“Intimacy is not something freely given. It requires your attention, willingness, and intentional effort.” – Gillian Florence Sanger
As a psychotherapist, I have witnessed numerous individuals and couples grappling with codependent relationships. Some share that they grew up in a home where parents were engaged in codependent dynamics.
As a trauma and attachment-informed psychotherapist, I often witness the intricacies of codependent relationships and their effect on mental health. Shedding light on their dynamics and offering guidance on fostering healthy interdependence is an adventure full of complexities. Codependency is a complex issue that affects many aspects of one’s mental health and often goes unnoticed or misunderstood.
How do we define codependency?
Codependency can be understood as an excessive emotional or psychological reliance on another person, often at the expense of one’s well-being. It tends to arise when one person’s sense of self-worth becomes intertwined with their ability to care for and please others.
Such relationships often involve enabling behaviour, poor boundaries, and a lack of individuality. The roles and expectations about each other become rigid, and neither party feel satisfied in the relationship. One person often enables another person’s self-destructive behaviour, such as addictions, unhealthy habits, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or underachievement.
Codependency shows up differently in romantic relationships than it does when discussed in association with addictions. Here is an article from the Gottman Institute Blog about this topic.
Some common signs of codependent relationships:
- An excessive need for approval and validation from others.
- Neglecting one’s own needs while prioritizing the needs of others.
- Difficulty setting and maintaining personal boundaries.
- A tendency to enable destructive behaviour, unhealthy habits, or make excuses for others.
- Feeling responsible for others’ emotions and well-being.
- Fear of rejection or abandonment, leading to clinginess or desperation in relationships.
- Fear of saying “no.”
- Doing everything together.
Codependency often stems from early experiences, such as growing up in families where emotional neglect, abandonment or abuse happened. Sometimes, one or both parents had addiction issues or undiagnosed or untreated mental health challenges affecting their parenting style and bonding with their children. Children in these environments may learn to suppress their needs and emotions, adopting a caretaker role to maintain stability. Over time, these patterns can manifest in adult relationships as anxious attachment.
Is it possible to Break Free from Codependency?
Many clients or couples seek therapy to change old deteriorating patterns of relating to others. Most clients want harmony and more assertive and compassionate communication in their relationships.
Individual and couples therapy offers a safe space to explore ways to break free from codependent patterns. Therapists will create a secure relationship with their clients, allowing self-reflection and self-compassion.
By the end of therapy, some of the steps I have seen clients take toward healthier relationships are:
- They become more open to cultivating self-awareness. They develop a greater capacity to recognize and acknowledge their emotions, needs, and desires.
- They become more comfortable establishing boundaries. They learn to set more explicit boundaries to protect their emotional well-being and show more room for personal identity.
- They create more opportunities to practice self-care. They manage to prioritize activities that nurture their physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health.
- They show more interest in reconnecting with activities and friendly relationships that add a greater sense of joy. They reconnect with their personal goals and purpose, fostering a sense of individuality and personal fulfillment.
- They relearn to say “no.” They feel more comfortable acting assertively and understand that saying “no” is not selfish but essential for healthy relationships. They develop more tolerance to accepting that when they say “no,” they are not responsible for the other person’s feelings and reactions.
What does it mean to cultivate healthy interdependence:
Some clients seek individual therapy, trauma therapy or mental health counselling to work towards striving for healthy interdependence in their relationships.
Healthy interdependence allows individuals to maintain independence while fostering connection and mutual support. What do healthy interdependent relationships involve? It involves open communication, respect for boundaries, and the ability to rely on one another without losing one’s identity and needs. It consists in motivating healthy habits, supporting each other’s dreams, and negotiating personal and shared time.
Relationships where people can navigate conflicts and connect with each other without losing themselves involve self-awareness, introspection, and a commitment to personal growth. Fostering healthy interdependence is an ongoing process that requires constant effort, empathy and shared values.
“In order to work on your relationship, there has to be a strong desire to do so and the ability to be open to new ideas and new behaviors.” – Irina Firstein