Codependent Couples

Richard (Rick) Snyderman, Richard (Rick) Snyderman, LPC, CADC, CSAT, NCC

Posted by: Richard (Rick) Snyderman
Richard (Rick) Snyderman, LPC, CADC, CSAT, NCC
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Codependent Couples:

How to Heal from being Codependent on your Partner

    Codependency, a popular buzz-word today in many social circles, is still often misunderstood in relationships where this dynamic occurs.  Many couples struggle with how to cope if one, or both partners, experience codependency and what healthy boundaries need to be erected in order to move from an enmeshed dyad to one that is more interdependent.  

    Originally coined in families where substance use disorders are present, “co-dependency” was described as a relationship dynamic that occurred when one partner was in active addiction, thus “dependent” on a substance, and the other non-using partner became dependent on the addict’s addictive behavior and therefore “co-dependent” on their substance abusing counterpart.  Today, the concept of codependency has gained broader acceptance in couples regardless of whether addictions are present.  Behavioral manifestations that often characterize symptoms reflective of being codependent includes some of the following patterns:

  • Consistently putting your partner’s wants and needs ahead of your own
  • Having a compulsive need to please the other person, even at your own expense
  • Elevated self-esteem stems from other, outer influences; your partner’s opinion of you appears to be more important than your own feelings about yourself
  • Engaging in care-taking behaviors such as rescuing, fixing, controlling and martyring yourself to help your partner feel good about themselves and/or to take the focus off yourself
  • Finding yourself wanting to set boundaries with your partner, but frequently going back on them in order to avoid conflict or disapproval
  • Using tactics like guilt or manipulation in order to get your partner to take care of your needs, rather than taking personal responsibility for your own emotional desires
  • Feeling a compulsive need to check-up or seek reassurance from your partner out of a place of feeling insecure, whether these situations are real or imagined
  • Inappropriately accepting responsibility for the wrong-doings of your partner to not “rock the boat” or make them angry
  • Maintaining the “status quo” appears to be more important than risking an argument or conflict

The above points are only some symptoms of being codependent on your partner, or anyone else for that matter.  Some physiological indicators of codependency include: feeling pangs of anxiety if you believe that your partner is mad at you or have a distorted belief that you may lose him or her based on some action you took that unintentionally offended them or experiencing an inability to stop obsessing about your partner when you are not around him or her.  Furthermore, not being able to eat or sleep due to feelings of anxiety or depression that stems from the perception of disapproval from your loved one (real or imagined) or if your expectations about how he or she “should” behave does not come to fruition, is yet another trait common with codependent couples.

Codependent Relationship Patterns

    There are a few different relationship patterns that exist where codependency could be present.  One such pattern is where one partner presents as “overly needy” (for love, approval, or reinforcement that his or her partner is not going to abandon them) while their counterpart remains emotionally aloof or not attentive.  Another example of an unhealthy relationship pattern reflective of codependent qualities is when both parties are distant from each other where there is little emotional intimacy or connection, but they remain together for the convenience of family and/or finances. Lastly, a relationship characterized by both parties being overly enmeshed and people-pleasing of each other to the point where each of them do not get their needs met due to the energy that goes into making sure the other person is “okay” is another example of a codependent couple.  The latter pattern, although on the outside appears very loyal and loving, could be riddled with feelings of resentment toward the very person that they are trying to please.  The important point to remember is that “love” feels “loving.”  If you find yourself in a pattern of feeling chronically resentful, anxious, or overwhelmed with your partner, it is an indicator that there are difficulties with the relationship that need to be addressed. 

How to Heal from being Codependent on your Partner?

    As with most problems, the first step in healing is to acknowledge that a problem exists.  Once you accept that there is an issue that needs to be worked on, you are in a better position to begin to make changes and have them sustained.  One of the hallmarks in recovering from being codependent on your partner (or others) is to learn to set boundaries and stick to them.  Below is an exercise called the “Boundary Atom” (see Figure 1 at the end of this article) that you can write out at home to assist you in mapping out which values and behaviors are important to you where a more firm boundary may be needed, compared to other behaviors from your loved one that may be more tolerable and thus not need as much of a firm boundary to be set.  An important point to always keep in mind when it comes to boundary setting is that the “boundary” you set is to protect yourself and not a means of trying to control or manipulate others.  If you are planning to use boundaries in this latter way, they will not yield the results you may be seeking.

The Boundary Atom Exercise

    On a separate sheet of paper, draw a diagram of the concentric circles depicted in Figure 1 at the end of this article.  The inner most circle represents yourself (“me”).  On the back of the paper where you draw the circles, make a list of YOUR OWN values, standards, expectations of behavior, and overall qualities that are important to you that you wish to live by.  The next ring represents the “required” values, behaviors, etc. that you would expect from your partner.  These are also known as the “deal breakers” and the areas where the firmest boundaries need to be erected.  Some examples of items that may go in this category are monogamy, honesty, or trust.  The ring after this is where you will identify behaviors that are “preferred, but not required” of your partner.  For example, you may want to have sex two times a week, but will settle for once a week or you may “prefer” it if your partner would show that he or she loves you such as being more affectionate.  This list is for behaviors where boundaries can be set around, but they are not meant to be deal breakers.  Finally, in the last circle, make a list of all the values, behaviors, etc. that you do not like about your partner, but will tolerate it.  This list is not meant to be too serious or they would go in the inner most circle.  It is the items in this list where the values of acceptance and patience need to be exercised by YOU simply because you love your partner and want them to feel free to be themselves in their relationship with you without it being a negative reflection of you.  This list could include things like wishing your partner will help clean the house better, wash the dishes without being asked or be on time for family functions.  The good news about these lists is that the outer two rings are flexible, but the inner most rings may not be.  By doing this exercise, it allows you to feel more in control of yourself in the context of your relationship and therefore disarm the tendency to be codependent on your partner.

For further help with how to recover from being in a codependent relationship, contact the Center for Growth and schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.  

Figure 1- The Boundary Atom