Codependence: Losing Yourself in a Relationship

All relationships require sacrifice. Roommates may help each other with homework, friends may compromise on activities they want to do, and a partner may need to give up something important to them in order to reach an agreement with their partner. Codependence is when one party in a relationship gives too much and loses his/her identity. The truth is that each of us may be codependent at times, and that there is a spectrum of codependency. It is not a terminal disease or life-sentence!

At birth, a child is completely dependent on his caregiver for food, safety, and regulation. During this time, an infant will bond and form important attachments with his caregiver(s), that will be critical for physical and emotional survival, as well as for future relationships. If a child grows up with an unreliable or unavailable caregiver, he may end up taking on the role of caretaker and will put the caregiver’s needs above his own needs. The parent takes, the child gives, and the cycle repeats itself in future relationships, both romantic and platonic. This is codependency. 

In her book, Facing Codependence, Pia Mellody describes the following core symptoms of codependency: Low self-esteem; difficulty setting boundaries in relationships; a skewed view of reality; overlooking one’s own needs and wants. Additional symptoms include finding no satisfaction or happiness in life outside of doing things for the other person; staying in the relationship even if they are aware that their partner does hurtful things; doing anything to please and satisfy the other person in the relationship, no matter the expense to themselves; feeling constant anxiety about their relationship due to their desire to always be making the other person happy; using all their time and energy to give their partner everything they ask for; feeling guilty about thinking of themselves in the relationship and will not express any personal needs or desires; and ignoring their own morals or conscience to do what the other person wants.

Codependent behavior can be learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.  People who are codependent as adults often had problems with their parental relationship as a child or teenager. They may have been taught that their own needs were less important than their parents’ needs, or not important at all. As a result, the child learns to deny themselves of their needs and instead think of what they can do for others. Or they will swing the other way, and learn to be the one taking in the relationship.

Codependency does not have to be a life-sentence. Once the behaviors are identified, new healthy patterns of interactions can be learned. According to Pia Mellody, every adult has an inner “precious child” that needs healing, and recovery is achieved by learning to re-parent oneself. People in codependent relationships may need to take back their individuality in the relationship and do things for themselves. They may need to find a hobby or activity they enjoy outside of the relationship and spend time with supportive family members or friends. Additionally, it is helpful when the other person realizes how their behavior can trigger the codependent behavior in their partner. As with any mental or emotional health issue, treatment requires patience and work, as well as the help of an experienced clinician. Everyone deserves to be in a mutually reciprocal relationship! Please contact me today to schedule a session.
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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