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Friday, July 10, 2009

Relationships: Overcoming Codependence

In my prior post, I discussed creating and maintaining healthy personal boundaries in intimate relationships. In this post, I would like to focus on one aspect of this challenge--codependence, how it affects relationships, and what can be done to overcome codependence.

What is codependence?
Originally, in the late 1930s, the concept of codependence was developed in the recovery movement (Alcoholics Anonymous). It was called co-alcoholism. It was recognized that not only did the alcoholic in the family have problems, but sometimes the partner of the alcoholic engaged in certain dysfunctional behaviors in response to the alcoholic. During the 1980s, the term changed from co-alcoholism to codependence. The change in terms recognized that these dynamics occur in dysfunctional families whether or not there is alcohol or drugs involved.

Relationships:  Overcoming Codependence
Codependence occurs when one partner takes responsibility for the feelings or actions of the other partner in order to avoid dealing with his or her own feelings. This is called "enabling" behavior because it "enables" (not in a good way) the other partner to avoid taking responsibility for his or her own behavior or feelings and it maintains the status quo in the family. The enabling partner becomes overly involved and over functions for the other partner. The enabling partner also tries to "fix" or "rescue" the other partner to the point of ignoring his or her own needs. The reason why enabling partners engage in this behavior, which is often unconscious, is to take the focus off their uncomfortable feelings. If they're focused primarily on their partners, they don't have to think about or deal with their own feelings.

Please note that when I'm discussing these dynamics, I'm talking about two adult able-bodied people where each person is capable of handling their own problems. I'm not talking about taking care of children, the disabled or taking care of the elderly.

How Can You Recognize the Signs of Codependence?

What Are the Signs of Codependence?
Ask yourself:

Do you have a compelling need to be needed in your relationship? I'm not talking about the need that most people have to feel useful and valued. I'm talking about a strong urge to have your partner emotionally dependent upon you.

Do you have a tendency to be "the rock" for your family and friends? Does everyone come to you with their problems and expect you to resolve them? Is there little give-and-take in your relationships so that you tend to be the one bailing people out or over functioning for them in some way, but others are rarely helping you--either because they can't or you won't let them?

Do you dislike being alone? Do you need to have someone around most of the time because you feel too uncomfortable being by yourself?

Do you engage in "people pleasing"? Is it hard for you to say "no" even when saying "yes" will come at a big expense to you either emotionally, physically, financially or spiritually?

Do you attract people who tend to get themselves into jams where you're the one who is helping them most of the time? Think about your partner, family, friends. Does this seem to be the pattern with people around you?

Do you tend to be the caregiver with your partner and in your other close relationships?

Do you try to create dependencies with people close to you when the relationships don't start out that way? Do you go overboard by constantly offering to do things for these able-bodied adults that they can do for themselves?

Do you make up excuses for your partner so that your partner doesn't have to take responsibility for his or her own behavior? For instance, if your partner stayed up late one night either watching TV or drinking or drugging, are you the one who calls your partner's employer to make up excuses for your partner's lateness problem or absences?

Do you tend to put your partner's or others' needs first most of the time so that your own needs go unmet?

If you answered "yes" to two or more of these questions, most likely, you have a problem with codependence.

What Are the Consequences of Codependence?

What Are the Consequences of Codependence?
Often, codependent behavior causes serious problems. The enabling partner has a need, either conscious or unconscious, to control the relationship so that what appears on the surface to be "helping" behavior is often a need to have control. This usually causes resentment because most people don't want to be controlled. The enabling partner, in turns, feels resentment because he or she feels unappreciated. After all, from his or her point of view, this behavior is meant to stabilize the relationship. The consequences for enabling partners can be serious because they're not taking care of their needs. Maybe they're neglecting their health or neglecting themselves emotionally or neglecting themselves in other ways. This all comes at a price.

What Can You Do to Overcome Codependence?

What Can You Do to Overcome Codependence?
The first step is to become aware of your behavior and the problems that it is causing you personally and for your relationship. The second step is to admit that you have a problem without pointing fingers at your partner or anyone else--just you. The next step is to take action to change your behavior in order to bring about personal changes in yourself and to change the dynamics in your relationship:

Take care of yourself. If you've ever flown on a plane and you've heard the flight attendant's instructions, you know that, in case of an emergency, you need to put the oxygen mask on yourself first before you put it on anyone else. Why is this? Because if you don't do this for yourself first, you won't be able to do it for anyone else. The same applies in your everyday relationships. This may be a challenge because it's a new way of thinking and behaving. It will take practice. Of course, this doesn't mean that you go to the other extreme and ignore or neglect your relationships. Balance is the key.

Ask yourself: What am I avoiding in myself when I place most of my focus on other people's feelings and behaviors? At first, you might only have a vague sense, especially if you've been in the habit of primarily focusing on others. Over time, as you focus more on yourself and your own feelings, you might come to experience yourself in a deeper way.

Develop healthy personal boundaries. Before you say "yes" to something that will be at your expense, think about it. If you know deep down that it will be too uncomfortable or too much of a sacrifice for you, learn to say "no" in a tactful way.

Maintain balance in your relationships. There should be a healthy give-and-take in your relationships.

Talk to your partner in a tactful way about changing the dynamics between you. Hopefully, he or she will be supportive. But expect that you might get some push back from your partner and you might need to reinforce this new behavior.

If your partner is drinking excessively or using drugs or gambling, rather than trying to "fix" or "rescue" a partner who might not be ready for help, you might really benefit from going to Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or Gam-A-Non support groups in your area. You'll find support from others who are dealing with the same problems. Usually, there are some people who were where you are now and who have learned to overcome many aspects of the same problems that you're struggling with now. They can share their hope and strength with you.

Overcoming Codependence:  Find Meaning and Inspiration in Your Life Beyond Your Relationship
Find meaning and inspiration in your life beyond your relationship, whatever that might be for you. For some people, it's religion, for other people it's their own form of spirituality, for others it's developing an appreciation for art, music, nature or something else that is meaningful.

Remember that it's an ongoing a process. Strive for progress and not perfection.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.    I am also a certified substance abuse professional

I work with individual adults and couples.  I have helped many individuals and couples to overcome codependent behavior.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, feel free to call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me:

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