Some codependence is natural in most relationships but it can become unhealthy…
Spotting the signs of codependency in your relationships can be tricky because this behaviour often disguises itself as support, or reaching out for a helping hand. These are positive behaviours when expressed in healthy ways, but they can also lead to codependency.
Clinical psychologist and author of The Truth About Relationships, Stefan Blom, says a codependent relationship is one where you take on a role that makes you dependent on another person, or dependent on taking care of another person, to the point where it becomes unhealthy and you lose a sense of your autonomy and your own identity. It can affect any relationship. ‘Romantic relationships, friendships, parent/child relationships, and professional relationships
in the office environment can all become codependent,’ says Stefan.
‘You risk losing your sense of self, eventually not knowing who you are or what your own needs are outside of your
relationship,’ he continues. ‘However, you know very well what the other person needs. In a way, you become a “pleaser” or “rescuer”, and you lose a sense of what really matters to you.’ When you put your wellbeing in the hands of another person, and one who might not really know what’s most important to you, you actually risk becoming ‘addicted’ to pleasing them and others, all while diluting your own identity and eventually losing yourself completely.
…you actually risk becoming ‘addicted’ to pleasing them and others.
Who is affected?
Codependency is particularly unhealthy, and even dangerous, among the following:
- People who struggle with addiction. This could be a drug, alcohol, gaming, food, or gambling addiction.
- People who have mental health issues.
- People who struggle with immaturity and irresponsibility.
- People who have a tendency to purposefully under-achieve as a way to gain attention.
Where to draw the line
It’s important to be able to support others and feel safe enough to ask for support when you need it in your relationships. But how can you avoid crossing over to the dangerous area of codependency? Stefan says it isn’t always an easy line to draw, and it can be quite a blurred one at that.
‘If you love someone and support them, it’s often quite a natural process to become dependent on each other for
different forms of support from time to time,’ he says. ‘In any relationship where you lean on each other for support, it’s likely that you’ll find yourselves in a codependent relationship over time.’
The belief that you can change others or save people can transform you into a pleaser or rescuer, and as much as you’d like to think you’re making a positive difference, you’re actually enabling and disempowering the people around you whom you care about. ‘When you have a need to rescue someone, and a person expresses a need for your support, this is where unhealthy codependent patterns are born,’ says Stefan.
Read the signs
Just as the line between support and enabling behaviour can be blurred, the signs that you’re in a codependent relationship aren’t always crystal clear either. However, these are some of the more telling signs to look out for:
- Are you constantly trying to please or rescue another person? If the answer’s ‘yes’, your relationship could be at risk of codependency.
- Do you know who you are beyond your relationship, and do you have a clear understanding of what you need from relationships and life in general? If you no longer know what’s important to you, or you feel confused, lost, or ‘blank’ when you think about what you need and who you are, but you know and are sure of the other person’s needs, you’re most likely in a codependent relationship.
- Does your relationship constantly confuse, exhaust, or upset you? Are you only happy or relaxed if the other person is happy or relaxed? Do you find yourself thinking, ‘if he/she is happy, I’m happy, and we’re all happy’? These are sure signs of codependency.
- If expressing your real thoughts and feelings becomes a problem for your relationship as the other person always gets angry or upset, you’re in an unhealthy codependent relationship.
Food for thought
Codependence isn’t always obvious, especially if it isn’t vocalised. ‘If two people cannot express their needs and
desires in their most important relationship, they’ve fallen into silent codependence,’ says Stefan. ‘Invite each other
into a healthy relationship where you can have your own identities, be true to yourselves, and always speak your minds and hearts.’
Is it the end?
’Often when you stop your pleasing or rescuing role, the other person might feel upset because you’ve already set the
tone and created an expectation within the relationship,’ says Stefan. ‘For many people, codependency can feel like love, and if you try to remedy this unhealthy behaviour by creating some independence, the other person might feel as though you’ve stopped loving them or caring for them.’
Healthy way forward
‘You can only stop unhealthy behaviour, like enabling others and depending on others completely, by making a conscious effort to recognise your patterns,’ says Stefan. ‘It’s important to speak openly to each other about your dependency on each other and how it negatively affects your relationship, so you can change it together.’
Find your own identity
Try spending some time apart where you can both focus on your own needs, desires, preferences, and wishes.
‘Give each other the space to find your own identities outside of your relationship while staying connected and
supported in a new way,’ he says. ‘However, if you’re not able to change your codependent behaviour together, you need to learn to be more assertive and say no to the behaviour you’re enabling, slowly introducing your new, more independent role. You need to adopt an identity outside of being just the rescuer and pleaser,’ he says. ‘If you feel you’ll be unsafe without your relationship, you need to take steps to become more independent and try to create your own “safety” outside of the other person.’
Vocalise your needs
Being supportive isn’t always about giving each other everything you need. ‘Taking responsibility for your own needs means knowing what those needs are and speaking up about them,’ he says. ‘That way, when either of you becomes tired or needs something for yourselves, you’ll feel able to do what you need to without the other person becoming upset and calling your self-care selfish.’
Create your own happiness
‘It’s irresponsible to put your happiness in the hands of another because it can become a very heavy responsibility for them,’ says Stefan. ‘Nobody should be responsible for another’s happiness in a relationship; we are all responsible for being kind, loving, respectful, understanding, and interested in each other.’
To contact Stefan Blom, visit Stefanblompsychologist.co.za
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