things, because they’re being contrary and an obstructionist, it may actually be that they don’t know how to do these things, as well as you do. It can also be true sometimes that partners have different values or expectations around things that are related to how things were done in their family of origin. If you grew up in a family, where there were very kind of well-defined gender roles, and your partner wants you to be doing things that were not done by people of your gender in your home, it’s going to create confusion. And that in itself can lead to these kinds of dynamics in a relationship.
But regardless of the reason why, the first step in resolving this dynamic is getting to the bottom of why it’s happening, to see if anything can be done to change the functioning itself. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no, and changing the functioning of the partner who may be under-functioning in the relationship, but also maybe doing some work around the expectations and values of the partner who believes that all of these things need to be happening to ask some questions in a safe, compassionate, non-judgmental space around, “Why do you believe that we need to have a protein, a fruit, and a starch warmed up at breakfast every morning, or else you’re both failing as parents? Some people eat cereal most of the time, and they’re okay.” So let’s talk about where some of these ideas about what breakfast should look like, came from. I mean, that’s a more trivial example. Right? But I mean, you’d be amazed at what I think we all take as being the truth from our family of words and experience, and then apply that truth to other people.
We are measuring our partners by our own yardstick without even being aware that we are carrying a yardstick and holding it up to other people and say, “No, we cannot have a granola bar for breakfast, that is not sufficient, it needs to be an egg or a waffle.” So I mean, it’s like, we all carry that. And many times, there’s a period in couples counseling or relationship coaching, where we have to do a deep dive into what those things are. Because there are blind spots, we do not know what we are expecting or projecting on other people at a subconscious, until we do this type of focused growth work, which can be incredibly productive and opens so many doors. So that’s kind of phase two of recovering from a codependent dynamic.
Now, phase three can happen in addition to sometimes instead of phase two, and this is where the person who has been trying to be the change agent in the relationship and feeling really bad and anxious and angry and stressed a lot of the time may arrive in a place again, where they have decided that they don’t want to feel that way anymore. And it may be that their partner is not able or willing to work with them on creating the dynamic to step forward a little bit more so that they can step back. And in this case, stage three, you need to take your power back through your own volition and what this means is almost like repeating this mantra to yourself of, “I am only in charge of me, I can only control myself, I am responsible for my own happiness, I am responsible for the quality of my life, I am in charge of me and my outcomes.”
And when this happens when the formerly codependent person stops trying to control other people and instead really shifts into taking responsibility for themselves, and the quality of their life independent from what their partner is going to do or not do, they will feel happier and more confident and more at peace, they will also have to work through some anxiety that will immediately spike around what will happen if I just start focusing on me and stop being so concerned about what my partner is doing or not doing that we do also have to deal with but it can be achieved, I think, through a very deliberate intentional growth period where you start thinking a little bit more about what you need, and how else you can get it if you’re not getting it currently from your partner and from this relationship.
So many times people might say “I have them working my tail off to create this set of circumstances in my home and I haven’t done anything fun for myself. And I don’t even know how long, I can’t remember the last time I got some exercise or spent time with my friends. And I feel like I’m always so angry and what feels positive and good to me. Where can I get my energy replenished and nourished if this particular well is currently dry?” And so sometimes this turns into, you know, spending more time doing other things and taking care of what you can. And in doing so you are helped to kind of manage your own anxiety and feel happier and more content and it’s like less dependent on your partner for your sense of well-being.
So going back to that idea codependent when you’re a codependent your sense of self and safety and security and happiness is entirely dependent on your partner and we’re going to shift that so that you can be okay, no matter what they decide to do.
And so, oftentimes what happens here in practice is that when people are getting their needs met and just going about their lives as they wish to and not thinking quite as much about their partner, they feel better. They often stop nagging, they stop caring as much about what their partner is doing or not doing and, there’s like this new dynamic where the partner who had been withdrawn and kind of like, fighting for their independence, and, “No, you can’t control me and tell me what to do.” When that stops, they’re sort of like, “Oh, nobody’s telling me to stop playing video games at 2 am. So I’m gonna stay here till 5 am and play video games” and just they’re being themselves. And what happens is that scary as it may be, they begin to experience natural consequences for their own decisions, they have hangovers, they miss work meetings, they start to have overdraft fees on their checking account because they forgot to pay the bill.
And instead of their over-functioning partner, getting angry about it, or rescuing them, or berating them into behaving, all of a sudden, it is really on them. And they are experiencing the consequences for their problems, and it is on them to figure out how to fix it. And in doing so, two things happen, it sends a lot of clear messages to both people in this dynamic, the over-functioning person moves into the space of, “I deserve to be happy, and I know what I need to be happy, and I am not sure if you can be part of my life if I am actually going to be happy because this is not currently working for me.” And it is not a threat, it’s this truth of, “I don’t know that I can tolerate this, and I’m not going to tolerate it. So let me know if you would like to work on this with me. I’ll be over here.”
So the fighting kind of stops. And what also happens is that it can be very easy in this type of dynamic for the under-functioning partner, to have a lot of like, almost passive aggressive hostility towards their spouse, and like kind of secretly blaming their partner for being so controlling and naggy and critical and when they begin experiencing consequences for their own actions, there is this new sense of clarity that what they are doing is actually not working for them. And it raises their anxiety enormously because it sort of turns into this existential crisis of, “If I am going to, nobody’s coming to save me and if I am going to maintain my relationship with this person, and my family and have the life I want, I have to figure out how to do these things. Because before it was my partner’s problem, they were the ones that were stressed out and anxious about it, but they’re not anymore. Now, it is my problem and I need to get stressed and anxious about it and figure out how to change it or not, and accept the consequence of that outcome, potentially.”
But the power dynamic completely shifts, when you decide to take your power back. Because if someone wants to be a good partner for you, they will be, but it is up to them to be a good partner, you cannot make them be a good partner. And this is almost like a crisis that couples walk into and I would really advise you if any of this is resonating for you that you do this with the support of a marriage counselor to make sure that it is productive.
But to walk through these stages together and reshift the power dynamics in a relationship, what often emerges is that both of you are doing the best you can you are both lovely, well-intentioned people, many times and this is particularly true for men that I’ve worked with in relationships, who were occupying this space of kind of the belligerent teenager in their relationship and their wife was kind of turning into this angry mommy lady like because of these, these power dynamics and when we’re able to shift this and get people sort of like pulled apart and functioning more independently. We can see that people like under-functioning partners are often very nice people who love their partners very much and don’t actually like the way that they had been functioning themselves but didn’t almost have the space to figure out how to make those changes on his own. Because when we’re focused on another person criticizing us, the natural reaction to that is to defend yourself.
I have all these reasons why it made sense. But in the absence of that, when somebody isn’t criticizing you, then you have the emotional space to connect with “I don’t actually feel good when I drink too much in the evening, or I don’t feel good when I don’t get enough sleep or exercise, or I don’t feel good when the house is a mess. I don’t like that.” And so again, we’re moving away from codependence and back to independence where someone can say, “I like feeling like my partner is happy with me. I like how I feel when we get things done, or when we can work together as a team.” And so what happens is a shift back into intrinsic motivation on the partner, who had been getting harassed into changing previously, when the harassing stops, only then intrinsic motivation, their desire to change and grow, can emerge.
And the other neat thing, so that’s kind of like stage, what are we at? Stage four of all of this? It’s space where people kind of separate from each other not literally separating, although sometimes, but really, it more of that, like emotional separating around, I’m going to do me, and you’re going to do you, and let’s see who we each are in the absence of this codependent power struggle that we had been engaging in, previously.
So when this happens, and people begin focusing on themselves, and what makes them feel happy and fulfilled, it can go a few different ways. That way I always root for is what’s really neat is that when people stop focusing on who and what their partner isn’t, and take responsibility for their own happiness and own well being, they can then reconnect with their partner as they are. Because at the end of the day, and I say this as someone who has been married now for a really long time, that I truly believe in my heart of hearts, and as a long-married person, also as a marriage counselor that true love and genuinely happy relationships certainly require both people trying in attempting to be their best selves and taking responsibility for themselves in the way they’re showing up, certainly.
And in addition to that, they require a high degree of acceptance and appreciation for who and what your partner is, and how their gifts and their differences can enhance your life and the experience of your family. And it’s a really interesting, like emotional shift that occurs when we work through codependence and help people become independent, then we can come back together into healthy interdependence where people are relying on each other for the things that each partner can give freely and that is appreciated and cherished.
So for example, many times in the classic, codependent relationship where there’s the I mean, I hate to genderize again, but kind of angry controlling wife and a sort of juvenile under-functioning husband, a lot of times, what can really happen is that when people come into this place, take responsibility for themselves. We can come back together again, and appreciate the differences.
So for example perhaps in a classic example, the wife begins to realize that her partner’s a lot of fun, and that he’s funny, and that he likes to do fun things and it’s a gift to her to have him in her life because you know what, he is different from her and he’s the one who will pry the mop out of her hands on a Saturday morning and say, “Let’s go do something fun today put down the mop. Come on, let’s go do XYZ, right?” And in contrast, I mean, instead of feeling resentful about the, “controlling partners,” always making them do things that they doesn’t want to do, being able to move into the space of appreciation for the gifts and talents and intelligence and planning and competence that many people who are often in the disempowered place and in a codependent relationship of the ones who have just the weight of the world on their shoulders, they’re often naturally strong, competent, capable people, and can do so many things.
And a real shift occurs when the partner who perhaps had viewed them as being aggressive or rejecting, can see them for the person they really are, which is someone who also needs support and understanding and a soft place to fall because even though they are so strong and so competent, and so smart, they also do need to rest and just be loved and cared for to and it helps people kind of move towards each other, and see each other through much more compassionate and forgiving and appreciative lenses when that happens.
Now, it is also sometimes true that when couples go through this whole process of exploration and growth, they may discover that they are intrinsically very, very different from each other. Relationships are formed for all kinds of reasons and as we have talked about at length on many podcasts, the early stages of romantic love, create almost intoxicating kind of experience that can weld people together emotionally, people who may or may not be compatible in many ways, or as easily compatible, I should say. And so then you can decide is, who and what this person is, and always will be, “Can I be happy with who and what they are? Can I accept them as they are, and have enough left here to be satisfied and fulfilled with what I can get out of this relationship or not?” And that answer can always be a complex one to resolve.
And can also I think, sometimes test our notions of what relationships should be, there is no one right way to have a relationship. I am actually not a huge believer in fundamental compatibility. I will absolutely agree that some combinations and pairings are easier than others couples who are further apart from each other and their basic needs and desires and value systems and the things that are important to them will have more to work through and more challenges in order to be good partners for each other, they will have to be more accommodating, and more flexible, and more compassionate, and more generous, and figure out a way to respect, not just a respect, but help their partner create a life that is genuinely meaningful and satisfying to them that both people will have to do that. And it will be a further reach to find a bridge to the center when there are bigger differences, which sometimes at the root of a codependent dynamic you will discover.
And it is also true that every couple has differences that in the experience of a codependent dynamic become quite polarized, and people become more different because they are fighting about those differences than they actually are in reality. And that when we can move back into a space of healthy interdependence, many couples discover that they have a lot more in common. And they’re a lot more of a cooperative, collaborative complimentary couple than maybe they had known previously.
So I hope that this discussion has helped you. If you are one of the people that has reached out through Facebook or on the blog at growingself.com or Instagram with a, “How do I get my partner to XYZ?” type of question. This is why I didn’t shoot back some kind of two sentence answer, is because there’s not a two-sentence solution. It’s a process. And so that’s why I wanted to make this podcast for you is to kind of walk you through what that process is, so that you can develop just a clarity of understanding of what lies ahead and that there’s no secret trick to getting your partner to do what you want them to if you can only phrase it this way or use this little trick, as, with so many things related to relationships, it is a process of growth. That is not for the faint-hearted. It takes so much courage to do the kind of work that I’m describing to you, we have to walk into fear around, “What will happen if I let go of the control? Or what will happen if my partner stops trying to make me XYZ? Can I take responsibility? Who am I without someone else telling me what to do? What do I really want for my life? And how do I take responsibility for creating that?” It is as frustrating as it is, it is much safer, emotionally, to blame other people for our problems than it is to turn that back on ourselves and say, “How did I get here? And what do I want? And what am I going to do to change it?”
And as scary as it is, that’s the kind of conversation that will ultimately create change, it’s a little bit of a trust fall. And again, that’s why getting the support of a really good therapist or relationship coach to help you, almost like stay in that challenging, not scary place, but like to help you feel confident that this is the path forward can be really essential. Because many times when people get scared, they just sort of collapse back into doing what they know or trying to create change in a way that feels safer, or that makes more sense logically. And as we’ve discussed here today, the real path forward is not one of logic. It’s one of emotion and deep understanding both of yourself and your partner.
So I hope that this conversation has been helpful to you and let me know if there are other things you would like to hear about, you can get in touch with me, growingself.com, you could always leave a follow-up question for me on this topic or any other through the post for this podcast. And I’ll see, you can track me down on Facebook, Dr. Lisa Bobby on Facebook or @drlisamariebobby on Instagram. And I’ll be back in touch next week with another episode of the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast.
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