There’s a plethora of relationship behaviors that feel familiar and safe to discuss, because they are easily recognizable: jealousy, infatuation, resentment, distrust. All of these feel relatable and easier to identify. However, certain issues like codependency most definitely land on the more taboo side of things, as it's not as easily defined or able to pinpoint in relationships. As a result, the surprisingly common behavior goes unchecked and one can never quite figure out how to overcome codependency.
To start things off, here’s a quick briefing on codependency. While long associated with addiction and substance abuse (involving both the user and those in relation to them), these days, codependency casts a much larger net. “Codependency is a controversial term that suggests that one person’s behavior supports or enables another’s behavior, generally leading to negative effects for both individuals in a relationship,” says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Catalina Lawsin.
Clinical director and owner of My La Therapy Brooke Sprowl describes codependency as the need to cling to someone to change or control their behavior. “It’s about control — just like any addiction," she says. "We think we know what we need and believe ‘If I can just get this person to be this way, I would feel better.’ You’re essentially using the relationship to do deep healing within your own psyche.”
In everyday life and relationships, codependency can take on multiple forms. Lori Hollander, licensed certified social worker, relationship expert, and co-founder of Relationships Work, says common manifestations can include putting your partner’s needs above your own, depending on your partner for self-esteem, giving too much to your partner, and minimizing dealbreakers in relationships. “Since people who are codependent have a fragile sense of who they are, they adapt to their partner’s needs,” says Hollander. “Life becomes wrapped around what they want. There may be a feeling of ‘losing oneself’ in the relationship or merging with your partner. Conflict is avoided by submitting to the desires of your partner.”
In fact, additional implications to codependency can include a breakdown of communication and trust, increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, and, of course, the destruction of a relationship.
Now that it’s understood what codependency is and the damage it can do, how does one actually go about healing from it? Ahead, these behavioral experts reveal practical steps in overcoming this all-too common issue and stopping it from impacting your relationships.
Like any problem or issue, the first step is admitting it to yourself and resolving to move forward. “Acknowledge that there’s a dynamic that’s igniting and perpetuating imbalance/tensions in the relationship,” says Dr. Lawsin. “Understand that we are all responsible for our own experiences and ours alone. We are not responsible for nor can we control others’ thoughts, feelings, or actions. We can only control our own.”
Give Yourself Permission To Do What You Want
Since codependency at its core is prioritizing another person’s needs or wants above your own, it’s important to learn how to flip the script. “Next time there’s a place to go, take the lead,” says Hollander. “Trust that your partner will be happy to go where you want to go.”
Dr. Lawsin seconds this notion, suggesting that those struggling with codependency look closely at their thoughts, actions, and feelings. “Ask yourself – is that what I want?” she says. “If it’s not, then ask yourself: What do I actually want? What do I need? Try thinking of yourself for a change, and I know this is easier said than done. But start with less threatening/risky situations to begin to identify your needs and wants. This is where your choice begins.”
Learn To Say No
If your codependency equates to you people pleasing your way through your relationship, start reversing the behavior by learning a very short, yet important, word: no.
“[This is] not an easy thing to do when you worry too much about what your partner thinks of you,” says Hollander. “Couples can work this through by understanding and then changing their dynamic.”
This instruction goes hand-in-hand with the first tip, in that you are beginning to assert your needs and wants by aligning what you say and what you do accordingly,” says Dr. Lawsin. “Once you start taking ownership and control of your choices, while aligning them with your needs and wants, that’s empowerment and taking control of your life.”
Be A Little Selfish
While selfishness may seem like a negative thing, for codependents, it’s crucial in that it means putting the focus on yourself for a change and leading to some much-needed self-discovery. “Try new activities, new foods, new TV shows; figure out what you like,” says Hollander. “Then invite your partner to do those things with you.”
This “selfishness” can also help in boosting your self-esteem. “Find what you like about yourself and feed that,” says Hollander. “Use affirmation. Read or do a workbook about gaining self-esteem. You might want to do some individual therapy to focus on your sense of self.”
Face Your Fear
“The hardest part about changing codependent behaviors is the fear that you won’t be liked, that you will disappoint someone, that you won’t be perceived as the ‘super nice one,’” says Hollander. “That may all come true, but the partner who really cares will relish in your growth and development.”
And, at the end of the day, be patient with yourself as you go through this healing process and know things won’t instantly change. “Manage your expectations, keeping in mind that these habits didn’t become second nature overnight, so will likely take some time and practice to shift,” says Dr. Lawsin. “So while you’re shifting, reward yourself for taking ownership of your choices.”