Healthy Relationships 101: How To Stop Being Codependent
By Abigail Boyd
Updated March 09, 2020
Reviewer Christine Baker
Codependency is an unhealthy relationship pattern in which you rely on your partner to provide your happiness, approval, and sense of identity. You think and feel responsible for other people's feelings, actions, wants, choices, and well-being. If this sounds familiar and you're in a relationship like this, read on. This article will cover how to stop being codependent.
What is Codependency?
Historically, codependency has been defined within the context of a relationship. Typically, one party (whether a romantic partner, parent, or family member) lives with some sort of complex issue such as:
- Drug addiction
- Gambling addiction
- Mental health condition
- Poor physical health or disability
The codependent individual would then care for the partner and their condition, taking the responsibility as their own. Examples include a codependent wife purchasing beer for her alcoholic husband to keep him from getting upset, or a codependent parent rescuing their adult child from the financial consequences of their irresponsible decisions.
These relationships are, for the most part, one-sided. The codependent individuals give much more than they receive and the result is an unhealthy balance for both people. The partner with the complex issue is never forced to deal with the consequences of their behavior. Meanwhile, the codependent partner becomes emotionally exhausted by cleaning up all the messes made by the partner with the complex issue.
The concept of codependency has evolved to become more of a "personality type" rather than existing solely within a relationship. Being raised in a dysfunctional or emotionally unhealthy home can cause people to become codependent and seek out additional codependent relationships. Characteristics of a codependent individual are:
- Trouble with emotional intimacy
- Sense of responsibility for other's feelings
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of being alone
- Taking any negative comments or criticism as a personal attack
How to Stop Being Codependent
If you have been in a codependent relationship for a long time, you may find it hard to accept that you can't change another person. Someone who is in a codependent relationship with a person who has alcoholism or drug addiction, for example, typically believes that if they just say and do the right things, their partner will stop and get their life on track. Codependency arises from a need to regain control over an out-of-control situation. It's important to remember that you are the only person you can change. If you recognize yourself as codependent, here are some things you can do.
1. Research: Learn more about codependency, what it is, and what it is not. There are lots of self-help books on the subject and the more you read, the more you may find yourself within the pages. As you learn more and acknowledge your codependency, it will be easier to identify when your thoughts and actions are codependent and need to be adjusted so you can think in a healthier way. A great book to start with is, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie.
2. Recognize: As you learn more about codependency, be on the lookout for words, feelings, thoughts, or behaviors that you engage in that are codependent. Identify and reframe them in your mind. "My husband is mad today, but his happiness is not my responsibility. I do not have to feel anxious because he is having a hard day." That's an example of a way you can reframe a previously codependent thought.
3. Regroup: After you've identified a codependent thought or action, choose to replace it with a healthy one. It will be difficult at first - especially because your partner has come to rely on you for unhealthy support around their issue - but this will get easier as time goes on and you feel healthier and more empowered.
Usually by the time a person realizes they are displaying traits of codependency, these patterns are deeply established. While you're the only one who can change your life, support can be an invaluable part of the process. A counselor knowledgeable in codependency can help you navigate your way through.
You Can Only Change You
If you have been codependent or in a codependent relationship for a long time, you may have a hard time letting go of the idea that you can't change another person. A person who is codependent with an alcoholic typically believes if they say and do the right things, their partner will stop drinking and get their life on track. Someone who is codependent with a mentally ill person who isn't trying to manage their illness may feel that the other person won't be able to do better unless they push them or make sacrifices to keep them calm.
However, people who have these and other complex issues don't learn how to get better when they have someone catering to all their unhealthy desires and fostering their unhealthy behaviors. When the caretaker partner provides the partner with complex issues with everything that they need and sacrifices their own wellbeing in the process, this is called "enabling." When you enable someone who is codependent they don't have the opportunity to grow or get better. This person never has to face the consequences of their behavior, so they never have the chance to grow as a person. Whether they're your romantic partner, your friend, or a close relative, you can't change them by making allowances for them.
The good news is that you can save yourself. That's the job you need to focus on now. A counselor can teach you how to identify and change your behaviors that are keeping you locked in codependency. They can encourage you to put your needs first so you can become stronger, more self-confident, and more emotionally healthy. Always remember that taking care of yourself is the healthiest thing you can do. After all, when you don't take care of you, someone else has to, putting you on the other end of the codependent relationship.
What Will Happen to the Other Person?
If you stop playing the role of caregiver with the other person, you allow them to learn and grow. This can be very difficult for them as well as difficult for you to watch. However, this sort of "tough love" will help the both of you grow as people emotionally. During this process, their demands may get more vocal or even more aggressive. A drug user might try harder to be on drugs, a gambler might lose more money, and a mentally ill person might begin to lose their grip on reality.
Whatever happens, you need to remember it isn't your responsibility. You can care about them, but being their caregiver won't help them conquer their issues. Instead, once they realize that they are causing their own problems, they might take the actions needed to change themselves. If not, you'll have to decide whether to continue in your old unhealthy ways or free yourself from their issues.
Can the Relationship Be Saved?
You might indeed be able to salvage a codependent relationship without going back to being codependent. However, you can't do it alone. The other person must do their part as well. The goal is to have an interdependent relationship in which both people give something to the relationship and also benefit from the relationship.
Changing a codependent relationship is no easy task. A counselor can guide you through the process as you both learn new ways of thinking and behaving. You can have some effect simply by acting in ways that aren't codependent. Yet, if the other person's actions show that they aren't interested in a healthy relationship, at some point you will need to decide if staying in that situation is beneficial for your mental health.
Changing Longstanding Codependent Patterns
After you research and understand more about codependency, you might come to the conclusion that your codependency didn't start with your current relationship. This may have been your pattern for as long as you can remember. If so, it's even more important to shift your focus onto yourself, to what you need, and what makes you happy.
Longstanding patterns take time and effort to change. You might have to reassess everything you thought about relationships in the past. You'll have to get to know yourself as an individual, perhaps for the first time in your life. The insights gained during this type of therapy can be quite surprising and sometimes distressing. You might come to some epiphanies about yourself and the other person. Regardless of the realizations you come to, a trained therapist will be there to support you as you rediscover and accept yourself for who you are. And that's one of the most important things to figure out after you break a codependent dynamic: who are you?
Building a Life You Deserve
Being in therapy for codependency teaches you to value yourself. With the assistance of a counselor, you can learn ways of identifying codependent thoughts, behaviors, and feelings and replace them with empowering alternatives. If you stay in counseling long enough, you eventually reach a time in your life when you understand that you deserve peace and happiness.
Once you learn to value your own happiness, you'll be ready to rebuild your life on solid ground. Your counselor can guide you as you build a network of support made up of healthy, independent people. You might decide to begin a new career, go on a vacation alone or with mentally healthy friends, move to a new neighborhood, take up a new hobby, or simply rest as you reintroduce yourself to a new, healthier version of what used to be your codependent life. Your therapist will help you adjust to your new life and encourage you to work towards what you want. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issues.
"As a victim of trauma I was told to find a very compassionate counselor and I am so grateful to her for having that quality and in a healthy manner as to not increase my codependency issues. Having trust issues as well, she never makes me feel shamed when I tell her about really sensitive issues. She is a great counselor and extremely knowledgeable in different aspects of therapy."
"Stephanie is a gem! She's very thoughtful, thorough, honest, insightful but most of all helpful. This is coming from a person that never wanted to do counseling and just "knew" I didn't need it. She's been key in helping my wife and I find our better place. She made us grow as a couple and individually. Thanks Steph!"
Why Change Now?
Codependency is not only mentally unhealthy; it can even be dangerous. The person who is dependent on you may sink deeper into their addictions or mental illness. This can sometimes lead to aggressive and hostile behaviors toward themselves and loved ones, including you.
You may say, "But that would never happen here!" You might be wrong about that but suppose you're right. Does that mean you want to continue in relationships that keep you bound in fear and sacrifice? Does it mean you don't want to be happy for yourself? Probably not, and the best way to make sure you have a life you can enjoy is to begin to make changes to get beyond your codependency.
Long-standing patterns take time and effort to change. You might have to reassess everything you thought about relationships in the past. You'll have to get to know yourself as an individual, perhaps for the first time in your life.
Only you can decide what you want your life to look like and only you can go out and claim it. Take the first step.