Imagine a partner who puts your needs before their own. A partner who demands very little of you, always does what you ask, and doesn’t bring up problems in the relationship. Sounds great, right?
While love and support are crucial parts of a relationship, there is a tipping point where our focus can shift too much onto our partner and away from ourselves, resulting in resentment over unmet needs.
Now I’m not talking about natural ebbs and flows within relationships where needs can be temporarily unequal. If a partner loses their job or a loved one, it’s normal for the relationship to be a little bit one-sided before it settles back to a more equal plane. However, in codependent relationships, that settling never happens.
What is codependency?
Codependency is a way of reacting in relationships that results in excessive care-taking and people-pleasing. Someone who is codependent typically has good intentions in sacrificing their needs for others, but this sense of responsibility for their partner’s emotions and behaviours ends up being more harmful than helpful.
As a codependent in recovery, I can speak to my experience of feeling like my emotions and needs were dictated by the emotions and needs of those around me. If they were anxious, I was anxious. If they were mad, I would either shut down or try to calm them down. Because if they were calm, then I could feel that way too. The problem is that this behaviour actually tries to control someone else in order to self-soothe. But since we can’t actually control anyone but ourselves, the end result is more anxiety and more attempts to manage someone else’s behaviour.
So how can you tell when you’re being a supportive partner and when you’re engaged in codependency? This table is a start, but check here for a more thorough list.
I think I might just be a nice person though.
That’s what I thought, too. But the truth was that my self-worth was tied up in what I could do and be for others. I ended up living other people’s lives, not asking for my needs to be met, and then getting resentful over the one-sided relationship. When your need is to be needed, you’re not actually acting from a kind place. Instead, you’re creating a climate where someone feels helpless without you, thereby ensuring that they won’t leave you. What appears to be loving and supportive can actually be controlling and manipulative. I want to reiterate that codependents are usually kind and well-intentioned people… just not to themselves.
How does codependency happen?
Some families just don’t talk about their problems and lack clear boundaries. This might be because of abuse, neglect, addiction, or even a role reversal between parent and child. While you might say “Hey, that’s just the way it was,” a child’s take-away from that kind of environment would be that their emotions and needs are best kept to themselves. Basically, if a child knows their needs won’t be met, they learn to not bother asking anymore. Instead, they recognize that they should avoid confrontation, that helpful behaviour is rewarded, and that expressing feelings is met with disappointing and/or unsafe outcomes.
Here’s the good news: Once you retire as caretaker, your new job is to take care of yourself. You get to live YOUR life. Just yours. That means others are responsible for their own emotional needs and that they face their own consequences. You get to observe other’s behaviours and support them without needing to take it on as your own and fix it. (Spoiler alert: you can’t fix it for them anyway.)
Find out what it is you feel and need, and then communicate that to those around you. Don’t take on more than what you are responsible for in relationships. Talk to a therapist to better understand what that even means. Learn how to ask “What do you need?” instead of just doing for others and trying to rescue them. Practice the wonderfully liberating word “no.”
You already have this wonderful gift to care and love for others - now you just have to learn how to turn it inward.
Support Group: Co-dependents Anonymous
Book: Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
Stephanie Huls is a Registered Social Worker and private therapist at Reflection Counselling Services in Waterloo. She offers counselling services to adults and teens on a variety of issues and is passionate about helping people find the path to the lives they wish to lead. She prides herself on being open about her own experiences in counselling and has a personal understanding of how bumpy that path can be.