Updated: Mar 25, 2022
The other day, while in the kitchen, my husband walked in and asked me, “Is codependency still a thing?” I lit up, as I love discussing these sorts of things, and responded, “It can be.” I met his bid for conversation on the topic by asking, “When you walk into the kitchen, do you like the overhead light on or off?” He paused, gave this question some thought, then answered, mirroring the tone of my first response, “It depends.” We then went into a rousing discussion about how simply changing the light setting indicated the current health of both individuals as well as the coupledom.
Codependency does still exist. Losing sense of self and navigating life through another’s lens is codependent. In her book, Facing Codependence, Pia Mellody shares that as a young adult she once walked into a room and was suddenly frozen by having to decide whether the lights should be on or off. She had no preference. For her, this seemingly small decision was affected by years of disordered family circumstances, including abuse and addiction that dictated her family system. Her self-identity was lost, stunted, and underdeveloped. Likes and dislikes were nonexistent, and self-awareness was shut down, numbed, and possibly even dissociated.
Consider now taking this loss of sense of self into an intimate relationship. What occurs is the individual starts to look to their partner to define her identity. She integrates his likes and dislikes as her own. Does he like camping in the mountains? So does she. Does he like to go to the corner bar on Friday nights and shoot pool? She can’t picture herself anywhere else. She relies on her partner for emotional support and regulation. She needs reassurance, validation, consistent reminders, advice and direction from him as she may struggle with making decisions in day-to-day life. The codependent person cannot move without hearing from the other which way to go.
You may ask at this point, isn’t it okay to get support from your partner? Aren’t two able to carry a load that may be too heavy for one? Well yes, and no. Connecting with a partner is healthy. Asking your partner for advice, encouragement and support are all good things. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg explored the importance of emotional connection and making one’s needs known to a partner in a type of therapy they developed called Emotional Focused Therapy (EFT). Listening to, holding and validating your partner’s thoughts and emotions can be healthy and in fact even healing. Mirroring to them that what they share is valid and understandable can help one grow a stronger sense of self. But this shifts to unhealthy when one person stops sharing their thoughts emotions, needs, and ideas while the other partner’s values, desires, dreams and goals become the sole focus of the relationship.
For healthy connection that does not become codependent in nature to exist, it is crucial to maintain the individual and the couple concomitantly. If we look back at the kitchen light example, healthy would be as follows: individual walks into the room and notices the light setting and immediately is able to discern how he likes the light. For a moment, he considers changing the light, but then observes she is cutting vegetables and knows from previous discussions that she has trouble seeing in low light. Based on this knowledge of the partner he cares deeply for, he adjusts the light to meet her needs, not because that is how he likes it, but because he loves and values his partner deeply. Choosing the other’s needs over the desire of self is a bid for connection, not codependence. What is good for the relationship wins over the individual, but both individuals’ identities and awareness of personal preference still exist.
So how does a partner support the development of their partner’s identity without reinforcing codependent tendencies? Try the following:
Use empathetic listening when you partner shares their experiences.
Be curious! Consider what it would be like to be her. Show interest in learning more about their unique perspective. Ask questions that allow deep expression of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. By doing this, you will be providing support while also strengthening your connection with them.
Try not to solve their dilemmas. Just listen without judgment, criticism, or trying to fix the situation for them. Listen. It is easy to want to give suggestions when you hear that they are struggling. Problem solving for them does not help them grow. In fact, it can stunt them emotionally. If listening is hard, just try to parrot (repeat back) what they share. Then simply ask if you heard it the way they intended and wait for them to clarify. This will make them feel valued.
Validate their experiences.
Acknowledge. After listening to all they share, validate their experiences, needs, desires, dreams and/or goals. They need a chance to develop unique perspectives and when these are supported, their sense of worth, value, and motivation will grow. And if they have the experience with you, intimacy can be greatly enhanced.
Give them undivided attention for an agreed upon amount of time.
Carve out room for them. Clearly, if we give all our time to our partner, we will not have time to invest in the individual, and as discussed previously, this is a breeding ground for codependency. It is ok to tell them that you have x amount of time to listen. Empathizing, holding, and validating all take energy. Decide with your partner when and how much time you can give and then give time to them as a selfless gift. Switch roles often to make sure equal sharing and listening happens, which will enhance the overall relationship.
After reading all of this you may still be wondering, what does one do if they do notice tendencies of codependency? Great self-aware question! Because the roots of codependency run deep within one’s family of origin, I would recommend taking ample time to explore and develop you as a unique, differentiated, fully integrated individual.
And because finding a starting point might be overwhelming, consider beginning with the following:
Create a list of likes and dislikes. What do you like to wear, eat, do, listen to? Where do you like to go? What do you value, believe in, desire? What are your goals and dreams? How would you like your living room set up (including lights ) if you were to rearrange things?
Create a timeline of major life events. Include hard experiences, good times, injuries, and everything in between (you may want to do this and process this with a therapist). After you have written down all events, ask yourself the following: What messages you took away from each experience? What did these life experiences teach you about people, the world, and yourself?
Allow yourself to dream about the future. What would you like your future to look like? Add color and use all five senses as you explore this. Some have found creating a vision board to be a great tool in enhancing awareness of self.
Have time just with you. Do something alone and find ways to make this enjoyable. Take a walk, meditate, pray, read, ride a bike, read a book, paint, draw, design, build, or grow something all on your own. Add to this more and more and preserve this precious alone time.
So how can you tell if your relationship is healthy, balanced, and free of codependence? Make sure that you, your partner, and the couple all exist within the relationship. Maintain awareness of what you want, but occasionally, choose the other’s preference just to let them know that they exist and that there is room for them in the relationship. How can you test this out today? Why not walk into the next room and take the light challenge just to see where you, and your relationship stand.
Great books on these topics include:
Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody
Codependent No More Melody Beattie
The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love Dr Sue Johnson