Experts’ Guide to Codependent Relationships

A couple stands together in a heart drawn in the sand.Codependency is a difficult challenge for relationships. Popular definitions are often vague, so it can be difficult to know what a codependent relationship is, much less how to fix it. In this article, we will consider advice of four marriage and relationship experts: Deb Hirschhorn, PhD; Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD; Deanna Richards, LMHC; and Kathy Hardie-Williams, MEd, MFT. They will reveal telltale signs of codependency and provide practical solutions for couples.

What Are Codependent Relationships?

What does a codependent relationship look like? According to Lori Hollander:

When a couple enters therapy and it’s clear that one partner’s needs are being subjugated to the other’s needs, the relationship is codependent … One partner is on the “selfish” side, while the other is on the “selfless” side.

The selfish person … feels entitled to do what they want … They do not understand why their self-centered actions bother their partner. They manipulate their communication to blame their partner instead of owning their part of the problem.

The selfless person has either withdrawn … [or tried and failed to] stand up for their needs … Though they may complain about how they are treated … they tolerate and enable their partner’s selfish behavior at the expense of their own emotional and physical health.

I worked with a man who felt he deserved to have extramarital affairs because he had been faithful to his wife for the first 30 years. She tried to ignore his dalliances until she could no longer take it. In a session she asked him to stop seeing other women, and he said no. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to leave him.

On the surface, codependency seems like a straightforward issue. If someone is being selfish, they should stop and consider their partner’s feelings. But how does someone figure out when they are being too selfless? Kathy Hardie-Williams recommends that we look out for these common signs of codependent relationships:

  • Our sense of identity is defined by taking care of others.
  • We have building resentment about what we do for others but don’t believe we can say no.
  • We are afraid to set boundaries with others because it might hurt their feelings, and we end up being dishonest about our own boundaries.
  • We cross the boundaries of others by assuming they ‘need us’ to take care of them.
  • We are uncomfortable allowing others to deal with their own pain, therefore we take their pain on for them.

Powerful emotions permeate codependent relationships. There are strong ties but also deep emotional wounds. So why do the selfless partners stay? Deanna Richards explains:

Typically, one person in the couple … defers to their partner for decision making and often will rely on the partner’s opinion rather than sharing their own. They may also … put aside their own needs and wants in order to please the other person … While they might feel unhappy and unfulfilled in the relationship, they may feel like they cannot live without the other person or that no one else would want to be with them.

How to Successfully Resolve Codependent Relationships

Although codependency can be deeply entrenched in a relationship, it is possible to overcome. If a couple does not have a therapist, there are a few interventions people can try for themselves.

Deborah Hirschhorn highlights the importance of resisting negativity. She says, “Part of the way a person gets stuck in the codependent relationship is the partner puts the person down so often that the person then believes the put-down … Those negative messages are not only coming from within oneself but also in real time from the partner.”

To challenge that negativity, she recommends people keep a log. They should write down times they perform well, such as negotiating a deal at work. When the partner claims, “You can’t handle things without me,” the person will have evidence to the contrary.

Qualified therapists can help a couple recognize the damage codependency has on their relationship. Therapy can provide a neutral space for a couple to discuss their needs and set boundaries. Therapists can also work with partners individually to overcome their emotional challenges.

Lori Hollander focuses on resolving communication issues. She suggests:

To improve this situation on their own, partners can communicate about their needs and create joint boundaries. The partner who is more selfish must recognize that their behavior is hurtful and own their part of the problem. They must learn to listen to [others’] feelings and develop more empathy. The partner who is selfless must learn to develop their voice, ask for what they need, and express what is acceptable and what it not.

If partners work together, they can create a more balanced relationship. They can write down goals, practice new behaviors, and hold each other accountable. With time and effort, a couple can change the future of their relationship.

Kathy Hardie-Williams goes into more detail about how partners can improve their communication:

Partners can work on being ‘differentiated,’ which means they maintain their sense of self while staying emotionally connected. They can … empathize with each other without absorbing each other’s feelings. [Each party] must ask for … what they need and want from the other … [They must] learn not to take things personally.

Despite sincere efforts to improve the relationship, some partners may be unable to assist themselves. Lori Hollander says, “Sometimes couples are so entrenched in this dynamic they can’t change it on their own.” If self-help techniques prove to be unsuccessful, partners in codependent relationships may seek assistance from a therapist.

Qualified therapists can help a couple recognize the damage codependency has on their relationship. Therapy can provide a neutral space for a couple to discuss their needs and set boundaries. Therapists can also work with partners individually to overcome their emotional challenges.

“When I work with couples, I spend 1 to 2 sessions with each individual,” reveals Deanna Richards, “which allows each partner to speak freely and to form a connection with me. When the couple is brought back together, setting a few guidelines with the help of the couple beforehand can help create … a safe space for the couple to speak, listen, and learn to respond with empathy.”

But therapists aren’t simply mediators. They also educate codependent couples on the underlying causes of their condition. Kathy Hardie-Williams explains:

When partners are codependent, therapists can be fairly sure that they came from family systems where codependency was present. Therefore, it is useful for therapists to help the partners explore their families of origin … The dynamics in family systems are passed down from generation to generation. Therapists can [help parents] avoid passing down codependency patterns to their children.

Whether a couple goes to therapy or not, there is one step that is essential to fixing a codependent relationship. According to Deanna Richards, that step is, “for people to acknowledge that something about the partnership doesn’t feel good or right. Only by first acknowledging that something is wrong can people begin to address the issue.”

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  • 2 comments
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  • Barb

    Barb

    December 20th, 2017 at 12:50 PM

    Been to therapy for 3 years after my divorce from husband
    found out I was codependent
    He was abusive alcoholic
    Takes time to change but worth it

  • Becky

    Becky

    January 2nd, 2018 at 12:19 PM

    Been there too Barb! I go to Al Anon and support group for women who had abusive men and a counselor too off and on. Have to keep working the program every day

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