**EDITED TO ADD: Since this post, my divorce was finalized. Some information is out of date.
Before I jump in- yes, I began this post featuring a photo of me happily zenned out at the Canyon Ranch Spa in Las Vegas. I took a girls trip earlier this year as part of a much needed self-care weekend, and this was the pinnacle of me in relaxation mode. It is so important to take care of ourselves.
I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that I am recovering from codependency. Psychologists and other professionals universally say that codependency develops from unhealthy relationships as a child. I’ve not yet figured that all out yet, as I’ve just been trying to get by and understand it as it pertains to my life now, but one day I hope to unpack it all.
Codependency has been part of my life for many years, but has been given a whole new life within the confines of my marriage, even before we were married. You see, my husband is a recovering alcoholic. And by the way, it feels so good to say recovering alcoholic, and not just alcoholic, which I had been relegated to saying for most of the last year. I am so proud of the journey he is currently on. However, the denial of his addiction for most of the last year, after years of acceptance, sobriety and treatment, ultimately caused him to have to move out of our house, miss Christmas with our children, and pushed me to file for divorce. It was not without consequences for either of us, our children, or those that love us. If you know me, you know things had been pretty tough. But- that was then; recovery is now!
I should stop here for a minute.
I’ve written and rewritten and edited this entire post at least 15 times since being inspired by so many of you to continue to write about my journey with codependency. And in the classic codependent style, I started writing about my husband’s addiction and telling his story. But, today’s post isn’t about his story. It’s not even really about our story. It’s about mine. So forgive me if I start down a track and then correct myself; it takes a lot of work to keep my mind focused on me and not everything else that has shaped me in this area (In my mind, I hear Ross Geller yelling PIVOT regarding me changing directions mid-stream; if you have not seen this most hilarious scene from FRIENDS- First, who are you? Second, watch it HERE!].
In full disclosure, my husband knows that I am writing a “Surviving Codependency” blog post today and he’s aware it includes parts of his story.
Codependency happens when you lose yourself and by focusing on others to your own detriment. Time and time again throughout the last decade of my life, I have found myself in situations where I put my own wants and needs aside, sometimes my own self-preservation aside, and refocus on someone or something else that needs me. That has basically been my entire relationship with my husband. A few months into our relationship, he deployed overseas with the Navy for 9 months. That’s a fantastic way to throw a codependent like me into my most classic codependent space- my boyfriend was on a floating metal box in the middle of the Persian Gulf and had no way of doing just about any of the things that he wanted or needed to do. Cue me- I’ll do it! Let me know whatever you need! Need me to chase down a bulk package of Strawberry Chapstick? Done. Need me to sell something on eBay and pick it up and ship it to the buyer? No problem. Having a rough day while you’re missing a friend’s wedding? Let me cheer you up by putting together the most amazing care package ever. I have only finally learned in this last year how to take that focus away from him and back on myself.
For the longest time, I could not make heads or tails between codependency and love. I thought that when you love someone, you put that person’s needs before yours and make their happiness your personal mission. Love is patient love is kind, right? Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no account of wrongs. How do you possibly reconcile this self-sacrificing kind of love discussed in the Bible with a healthy relationship? It made no sense to me.
Take this one step further- how in the heck do you learn to have a healthy (read: not codependent) relationship when you’re at the point in your life when you’re having children? For any codependent, who needs to be needed, having children is the ultimate test.
I will never forget talking to an ex a few years ago right after I had my son and he said, completely jokingly, “Oh my gosh, I can’t even imagine how much you love being needed 24/7.” He didn’t even say it in any way that was meant to be rude or insulting, just as we were laughing over the topic generally. But OH MY GOSH- how right was he? I didn’t even make that connection until well into my codependency recovery journey that having children is the ultimate fuel to the fire for codependents. Sign me up for little people that need me 24/7; you found your volunteer here!
But that’s different — children, especially when they are very young, need us. And that is healthy for the most part. It’s really when we put other adults first in our relationships, particularly at the expense of our own health or well-being, that we act as codependents.
Codependency is a learned behavior (like most). We watch the actions of our parents and other adults when we’re children and bring those into our own adult relationships. We engage with adults that are emotionally unavailable, and hope that the other person will see all the love we give and be inspired to change. For anyone possibly in this boat- let me help you jump out right now. Not only is that thinking completely wrong, it’s destructive.
Consider how hard it is to change yourself. Whether it’s changing your exercise habits, your daily routines, moving to a new diet or healthy lifestyle. It’s hard to affect change in our own lives. When you think about how hard it can be to change yourself, you should easily be able to understand the very little chance you have of changing someone else. Particularly when that someone else is so emotionally unavailable, sometimes due to suffering from an addiction or narcissism.
The Unholy Trinity of Codepdendency, Addiction and Narcissism
Codependents are almost always in relationships with people that suffer from addiction or narcissism. Almost without fail.
Regarding addiction — codependency and addiction go hand in hand. Codependency may not always be associated with addiction, but where there is addiction, you can usually find a codependent. One of the many dangers of codependency is that you may inadvertently be enabling your partner’s addiction. In your attempts to show your partner how much you love them, you discourage them from seeking treatment because you are always softening their otherwise crash landing. You clean up for them and cover for them, and do anything you can to help ease the consequences. You love them, of course you are doing these things.
Friends, I can’t tell you how many times I have done this! I don’t want the end result (let’s call it X) to happen, so I literally do anything and everything, compromising myself and all my standards and values, to make sure that X doesn’t happen, even when I am not the one responsible for causing X to happen! It’s its own kind of manipulation, don’t you think? I didn’t cause the problem, and I certainly can’t cure it (thank you, Al-Anon principles), but here I go, trying to make sure a certain result doesn’t happen. As though I am God.
I completely understand how/if/why this is something you do if you do it! As I just illustrated, I have been there more times than I can count! And if you don’t engage in these behaviors, but maybe you know someone that does, maybe this will help you understand.
Maybe it will help some of you understand decisions that I’ve made over the years, if nothing else.
If you knew someone was bound to do something that would likely cause harm to themselves, and you loved that person, you would do everything you could to make sure that didn’t happen, right? Of course you would!
Let me give an example- if you were at a party and one of your friends was not in the condition to drive, what would you do? Take their keys, right? You wouldn’t want them to drive home and hurt themselves or someone else. There is nothing inherently wrong with that.
But, take that to the extreme, and it is a codependent behavior. You are not responsible for the actions of someone else. Yes, you should take your friend’s keys so they don’t drive drunk. But what if it happens 20 times over the course of a year — well, that friend has a problem and needs help. I wouldn’t suggest just letting them suffer the natural consequences by driving home, but I would suggest not drinking with that friend any more and having a serious conversation with them.
That is something I struggled with for so long. What do I do if I don’t want the worst result to happen? How could I avoid that guilt if it did when there was something I could have done?
The answer is actually quite simple! I do what any mature adult would do. Lay out boundaries, and stick with them. Don’t drink with that friend. Don’t go to parties with that friend. Sit down and have a conversation with them. Plan an intervention. Gather other people that care about them to do the same. Cut off your enabling of their problem.
If you’re a codependent and dealing with a narcissist, it’s just as tricky.
Narcissists are the exact opposites of codependents. Codependents lack a healthy relationship with themselves; they put others before themselves. Narcissists also have an unhealthy relationship with themselves; they put themselves above everyone else. They push blame on to other people and are unable to see wrong in anything they do. Worse, they justify it when it does happen. The primary mistake that a codependent makes in this relationship is giving the narcissist the benefit of the doubt because it is so hard to fathom that someone could be so selfish.
Codependents fight to remain in control when dealing with often chaotic surroundings. Oh how true this is for me; how much I have prided myself on that. The truth is, I am resourceful. I have great instincts and was blessed with a decent amount of brain power that has helped me survive some crazy situations. But that is nothing to be proud of. I love that I am good in an emergency situation (seriously, if you ever need to faint or break a leg or go into cardiac arrest, I’m a good person to have handy!), but I certainly would prefer to not have emergency-like situations arise. And in fact, one of my boundaries now is insisting on it. There is no room in my life, and especially in the lives of my children, for unnecessary forced emergencies.
Because codependency is a learned behavior, there is hope! It can be unlearned! As you work to break the cycle of codependency, you should be prepared that you are likely going to face fierce resistance. You are going to be given all of the blame for everything that has ever happened in the other person’s life, and especially their current situation. You are going to be the one that gave up, the one that is acting selfishly. To them.
This is how you know you are recovering. Those that rely on codependents to be, well, codependent, simply don’t know how to react when the other person starts to get healthy.
But I’m Not Codependent…!
Before I get into some of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve worked my own program over the last year, I want to point out something that, for whatever reason, is so important to me. It was a big hangup that I had when starting down this path. I have so many traits that are the opposite of codependency. So many that I had to really work to see that I was in fact codependent. Particularly in a few areas that I’ll highlight below.
For example, I care very little about what others think of me or about pleasing other people. I am so to the extreme in this category it’s actually caused issues for me in relationships with my parents as well as romantic partners. I do not need validation in my choices, and in fact, I like when my choices are challenged and I can explain myself (my counselor at my church reminds me often that I love to be understood- it’s true!). Just because I don’t have this issue doesn’t mean others don’t, so I included this helpful graphic on the left that you may find helpful.
I can say no without having a single feeling of guilt. In the context of most of my relationships, I have zero issues saying no. I think there is power in knowing your limits.
I feel fearless in the pursuit of my dreams. I am unapologetic for them, and they are big. I want to live and work abroad. I want to travel the world with my kids. I want to be successful in this blog, and really refine my writing skills. I have so many more, and I don’t feel bad about having them.
I experience zero mom guilt. I know, mom guilt is a serious thing, and I empathize so hard with people that deal with it! But I just don’t have it. At all. I know that I am giving my children 1000% of me, often in impossible situations and under difficult circumstances. Sometimes I need a break. Sometimes I need to drink wine in my closet, and sometimes I need two massages in a month or simply to go sit in my car and take a nap. Taking me time helps me to be a better mom to them, and I want to give them the very best me.
These things are pretty atypical for codependents, but that does NOT mean that I am not a codependent. It just means I am not a codependent in every area of my life. When it comes to certain interpersonal relationships though, oh yes, yes, yes- ring the buzzer- that’s me.
I simply mention this because the more I got into my recovery journey last year, the more I found myself finding things that I was the complete opposite of. My challenge was to think about my behaviors in the limited context of my codependent relationships. And so I challenge you to do the same.
- You are not responsible for the problems, issues, circumstances, or behavior of others. You can show empathy and understanding and even listen with care and attention without feeling the need to fix things or make them right.
- Detachment doesn’t mean not caring. It’s taking care of yourself first and letting others take responsibility for their actions without trying to save or punish them.
- Burnout is not a badge of honor; it’s a symptom of unhealthy boundaries.
- Those that you have unhealthy relationships with are not going to like your boundaries. They’re going to push you, and try to entice you to walk across the line you drew in the sand. That is not their issue, that is yours. You need to decide, at the time when you draw the boundary, everything that could happen that would make you walk across that line. And you need to only do so when that condition precedent is met.
- Codependency is driven by the unspoken agreement that I will work harder on your problem and your life than you do.
For now, I will continue down this path of being completely and unapologetically me. Thank you to all of you that reached out via Facebook or Instagram and encouraged me to keep writing about this topic. Thank you for encouraging me to be transparent, particularly in the wake of so many crazy things going on in my life. I find it so important to not present an imagine that is anything less than genuine, and by diving in to our struggles, it keeps me honest with myself.