We all want someone who is going to love us and accept us for who we are. What lovely words but I wonder how complex that statement is? The first question that comes to mind is, which part of us should they love and accept? Should it be the easier parts to handle or should they accept us warts and all?. Ideally yes, you might say but again, are we as humans truly capable of accepting someone 100 percent without judgment of some sort? I wonder how many of us create a version of ourselves that is lovable enough to keep the relationship going while subduing healthier independent parts of ourselves? I believe it is a struggle that codependents face on a daily basis. Just who am I? Or more usual, who should I be? How can we be accepted when in reality, we find it hard to accept ourselves?
Codependents are the good guys, when compared to the self-entered alternative. The problem is that it is not as clear as it should be and how people see it. Browse quickly around the internet after putting a certain word in a search engine and you will find posts full of people who have been affected by partners, lovers, friends and family members who have treated them in a certain way. Some of these stories talk about abuse and controlling (unforgiveable and should never be tolerated) which is, of course, part of being involved with a certain type but we should never lose sight of the fact that living with a codependent is never easy. I have worked with the concept “codependency” for fifteen years and while it is yet to be recognised as a disorder (I hope it never will), it clearly causes issues for millions of people in a relational and behavioural sense. Codependents, shorn of true connection, bonding and lacking self-esteem, come into their adulthood totally unprepared for the rigours of being in a relationship. Used to manipulating and chasing validation from caregivers who are either too busy, unable, unwilling or unaware, they adopt the same tactics in adult relationships that they did in childhood. The classic “give to get” is employed to control and make themselves indespensible in the eyes of their chosen one. it makes sense that if you are pushing towards someone, the most natural fit is someone pulling in the other direction and these are the very types codependents are generally attracted to. A perfectly dysfunctional jigsaw comes together.
Anyone with even a scant knowledge of codependency will know that the people they involve themselves with will usually create a certain dynamic in the relationship. Many codependents are vulnerable (the vast majority are women) and there are many who willingly take advantage of their “good nature”. If someone of a certain personality type breezes through your life and leaves again, it can be the equivilant of being hit by a tornado and will take time to recover. However, not everyone in a relationship with a codependent can be described with the “narc” moniker, despite that seemingly mostly being the case when codependents are asked to describe their current or ex-partner. Some are actually healthy people who have learnt that it is also healthy to pursue individual time and interests and have both quality time for self and relationship. This is where a grey area exists in the polarized narcissist-codependendent argument.
Codependents are generally threatened by independence in their partner. It is alien to them and stirs up abandonment issues if the full focus is not on them. Ironically, when two codependents get together, this focus on them is also threatening, leading to counter dependence. They gain this focus via use of the drama triangle, the chosen method of control. It all sounds very dysfunctional and deregulated and it is. It is a mirror of childhood. Caregiving, surpressing needs, fixing (sacrificing) and manipulating and victim mentality, all in the name of finding a true connection. One that they have never experienced fully.
So what is it really like to live with a codependent? It’s not easy for anyone and through my experience (and my own struggles), I can give an insight. Some years ago, I made a podcast with my wife concerning the four pillars of a successful relationship. We emphasised the importance of such things as trust, honesty, respect, meeting needs, communication and conflict management. We talked about our struggles in certain areas, especially in terms of how we communicate and try to resolve conflict. Coming from very different backgrounds, we had different expectations in these areas and some conflicts dragged on and remained unresolved, others were buried leading to resentment on both sides. We are learning daily to understand each other better and the work goes on.
What wasn’t discussed on the podcast was the codependent aspect to my behaviour, something that has been a struggle for me all my life. My wife, by her own admission, has her own issues and tends to be more counter-dependent. It has created a dynamic in our marriage that has threatened to engulf us at times. At this point, I would like to state that my wife is not a narcissist in any way, shape or form and her issues are not for me to comment on. I can only focus on my side of this and this is a dynamic I see over and over again in my work. It is embodied in the very high expectations that codependents have of anyone who becomes involved with them.
While there are different types of codependent behaviour (As discussed here in this article), the focus is usually on enmeshing with someone in order to feel secure and be wanted, needed and important. Enmeshment starts in childhood as a family dynamic and is described as:
“Someone in an enmeshed relationship is overly connected and needs to meet the other person’s needs so badly that they lose touch with their own needs, goals, desires, and feelings. Often, just the thought of being without the person can be anxiety-producing.”
This is the true definition of a codependent relationship. My wife and I have recently been talking about how this affected her and she used the word “smothering” and it led to her not wanting to ask me to help her with anything in case I “took over”. That is a sentiment I have heard also from clients who are also dealing with codependent tendencies. It hit me fairly hard and has been a new feature of my Path To Freedom. I also discussed this with a trusted colleague who said that I need to be careful that I do not take 100 percent responsibility for any issues in the relationship as they may not be genuine. She said, please remember “that is takes two hands to clap”, meaning of course that I should not be the only one working on myself.
So what is the remedy?
Codependency is a connection issue and children who do not connect with their caregivers will then continue to attempt to connect with a “moving target” as they grow into adulthood. By “moving target”, I mean emotionally distant individuals who find commitment difficult, or in a worst case scenario, manipulative and abusive partners who take full advantage.
In a developmental sense, the lack of connection with parents and the issues that lead to codependency, will mean that we often become stuck in one developmental phase or another. This could be the codependent phase (18 months to 5 ), where we are needing our parents to show us the boundaries and limits of our behaviour when we are desperately trying to push those boundaries. This is mostly where we pick up toxic shame as our parents try to control us rather than guide us. It could be the counter-dependent phase where we start to become independent from our parents and distance ourselves (usually 5 to 11). It could even be the dependent phase (0 to 18 months) where we look to someone to completely take care of all our needs. We need to navigate these phases successfully to reach a point where we can separate from our parents and become a fully functioning adult. Parents do not need to be perfect but do need to be aware, willing and knowledgeable enough to help their children through.
One of the consequences of being “stuck” in developmental phases is that we do not attain emotional maturity or separation from our parents. We then go into adulthood trying to fix those issues with other people in a process Freud called repetition compulsion. Our child-like self appears and reappears in situations where we feel triggered in relationships, work, conflict and personal growth. In terms of codependency, we mirror the tactics we used to provoke attention and validation by overachieving, caregiving, fixing and sacrificing. These are our coping skills or defence mechanisms that turn into our thinking parts like the critic, shame and escape voices.
In effect, a childhood as described above means being a fully functioning adult is going to be difficult. An adult that can make conscious choices, face consequences, set reasonable targets and not be dragged back to the past. According to Carl Rogers, a fully functioning person is one who is in touch with their deepest and innermost feelings and desires. These individuals understand their own emotions and place deep trust in their own instincts and urges. Unconditional positive regard for self plays an essential role in becoming a fully functioning person. Rogers wrote in 1962:
“Such a person experiences in the present, with immediacy. He is able to live in his feelings and reactions of the moment. He is not bound by the structure of his past learnings, but these are a present resource for him insofar as they relate to the experience of the moment. He lives freely, subjectively, in an existential confrontation of this moment in life.”
Recovery from codependency means finding or forming the part of you described above. It is always there but is often subdued or exiled. Finding that voice and maintaining it is the key to moving successfully in the adult world.
It also means disengament from the idea that you only exist to make sure someone else is fine, giving up the idea that you do things for people with the expectation of being loved, needed and wanted. Impossible if you don’t find those things within yourself.
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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.