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Codependency

Does hearing the word grate on your nerves?  “Codependency” was one of the buzz words of the past 30 years.  Sometimes it seemed like everyone either was, used to be or feared being codependent.  Like many psycho babble terms, this one lost all of its meaning on the way into common language.  I saw a personal ad once that was headlined, “I’LL BE CODEPENDENT IF YOU WANT ME TO BE.”

Codependency used to be a technical term used by psychotherapists and addiction specialists.  It referred to the partner of a person with an addiction — alcoholism, drug abuse, etc..  The classic notion is that the addicted person is dependent on something like alcohol or cocaine, and the partner is equally affected by and part of the problem, if in slightly different ways.

It’s often true — patterns can be found among people who find themselves in relationships with alcoholics and others with similar problems.  As our society became more familiar with recovery and twelve-step programs, the language of such programs was borrowed, often carelessly.

Codependency can be pretty easy to spot — at least to everyone other than the individuals involved.  For example, a Codependent Guy may take on more responsibility than is fair in a relationship.  His partner is irresponsible in one way or another (money, career, etc.), so he compensates by becoming super responsible (working more overtime, cutting back on his own expenses, etc.)  “I have to be the grown-up around here” is a typical complaint.

It doesn’t stop there, of course.  The Codependent Guy often finds his partner to be someone he just can’t count on.  He responds by becoming more controlling.  “I guess I’ll just have to start balancing your checkbook if you are going to bounce checks all the time.”  Rather than let the person with the problem bear the results of his action/inaction, Codependent Guy takes over.  In the process, he often becomes, well, a bitch.

If things get worse, Codependent Guy may get so wrapped up in his partner’s problems that he lets his own self go.  He stops taking care of himself, because the other partner needs so much help….  Of course, the payoff for Codependent Guy is that he gets to look good to others (he’s the “responsible one” in their relationship), and he may ignore his own shortcomings or problems.

In fact, Codependent Guy sometimes loses his very sense of self.  He finds himself defined in terms of his relationship, his job, how he takes care of others.  If the relationship ends, he may find himself dazed and confused, uncertain of who he is anymore.  His self-esteem tanks and he feels like life’s ultimate victim – a good person, well-intentioned, but neglected and abused by the very person or people he most wanted to help.

A word of caution here:  some “dependency” can be a good thing.  If we were totally independent and had no need for that partner or boyfriend, what would our relationships look like?  Pretty cold and boring, if the existed at all!  Healthy relationships are characterized by both partners learning to lean on one another while neither party loses his identity.

Moving Beyond Codependency

Healthy intimate relationships, whether dating someone rather casually or being committed to a life partner, call for a bit of a balancing act.  Intimacy requires an ability to act selflessly sometimes — to put the other guy’s interests on a par with our own.  At the same time, if we don’t get our own needs met, we are going to experience this relationship as pretty damn unfulfilling.  We want to maintain our individualism, but also to open our hearts in a way that allows us to grow closer.

Healthy relationships require taking responsibility for our own selves, while allowing the other person to keep responsibility for himself.  How to do this?  Start by deciding that you are going to let go of the “v word:” victim.

You are responsible for the choices you make.  If you find yourself consistently dating or in relationship with men who can’t control their anger, or who are alcoholics, or who can’t keep a job or pay their bills, you could decide that all men (except you, of course!) are “just that way.”  Or you explore whether there is something within you that seeks out men with certain needs or patterns.

Do you find that you are so sensitive to the feelings of others that you sometimes have a hard time knowing what you are actually feeling yourself?  Notice, for instance, if something happens that makes you angry – but you find yourself deciding that you are angry sometime later, not in the moment.  Or if your feelings express themselves as headaches, stomach trouble, or other somatic problems rather than in tears or anger.

Boys often aren’t raised to pay attention to their emotions.  Perhaps you were told not to cry when you were growing up or you were told that good boys don’t get angry.  Learning to express your feelings may require learning some new skills or a bit of a new language.  Of course, expressing yourself doesn’t mean unloading on the other person in a way which is abusive.

Understand that there is a place for anger in relationships.  Stuff happens.  Learning to express angry feelings in the moment — and in a way which doesn’t attack the other person — keeps those angry feelings from festering into bitterness and hostility.  Learn that anger doesn’t mean a relationship is over.  Take responsibility for your feelings:  “I feel angry when you do this because…”  Don’t attack the other person.

If you find yourself currently in a relationship that causes you to feel you might be codependent, begin by taking a deep breath and stepping back a bit.  Who is the most powerful person in your life?  You are, buddy.  Realize that you can change and make choices.  In fact, happiness itself is a choice.  So choose to take responsibility for your own self.

Do the people around you — especially your significant other — encourage you or put you down?  If you find yourself around people who are chronically, consistently discouraging, interrupt them.  “Friends” who do this are not true friends.  When a partner does this it is likely to be a signal that unhealthy patterns have been established.  You may want to consider counseling.

Intimacy almost always challenges us and requires us to learn new skills.  It’s not unusual to feel overwhelmed sometimes.  Remember:  with patience and persistence and a willingness to face the truth, you can get what you want.

Sometimes patterns of behavior have become entrenched in our lives in ways that make it difficult to change ourselves.   When that happens, it’s smart to get help.  Consider working with a counselor or therapist who can help you identify patterns that aren’t working and support you in moving toward a more fulfilling life.

You may also want to explore Al-Anon, especially if you are in a relationship with a person experiencing substance abuse issues that have caused you to lose yourself.  You can find out more about what they have to offer by checking out their website, http://www.al-anon.alateen.org.

About John

I have been  licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years.  My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression.  My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships. 

I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems.  My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate.  If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.

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Whether you've worked with a therapist before or are exploring counseling for the first time, you probably have questions.  It is important to have the information you need to make a good decision when selecting a therapist.  I welcome your questions -- about your specific situation, about me or about my approach to therapy. Making things better can start with an email, or you can call me at (404) 874-8536.