Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More
A codependent relationship is where one person has an excessive emotional or psychological dependence on another person. In other words, one person ends up taking too much responsibility for the relationship while the other person takes too little.
Detailing Codependent Relationships
Codependent relationships are characterized by vague or non-existent boundary lines. Instead of only taking responsibility for what is yours, there is a strong tendency to step over the line and take on added responsibility for some of what belongs to your partner. This is classic behavior for people who have addictive tendencies and those who tend to get into relationships with them. To put it property owner’s terms, it would be like cutting your neighbor’s grass for them because they do such a poor job of it. You rationalize crossing the property line by saying it will “help” them.
For example, suppose that you and your partner have a hard time resolving conflict. When there is tension between the two of you, he tends to shut down emotionally and stops talking. You, knowing he is not good at expressing his feelings, work very hard to “draw him out.” But, the harder you work, the more he punishes you with his dismissive silence. Instead of resolve, your efforts lead to increasing distance in your relationship. In this situation, you are being codependent because you are taking on the responsibility to coax emotion out of him.
Each person takes responsibility for sharing his or her thoughts and feelings in a relationship, even if they are not good at it. When you repeatedly step over the line, you send the message that your partner doesn’t need to assume responsibility for that part of your relationship because you will do it for him. This sets up a vicious cycle that is hard to break and leads to many similar types of codependent behaviors.
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Avoiding Codependent Relationships
There are ways to avoid getting into codependent relationships or break out of a codependent pattern you may have already established. Here are five sound ways to begin:
- Settle for nothing less than respect in your relationships: Don’t overlook or minimize comments or behaviors that seem demeaning or disrespectful, even if it is meant as “humorous.” A healthy relationship is one where you are valued. If you feel disrespected or dismissed, speak up and say so. You should also extend the same value and respect to your partner.
- Be mindful of the relational boundary line: Here’s a good self-reflective question to ask: what in this relationship belongs to me and is my responsibility and what belongs to the other person? You should try to be as clear as possible of where that boundary line is and stay on your side. Asking yourself this question can often help you stay grounded and keep the boundary in place.
- Don’t give yourself away: Many people have fallen into codependent relationships by becoming what some call “people pleasers.” This behavior of working hard to be favorable in other people’s eyes usually has roots stemming back to childhood. But when you give yourself away in exchange for being liked or loved, you also lose part of your personhood. You have to tell yourself that you deserve to be a whole person and that this is the only way you can have a truly healthy and satisfying relationship.
- Own and value your body: In a culture where sexual contact can seem more like a recreational activity than an expression of meaningful relationship, it becomes especially important to value your body. Your body is part of your boundary responsibility. If you treat your body as an extension of your soul, you will reserve that part of you for those who truly deserve it. For example, if you don’t want to be touched, say so. Your words have power when rooted in self-value.
- Recognize and live within your limitations: Though many people live as if they have no limits, we cannot escape the fact that we live with them in all facets of our lives. Relationships that are continually pushing against boundary lines may look and feel exciting at first, but usually lead to trouble. People who push against boundaries typically don’t know where the line is or even that there is a line that should be respected. Don’t see how close you can come to the edge before you lose your footing. The goal is to live within the lines that define you.