Everybody has bad habits in relationships, but how do you know when you’ve taken them too far? Codependence is a familiar term tossed around the media, but not many people can probably tell you what it really means. Perhaps you think of a husband who enables his wife’s alcoholism, or a daughter who can’t go anywhere without her mother. But what causes them to become stuck in these behaviors?
People become codependent when they lose themselves in a relationship. When you become absorbed in another individual, the neurochemistry of your brain is similar to when you’re high on a drug. When your mind is clouded by this intensity, you may find that it’s difficult to define and meet your own needs to be healthy, safe, and successful.
Codependence can happen in any relationship, not just romantic ones. But it seems to occur most often with our significant others because there’s a more intense fear of loss than with our family members, who are stuck with us. Here are some classic signs:
-Having low self-esteem
-Feeling completely responsible for the other person
-Struggling to establish healthy boundaries
-Being unable to communicate your own needs
-Minimizing the other person’s destructive behaviors
-Using addiction to avoid intimacy and communication
Still not sure if you qualify? To figure out how much “self” you’ve carved out in your romantic relationship or a family relationship, try this exercise.
Draw a big circle on a sheet of paper. Now draw a smaller circle inside the big one. Think of the outer ring as the piece of you that craves love, approval, and praise from others. It’s the chameleon part of you that tries to fit in with the group, the piece that adjusts who you are and what you believe in just to be accepted. But the inner ring is your actual self. It’s what you believe in, what you value, and who you are regardless of other people’s opinions.
Now think about how you function in your relationships? How big is that center circle? If you’re codependent in a relationship, chances are it’s pretty tiny, because you’ve sacrificed so much of yourself to sustain the relationship. The problem is that over time, this sacrifice makes the relationship more volatile.
How do you become less go codependent? You work on growing that center circle. And there are a number of strategies for getting started.
1. Define yourself. Becoming more independent means taking the time to evaluate your own values and goals in life. Maybe you’ve adopted some beliefs just to make your partner happy, and now is the time to figure out what you really think. What would be important to you even if nobody praised you for it? When you can answer that question, you’re on your way to becoming more of a self.
2. Practice kindness. Self-compassion is an important part of any relationship, and it means learning that “No” is a complete sentence when you don’t want to do something. Find healthy ways of managing stress and anxiety that don’t involve doing everything for your significant other, and start paying attention to what helps you feel calm and in control.
3. Don’t listen to fear. All too often codependent actions emerge when we fear losing the other person. “I can’t live without you,” might be romantic in a movie, but it can be terrifying and anxiety provoking in a real life relationship. A healthy relationship is about two people being true to themselves and respecting each other’s goals and beliefs.
In relationships, it’s important to remember that you’re the only person who can change. When you make an effort to better define yourself and your needs to a person you care about, there may be pushback, hurt feelings, and anxiety. But if it’s a relationship worthy of your time and attention, your authentic self should be welcomed and loved.