Have you ever found yourself chronically putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own? This could be a sign that you’re in a codependent relationship.
Do you find it hard to make decisions for fear of someone’s disapproval? Do you often worry about what others will think of you? Sometimes even to the point of not doing what you want for yourself? Being in relationship with others is a vital part of being alive. It’s crucial for our health and wellness. While being connected with others can be a beautiful source of joy in our lives, if our thought habits lead us into codependent thinking patterns, our relationships can come to feel exhausting, overwhelming, and draining.
We give too much of ourselves away in a vain attempt to please or control another human.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re being abused in any way, please know that you don’t have to go it alone. Here are some links in the show notes to some really helpful organizations. Reach out, find a trusted therapist or counselor in your area. Contact a hotline and take care of yourself. You are so worth it, my love.
We’ll explore the concepts of independence, autonomy, and codependence.
There are links in the show notes to some of my favorite books on the topic of codependency so you can dive deeper if this is something that interests you.
In nature, independence is a completely foreign concept. Balanced ecosystems from the Amazon rainforest, to our own gut microbiome function only when the various players involved work together in a healthy give and take.
Pollinators need flowers, which need pollinators, and our guts give feedback to our brains via our vagus nerve, which help us make the choices that then feed out guts. In the human realm, when it comes to how we behave in relationships, we often forget that we too are part of nature. Our little mammal selves need one another to make it along through our lives.
While we can pause to problematize the modern use of the word tribe when we mean a group or community, I will say that humans are pack animals. Community is vital for our health and healing.
Studies show that feeling connected to others and living in community is a remarkable balm against both depression and anxiety.
Yet independence as a goal is baked into so many aspects of our modern capitalist Western culture and society. From the praise we give children when they can do things by themselves, to popular culture that highlights the importance of independence and going it alone. That whole framework of rugged individualism.
However, full independence in relationships is impossible, and isn’t a goal I personally aspire to. Something I both see in my life coaching clients and have lived myself, and one that many of us raised as women can relate to is the extreme opposite of independence. Codependency.
The “co” meaning that we base how we feel on how someone else feels or rather, our interpretation, assumption, and projection of what that other person feels or may feel. It’s how we become so connected to a partner that we lose ourselves in them and the relationship.
We lose sight of what we want and who we are.
We forget that our thoughts create our feelings, and thus drive our actions. We forget that we have control over how we feel in a relationship. Codependency is when we choose the thoughts that keep us feeling dependent on others and how they feel as a way to validate ourselves.
This extreme of codependency is just as unhealthy and just as damaging to relationships and to ourselves as striving for the false notion of complete independence.
We can begin to understand relationships in terms of autonomy instead of independence.
We will explore signs of a codependent relationship and the thought errors that can underlie codependence, and how to start shifting our thinking from unhealthy codependency to healthy interdependence.
To start, if part of you is wondering if I’m really suggesting that independence in relationships is not awesome, I would ask you to stay open to thinking differently about some of the vocabulary that we use around relationships.
Much of the messaging we get about what it means to be an adult, to grow up and come of age, centers around being able to accomplish tasks and make decisions on our own. While there’s a lot to be said for being able to have control over our lives, I want for our purposes today to think of this as autonomy rather than independence.
Autonomy means the right or condition of self-government, which has to do with you making decisions for your life, for you.
You get to keep your focus on yourself and what you want and need in this beautiful lifetime. Leave aside your worries and thoughts about how others will react. You manage your life the way you want to, for you.
Independence as a concept has more to do with others than with ourselves.
Independence says I don’t need you, you can’t control me, whereas autonomy says I can do this and I’m doing it for me.
The difference there is subtle and important. If I declare that I’m independent, I am defining my position in terms of others.
More specifically is not needing others. In my mind, I see a teenager, arms crossed who can do things by herself, thank you very much. When I define myself as autonomous, I am only speaking about and for myself.
I am literally self-directed or self-governing. I can handle myself, but that doesn’t mean I won’t accept or ask for help and support from others.
When I think of autonomy, I see myself standing tall, confident, open, a fully embodied emotional adult. I understand that my thoughts create my feelings, and your thoughts create yours. In relationships, we by definition seek the support and help of our friend, partner, spouse, roommate, coworker.
If we didn’t at times look to one another for a boost, for words of support, for intimacy, or for help reaching the top shelf, then we wouldn’t be in a relationship at all.
So the idea of independence in our relationships doesn’t quite hold water. Autonomy by contrast leaves space for partners in a relationship to value, show up for, and support each other without giving up their own ability to self-direct and self-govern.
One major sign of a codependent relationship is that of enmeshment.
This happens when the partners in the relationship lose themselves in the other. This can mean losing touch with one’s own likes, dislikes, preferences, or opinions, or also prioritizing the other to the point of losing touch with yourself.
There are many, many signs of codependency, so I’m going to focus on just a handful here. As I flesh out these ideas for you, I would encourage you to pause as needed if a particular experience rings true or familiar to you.
Close your beautiful eyes, take a few deep breaths, and see if you can stay present to all of this information.
It can be really challenging to face these things, to start to see these patterns of thinking and behaving that we were often taught so long ago in our lives.
I know that you have the power to do this, so you can begin to shift your life and to one that brings you joy, peace. A life where you’re living in your authenticity.
At its core, codependent relationships arise when one partner in a relationship is telling the story that they need the other person and that other person’s acceptance is necessary for you to feel okay.
The other person, the other partner in this dyad, in turn may need to feel needed.
Codependency is more than clinginess or neediness.
A codependent relationship is one in which one partner’s self-esteem and sense of worth becomes so intertwined with their attempts at pleasing the other that their self becomes lost in the shuffle.
This dynamic can create a cycle of dependency that can lead to abuse, and thus the other in a position of power.
Often, the thought, “if I, then they,” is the driver for someone to act in a codependent manner. This plays out as, “If I just stay home tonight, even though I want to go out, then he’ll be happy I’m home.” Or, “If I buy the dress that she likes, even though I don’t love it, then she’ll compliment me and then I’ll feel great. Then she’ll feel great and then maybe we won’t fight tonight.” Or, “If I move to Boston when I really want to take that position in Philly then he won’t feel abandoned by me.”
This codependent thought habit is bound to bring you pain and disappointment because only our own thoughts can make us feel anything, no matter what someone else in our life does.
That is, he won’t necessarily feel happy that you stayed home just because you want him to feel happy.
You won’t necessarily feel good in a dress you don’t like just because someone else likes it. That person won’t feel happy or good about you being in that dress that you don’t like because you want them to feel happy about it. He won’t necessarily feel supported and not abandoned if you don’t take the position in Philly.
You feel what you feel because you think it, and so do other people.
Trying to manage other people’s minds for them never works out in the end, and attempting to do so is a recipe for unhappiness, especially when we abandon ourselves in the process.
This can often be seen when folks merge identities or get enmeshed.
In the case of merging identities, one or both partners in the relationship begin to lose themselves in the likes, dislikes, preferences, or opinions of the other to the point where the self is lost. Let’s not confuse this with developing a love of French cuisine after a partner introduces us to it or picking up jogging when we see how much our friend enjoys it.
Rather, in a situation of codependent thinking and behavior, a previously autonomous self loses their connection to their preferences and gives themselves over entirely to the preferences of another.
This is an attempt to keep the other person or satisfied, or, worst case scenario, to stave off abusive behavior.
In this situation, the codependent partner has given up their autonomy— the ability to self-direct what they like in favor of letting the other have control. For all sorts of humans, and particularly those raised as girls or those assigned female at birth, the message about pleasing others above all can be hard to ignore.
When we are told that our job is to keep others happy, we can fall into the trap of focusing so much on the happiness of others.
As a result, we can back- burner or deny entirely the things that bring us joy and happiness. We can come to accept things that, in reality, cause us harm and suffering—that leave us feeling separate from ourselves and our identities.
Another sign of codependent relationships is a narrowing of the support system of one or more of the partners in a relationship.
For a codependent relationship to thrive, a partner needs to give themselves entirely to the other, to the point where individual autonomy gives way to full dependence on the other.
This can literally mean not hanging out with your friends, family, or folks your partner doesn’t like. This usually happens because you’re holding onto the thought that you can make that other person happy by not hanging out with your college friends who they don’t like.
An antidote to this habit, thought pattern, or tendency is to have and to stay connected with a broad network of support in the form of meaningful and positive friendships.
Friends keep us connected to ourselves and can also keep us in check if they see us giving away our autonomy to another.
Now, we’ve all either known or been that person who disappears into a romantic relationship, especially at the beginning when things are new and there’s so much to explore. In healthy relationships, this is a phase, and as the relationship grows in strength, it expands to include the friends and family of the partners involved.
When relationships stay closed, insular, that can be a sign of codependent relationships, a sign that one partner needs to keep all of their opinions and influences out so that theirs can rule the day.
There’s a difference between not wanting to go out with friends on a given Wednesday and feeling prohibited from doing so. Either because a partner has explicitly prohibited it or because the dependent partner feels that they can’t risk upsetting their person, even if only in their mind.
When we strive for impossible things, like profound independence in relationships, we can end up in unhealthy places, like codependent relationships.
When we insist on going against our own natures—our natural pull to engage on others, to depend in a healthy autonomous way, on our friends and lovers, to remain autonomous and respect the autonomy and sovereignty of others—relationships can end up warped.
Codependency is one form that warped relationships can take.
Again, for those of us raised as girls, the idea of independence can be a super complicated one. Girls and women are praised for helping others and supporting others and putting our partners, children, family’s needs ahead of our own while being told simultaneously that independence is the gold standard for adulthood. We are taught to be codependent.
How do we make these two ideas work? Well, I’ll say that we don’t have to.
We can think instead in terms of autonomy, of respecting our power to govern ourselves and manage our own minds as well as the powers that others have to govern themselves and manage their own minds.
Of course, we get to stay flexible in relationships.
If you always insist that you choose the restaurant when you eat out with friends, you may end up dining alone more than you care for.
But if you think about the core of your relationships as being built upon a foundation of mutual respect for autonomy, we can show up for one another confident in ourselves and ready to meet others where they are.
Another way to think of relationships built on mutually respectful autonomy is interdependence; the sort of relationship we see all the time in the natural world.
Those bees need those flowers and those flowers need those bees, but that particular relationship, that interdependence, is not what defines the life of either partner because members of the relationship have other relationships too.
Fruit plants rely on insects to spread their pollen and animals to spread their seeds. Those animals in turn rely on the plants for food and don’t mind a tasty insect treat when it comes along.
When we as humans come together in interdependence, we acknowledge that, as pack animals, we really do need one another for survival.
The difference here is that in interdependence, we see that we need one another in more general terms, as opposed to needing one other human being who can and will meet our every need.
No one can be your everything and it’s not fair or loving to yourself or that person to expect them to be everything for you.
To meet your every need or for you to meet theirs. That way of thinking can turn pathological.
By contrast, when I see my network of friends and loved ones as people upon whom I can depend and who can depend upon me for different things at different times, I situate myself in the center of a beautiful web of interdependence. This provides a more broad and stable support system for me and for those in my orbit.
Holding onto the thought that my partner meets all of my needs puts far too much on them and leaves us both set up for disappointment, resentment, and frustration.
Taking a broader view of what it means to depend on others opens me up to see what gifts others have to give and to share my gifts broadly too.
Your homework, my love, is my favorite one—awareness.
Start to bring your awareness to times when you may be placing more importance on someone else’s stated or imagined opinions, thoughts, or cares about your life than on your own.
Times when you’re putting yourself last, when you’re valuing someone else’ approval of you more than your own, when you’re having difficulty communicating or making decisions in a relationship, or when your mood feels reliant on someone else’s mood, words, or behaviors.
No need to judge, just observe, make note, and bring yourself some extra love and attention when you feel yourself engaging in these thought, feeling, and action habits. They’re just habits after all, and habits are infinitely changeable.
You’re on your healing path, my love, and you’re doing great.
Awareness is always the very first step to change, so invite it in, even if it feels really scary.
Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!
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