Maggie decided to attend therapy after her relationship ended due to what she defined as her “codependent behaviour”. Within weeks of beginning her sessions, she reconciled with her emotionally unavailable partner. The understanding between them became that any issues were the result of her “codependent tendencies”. The moment Maggie displayed any anxiety or expressed a need or concern, her partner slammed the breaks on the relationship. He claimed it was clear she “hadn’t changed”. 

Codependency, so being excessively emotionally reliant on others and being unable to discern where we end and others begin, creates boundary issues, blocks intimacy, and fosters habits like people pleasing, emotional unavailability, playing roles, and not knowing when to fold on unfulfilling and shady relationships. Ultimately, codependency negatively impacts our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being. 

Let’s be clear: When we engage in codependent habits, whether or not we’re in a relationship, it’s healthy and necessary to address these over time. 

Codependency is shorthand for My emotional baggage from childhood is plays a significant role in my pattern of feelings, thoughts, behaviour and choices.

Here’s the thing: Our codependent habits are maladaptive strategies. We developed these in childhood in response to old hurt and loss as well as for getting what we wanted. Once we’re adults, though, these strategies only become more ineffective and painful the longer we use them. It’s guaranteed we’ll come up against experiences that force us to confront our codependency so that we adapt and evolve.

Three traps that we fall into by very extension of our codependency are: 

  1. Seeing ourselves as the sole problem in a relationship.
  2. Seeing other people’s feelings and behaviour as a reflection of our codependency, flaws and worthiness. 
  3. Keeping score and effectively feeling like we ‘owe’ people. We trade awareness of our problems for understanding and accommodation of other people’s problems. 

So we exaggerate the magnitude of our problems, past and flaws and assume responsibility for the success and failure of a relationship. We do this while minimising or even erasing other people’s contributions. Sometimes we also diagnose what are actually very valid concerns and needs as “codependency”. And then we engage in over-admission. It’s like, Weeeeeeeell, they put up with my codependency and me being not good enough. I can’t exactly tell them to jog on when they lie/gaslight/expect me to subsist on crumbs.

In Maggie’s case, she assumed her partner’s ambivilance and avoidance of intimacy were reactions to her codependency, not a reflection of his inner state and his habits of relating. She also assumed that were she not “so codependent”, he would be over the breakdown of his marriage and divorce. 

As a society, we’re socialised and conditioned into a level of codependency. We’ve learned to be compliant aka please others to the exclusion of our needs and well-being. We also learn to fear conflict and criticism from displays of independence and individuality. 

Water seeks its own level though. 

If we’re in something beyond a brief interaction or relationship, the dynamics of the relationship feed off and suit the codependency. 

It will also often hide the codependent nature of the other party. Their codependency won’t present in what seems as ‘obvious’ a way. 

Here’s the kicker though: Avoiding independence and being responsible for ourselves and instead being excessively dependent on others is codependency. Avoiding dependency while simultaneously trying to have a relationship or ‘get’ what we want out it, though, is also codependency. 

You have one person who appears to resist independence, and you have another who resists dependence. Whichever way you slice it though, they’re both doing that because of codependency. They’re both still defining themselves and interacting with others based on what the the past triggers in them.

So, back to Maggie’s situation. 

Her past keeps showing up in anxiety and playing the role of Over-Accommodating Good Girl. The stories she’s told herself about the past, the identity (roles) she’s taken on as a result, and the habits she’s adopted and repeated to ‘help out’, ‘be good’ and, yes, ‘protect’ herself, manifest as codependent tendencies. 

It’s true that Maggie needs to address her codependency. Her over-admission and essentially seeing herself as damaged goods, though, blinds her. If she were interdependent rather than codependent, she wouldn’t be in this relationship in the first place. Or, she would at least recognise that his actions, mentality and lack of feelings weren’t about her. 

While Maggie’s codependency doesn’t help, it’s not the cause of her partner’s guardedness. Their distrust of women, of closeness, along with their fear of being controlled and losing too much of themselves is their emotional baggage. They’re in this relationship (and dipping in and out of it) precisely because it allows them to avoid intimacy. 

Time and again, I explain to clients and students that it’s incredibly useful to be aware of how your baggage presents itself, but not to get things twisted. Be aware and take responsibility for your codependency and also acknowledge what else is going on.

It may well be that you are engaging in codependent behaviour and there are also issues in the relationship. A relationship takes two. There are factors about the situation/behaviour and the dynamics of the relationship that are rightfully pushing your buttons and alerting you to issues and a need for healthier boundaries. Rather than dismissing and blaming yourself, acknowledge the full picture. When you own your boundaries and well-being without co-opting the other person’s, you move from codependence to interdependence.

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.
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