Our romantic relationships should be a source of love and joy. Yes, sometimes they take work, and sometimes things won’t go how we want or hope.
Still, a sense of safety, trust, and healthy dependence should be at the base of all romantic relationships. When partners become too dependent on each other to the point that the relationship becomes unhealthy, we can say that the relationship has become codependent.
Codependency in relationships occurs when partners become so reliant on each other that they struggle to function independently. Is there a process on how to break codependency?
Typically, one partner becomes a caretaker to the other. The term codependency originated from research and social work on alcoholism and addiction in couples.
One needs to be taken care of, usually due to an addiction or other health issue, and that caretaker can’t help but fill that role.
Today we can use the term to describe the habit of merging with a partner, enabling their unhealthy behavior and feeling unable to function without them.
Some people enter a cycle of codependency – they repeatedly enter relationships that become codependent because this dynamic feels the most familiar based on childhood or other early experiences.
How to break codependency
Codependent behavior typically stems from childhood experiences and a learned attachment style.
The long-term effects of codependency are detrimental to our mental health. As such, it’s essential to know the signs of codependency.
Awareness helps you recognize codependency in your behavior, thus allowing you to take action to break out of this dynamic.
Breaking codependency habits may not be easy, but it is possible.
Knowing the signs of codependency will help you notice if and when these behaviors appear.
What are the signs of codependency?
Common signs of being a codependent person include:
- You find it difficult to make decisions regarding your relationship
- You struggle to make decisions in your own life because you feel the need to refer them to your partner
- You have a hard time identifying your feelings
- You find communication difficult or overwhelming
- You lack trust in yourself
- You experience low self-esteem and mental health struggles within the relationship
- Your partner’s approval and validation are more critical than your self-approval and validation
- You fear abandonment by your partner
- You rely on the connection to feel safe and secure and struggle to feel that way alone
- You feel responsible for your partner’s actions, behaviors, and even feelings
- You need to feel needed by your partner
- Issues remain unresolved because the quality of communication is poor
- Difficulty saying no to your partner
- Feeling the need to control others
- Blurred lines between pity and genuine love
- People-pleasing tendencies
- You experience an ongoing cycle of unhealthy relationships
Breaking a codependency habit is not meant to be easy, so if you feel stuck or overwhelmed, that’s normal.
Overcoming codependency calls for deep dive into the self, discovering the roots of our codependent behaviors, and shifting our inner narrative.
As daunting as this may seem, it’s essential to understand our behavior and finally break the habit.
Investigation and awareness help us recognize our behaviors as survival mechanisms, an important step toward forgiveness and letting go.
The result of this conscious and brave inner work is that we free ourselves of the cycle of codependency and give ourselves a chance to foster healthy relationships moving forward.
So, if you regularly fall into codependency, consider the following tips and advice.
1. Don’t be too hard on yourself
When you realize that you have codependent habits and keep repeating the cycle, the worst thing you can do is criticize yourself with harsh self-criticism.
Shaming yourself may feel like an appropriate response, but it does far more harm than good. Instead, practice compassion and self-forgiveness.
Understand that your habits have formed through conditioning and experience as a means of survival and are not necessarily your fault. Codependency is not something we choose for fun.
Usually, the habit forms in early childhood when ‘merging’ with a caregiver is the safest and most immediately effective way of ensuring our own needs will be met by a caregiver who hasn’t been able to prioritize us.
Still, as an adult, it’s your responsibility to live well. Part of living well is knowing how to forgive ourselves, release old obsolete survival mechanisms and practice self-compassion instead of judgment and harsh self-criticism.
2. Practice putting yourself first
A little practice can help us develop the self-compassion and healthy selfishness to break codependency habits.
However, don’t jump to the other end of the spectrum by not helping or caring about anyone.
This journey is about finding a healthy balance between your own needs and wants and maintaining a healthy relationship.
As mentioned, some level of dependency is normal and even healthy in relationships, so if you go to the opposite extreme, your relationships will still suffer.
Try to notice when your codependent habits and people-pleasing tendencies show up in small ways, and practice putting yourself first.
You don’t need to be mean or selfish but look for ways in which putting yourself will help you show up and be present in your own life, making your relationships all the better.
3. Get to know your needs
We lose sight of our needs when we become so used to putting others first.
Overcoming the habit requires reconnecting with our needs. We do this by listening to how we feel and discerning between fear and self-love.
In fear, our needs are survival based, and we survive by prioritizing our partner.
In self-love, our needs serve our highest growth and development, inevitably letting others down, especially if they constantly expect us to be there for them.
So, check in with your needs. Do you need to do everything perfectly and be the model partner? Or do you need to take a break, ground yourself, and just do your own thing for a while?
Can you guess which need is fear-based and which is based on self-love?
It may take some time to familiarize yourself with your needs. However, the more you practice this inner listening; your needs become clearer.
4. Practice healthy, direct communication
If you tend to people-please in general, then saying no may be a real issue.
Codependent people and people-pleasers have a hard time setting healthy boundaries and saying no, not just because they don’t want to be rude but because even appearing rude leads to feelings of shame and anxiety and may bring up abandonment fears.
However, you will perpetuate those anxious and shame-based feelings until you learn to communicate your authentic feelings directly.
How to practice healthy communication
You can begin to practice healthy and direct communication in small ways first.
For example, imagine a friend texts you asking if you’re free to hang out tomorrow, but you’re busy with work and other arrangements.
In people-pleasing mode, you may make some polite excuse or let them know all the details of your day tomorrow. You may end up over-explaining how busy and tired you are, etc.
Instead of beating around the bush, you can simply tell them you’re not free.
Yes, you may appear rude, but if this person respects and loves you, they’ll understand that you, like everyone else, are not always free and won’t hold it against you.
5. Acknowledge your journey
When you start practicing self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and other aspects of self-love, you may feel uncomfortable.
Codependent habits may have distanced you so far from your wants and needs that reconnecting with them may initially feel foreign or uncomfortable.
When discomfort arises, but you know in your heart that you’re doing the right thing, offer yourself some kind words and compassionate support, such as:
Words of affirmation
‘I acknowledge this initial discomfort and allow it, knowing that I’m serving my highest well-being.’
‘I forgive myself for neglecting my own needs and thank myself for taking care of them now.’
‘I offer myself patience on this healing journey.’
Self-love and self-celebration are not only for when things are good but serve an essential purpose, especially when things feel challenging.
Can a codependent relationship be saved?
Is it possible for codependent relationships to be saved?
The short answer is yes, but it takes considerable conscious inner work and collaboration from both partners.
If one partner wants to heal, but the other is unwilling to do the work, the relationship cannot become healthy.
So, if you find yourself engaging with the inner work it takes to heal, but your partner continues with old habits, it’s time to consider how well that relationship serves you.
Healing together can be a beautiful, life-changing journey, but if your partner is not on the same level, it may be time to fly solo.
Breaking the habit of codependency is bound to bring up some difficult and, at times, overwhelming feelings and emotions.
Part of enduring this emotional storm is letting go of the shame-based narratives that have stuck you in the habit thus far.
You may also notice that as you give up the habit, you experience a perceived loss of control. This is normal.
Previously, your codependent tendencies offered comfort – they made you feel like you could control people and outcomes.
As you release this behavior, that sense of control must also leave.
This can be scary, which is why many of us fall back into the habit.
Acknowledge your own false need for control and embrace the vulnerability and lack of control that comes with living your life authentically.