Updated: Feb 20
BY JEN MAKIN, CMHC
My definition of codependency is doing for others what they are capable of doing for themselves.
Codependency is an invisible boundary breach that many face daily. It’s like a pull into the world of someone who is unwell. Every codependent has a person in their life facing addiction, mental illness or chronic dysfunction.
This article will highlight three signs that you may be in a codependent relationship.
SIGN 1: YOU'RE IN AN ENDLESS CYCLE
Codependency cycles. A codependent’s mood and overall disposition oftentimes hinges on the sick loved one’s behavior.
Romantic Relationships Can Be Codependent.
Curt just checked into court ordered rehab; Jeri is happy and full of hope for a promising future. Just three nights ago though, Jeri was driving around town looking for Curt in his local spots, desperately trying to find someone that didn’t want to be found.
Parent-Child Relationships Can Be Codependent.
Brenda has a daughter Susie. Susie just had a teenage pregnancy and is now responsible for Jacob. Jacob’s father is in and out of the picture but Susie isn’t worried because Momma Brenda is at her beck and call. As a matter of fact, Brenda has changed twice as many diapers than Susie and Brenda gets up in the night with Jacob. Brenda rationalizes to herself that she has been there done that and Susie is just a kid.
In both scenarios, both Jeri and Susie are not responsible for their actions. It took the court to get Curt to check into detox and Brenda keeps stepping up, allowing Susie to remain under the radar.
The cycle continues when Curt gets out of rehab, relapses and ends up back at the bar. He gets a DUI and Jeri is devastated. He was convinced that Curt was finally ready to change. His sadness wears him down daily, causing his production at work to diminish and brain fog sets in.
Months down the road, Susie finds herself a new boyfriend and “accidentally” gets pregnant again. Brenda is horrified. She is flabbergasted that Susie hadn’t learned anything from the experience of the first pregnancy. She yells at Susie, threatens to not watch Jacob anymore and storms about. Susie cries and promises not to do it again. Brenda feels ashamed of her behavior and works twice as hard to make it up to her. Susie kicks back, complaining of pregnancy cramps while Brenda continually runs circles around Susie.
SIGN 2: YOU ACT IN WAYS YOU WOULDN'T OTHERWISE
Codependency takes over our brain. It overrides and puts it into overdrive. Linda and her husband recently cut Linda’s son Zach off financially on his 30th birthday. Zach was not happy and swore at his mom, blaming her new husband, Scott, for the sudden shift in temperature towards him. Linda cried and cried, but Zach was relentless in his text messages and conduct.
Linda hears from her daughter that Zach is struggling. She reaches out to him through a phone call. Instead, Zach texts her: It’s over mom. You’ve pushed me too far. This is my last good-bye. Linda is frantic. Her mouth goes dry and she runs towards the board to grab her keys. Scott notices Linda’s sudden change of behavior and asks whats going on. Linda cannot speak. She must be by her son’s side immediately. She says, “We should have never cut him off…. It was wrong… He is my son. Why did you make me do that?” Scott is confused and hurt. He says,“Linda, that was your idea. I am here to support you.” Linda can’t hear Scott, she just has to find her son. She grabs the keys and takes off in a quest to find her mentally ill child.
By day, Linda is a bank executive. She deals with numbers and is very bright. She has a team of people that work for her who admire her greatly. She is well respected at work and in the community. She participates in many volunteer organizations and offers help to all those seeking. With Zach though, her brain goes to mush and overrides all logic. And Zach has mastered manipulating his mom. He has had many years of practice and knows just what to say to get her saddled up on a white horse to save him.
SIGN 3: YOU FEEL MORE LIKE LAW ENFORCEMENT THAN A LOVED ONE
Nick has been sober for 90 days. Or so he says. He is headed to his AA meeting to get his chip. Although his girlfriend, Lauren, feels happy for him, something inside of her wants to rummage through his truck and rant and rave when she finds the crushed beer can lodged under his floor mat. But he’s taken the truck to the meeting so instead she turns on a movie.
Then her mind starts to go. It’s not even through the opening scene and she grabs her phone to check his location. It’s off. Her heart starts to race and she can feel her head start to go fuzzy. She calls him. Straight to voicemail. She calls again. No answer. She logs out of the tracking app and back in. He’s on there now, but he’s not where he’s supposed to be. She's up in a flash, grabbing her keys to investigate. She thinks, He is going to get a DUI again or even worse, harm himself or someone else.
Identifying codependent tendencies is the first step. Great, now you know what not to do. But what do you do? Let’s deconstruct each situation with healthy boundaries.
Brenda has a daughter Susie. Susie just had a teenage pregnancy and is now responsible for Jacob. Jacob’s father is in and out of the picture and Susie is feeling the heat because the pressure in her life just doubled. Susie knows that her mom is supportive, but also understands that Jacob is her responsibility. She talks to her mom, Brenda, about the support she believes she needs. Brenda lets Susie know that she is open to support, but that she is the grandma and will never step into a mother role. She also communicates to Susie that if any time she feels taken advantage of, she will let Susie know and pull back. Susie says she understands the boundaries and expresses gratitude for her mom’s willingness to help.
Curt just checked into court ordered rehab. Jeri is happy for Curt that he finally decided to get the help he needs. Jeri is leaving town for a much anticipated cross country trip and lets Curt know that he will see him when he gets back if Curt is sober.
Linda and her husband recently cut Linda’s son Zach off financially on his 30th birthday. Zach was not happy and swore at his mom, blaming her new husband Scott for the sudden shift in temperature towards him. Linda let Zach know that she will not, under any circumstances, tolerant him treating her like that. Ever. When he didn’t stop his antics, she blocked him. When Linda hears from her daughter that Zach is struggling, she lets her daughter know that he is very loved and if he needs help, he knows where to go. After all, he has been through behavioral hospitals dozens of times. Linda runs the water for a bath.
Nick has been sober for 90 days. He heads out to his AA meeting to get his chip. His girlfriend, Lauren, grabs her favorite take out and cues ups new movie that all of her coworkers have been talking about.
In each scenario, the loved one manages what they have control over. They focus on their side of the street and stop picking up the trash on the other side, where their loved one lives. Their side of the street is their responsibility and nothing more. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t be a good influence. Have a clean street; do your own work. Having healthy, consistent bondaries is the best example anyone can be.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
These signs are general. Each situation is different and presents differently. But the common denominator is the same: you are doing someone else’s work for them. This work can be in the form of emotional, physical, mental, spiritual or 12 step work. Either way, it is their work to do, not yours. When we are in a codependent relationship, we gaslight ourselves. More about that here. We tell ourselves a different story than reality to get us off the hook for our unhealthy behaviors.
People have disabilities of all kinds. Some are visible and some are not. I am not saying to not be a supportive person. I am saying to stop enabling loved ones in a way that does not give them a chance to be capable within their capacity. Allow them to step up and feel the growth of their decisions.