It’s not a good idea to label yourself codependent, unless you plan to do something constructive about it.
Because labels don’t empower you; they reinforce the undesired effect.
Codependency is, however, a label of our time. So many facets of society are codependent. It’s usually synonymous with romance, too.
Codependency is so ubiquitous that first of all, it’s hard to recognize. Secondly, it’s hard to end it — the healthy way.
How to determine if a relationship is codependent
You need to do three things to determine if a relationship you’re in is codependent:
- 1. Educate yourself on codependency
Learn about what codependency is, and why it’s so fatal. If you’re looking for helpful books on the topic, I recommend Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, and Co-Dependence: Misunderstood–Mistreated, by Anne Wilson Schaef. You need to educate yourself until you have a working definition of codependency in your own words that you understand and cannot misinterpret. So that you can then measure your life experience against that definition, in step #2.
- 2. Be honest about how you relate to others and yourself
Understanding codependency at an intellectual level doesn’t do you much good. You have to be willing to see traces of it in your own life and behavior. And you have to be willing to acknowledge all of your emotions, even if you’ve trained yourself to stuff them for years. You need to recognize your codependent behaviors so that you can choose more functional and healthier ones.
It’s natural to go back and forth between self-education and self-honesty; each informs the other.
- 3. Be mindful of how you use the label
The whole point of using the label “codependency” is to quickly identify dysfunctional behaviors and assertively reprogram them. In other words, the whole point is so that you take care of yourself. It’s empowering to refer to the label only when you’re ready to move on from it. (We’ll cover how to determine when you’re ready in a later section.) Keep in mind that codependency can have strong connotations that can easily place you as powerless, bad, victim or weak. If you label yourself as such, it will only cause you more grief and prevent you from taking care of yourself and getting in touch with your true power — which is essential for ending a codependent relationship.
You need to use the label wisely to ensure that you’re being constructive with it. Step #3 impacts both #1 and #2.
Hints for determining if a relationship is codependent
Codependent relationships are virtually everywhere. (Especially in Disney princess movies and cheesy chick flicks.)
Here are twelve signs that you’re relating to someone in your life codependently:
- You feel like you cannot live without the other person. As in, you’re certain you wouldn’t have any reason to go on (even after recovering from the heartbreak).
- You’re convinced you need the other person to be happy. Yes, we all need to be connected to people in order to be happy (that makes us human). But there’s no one person that you absolutely need in order to breathe (unless it’s a rare and extreme situation).
- You feel trapped by the relationship, and that if you do something for yourself (like change or grow), you’ll be horrible for abandoning them.
- You feel guilty about moving on from the person, because after all, they’ve done so much for you in the past. And they’d crumble up and wither away with you.
- You want to save the other person in some way. You’re certain that you’re the best person for the job of savior because you love and truly understand them. But the person doesn’t want saving, is resistant to your help, or acts like they care but then continually sabotages all your efforts.
- You tolerate mistreatment or abuse from the other person because you love them too damn much, and you’re stronger than this, better than this. It’s a royal rationalization.
- You repeatedly tell yourself that if you hang on long enough, they’ll change, take your advice, see the light, and finally love you the way you deserve. And boy when that happens, it will have been worth it, because they will be gold. In the meantime though, it’s back to living hell.
- You feel as if you can never stop the other person from hurting you — that you have a life sentence of pain and betrayal. And you might even make excuses for why you deserve this treatment, or at least have to put up with it.
- You feel like you can never get out of the relationship. Meaning, if you tell the other person to leave you alone, they will pester you and try to leech themself back into your life until they’ve succeeded or made life so miserable for you that it ends in a volcanic emotional eruption.
- You have mixed feelings about the person on a regular basis. You simultaneously love and hate them. Or you feel empowered yet disempowered by the relationship. That’s your being in denial of the bad times, and hoping that the good times will make them go away — which won’t happen.
- You’re depressed or sad for no reason. That is until you’re off on your own or with other people who care about you and respect your boundaries.
- You cry uncontrollably for no reason. You’ve gotten so out of touch with the pain that you can’t name it anymore and it violently thrashes your body.
- You continually fantasize about life without the other person. Or you can’t stop from dreaming about it in your sleep.
- You start to develop addictions that before weren’t an issue. And when you’re away from the person, suddenly it’s a non-issue.
What it takes to end a codependent relationship
Knowing how codependency manifests in your own life is not a good enough reason to end the relationship. In fact, knowledge will never be enough motivation to do so.
The motivation has to come from your gut, your pain.
You’ll need to be pushed and pricked and shoved so hard — that you finally recognize how toxic the situation is.
And the only way to recognize that, is through your anger.
In order to end a codependent relationship, you need to be intimately connected to your anger. Your anger gives you the fuel to reclaim yourself after you’ve continually given yourself away.
Why connecting to your anger is key
Codependency comes from a lack of boundaries.
Read the literature enough, you’ll see that all the symptoms trace back to lack of physical, mental, psychological, or emotional boundaries. Which usually originates from the family environment.
Codependency comes from believing that you need to be connected to a dysfunctional person that treats you in dysfunctional ways — for whatever reason. And it comes from being so sure that you can’t lay down a boundary because if you do, the sky will fall and you can forget about ever being happy again.
When you listen to your anger, form a bond with it, and work with it constructively — you naturally pay more attention to your boundaries or lack of them. And you set and maintain healthy boundaries to protect yourself.
And guess what? That kind of behavior is the complete opposite of codependency.
Codependency is all about boundaries
Relationships are only healthy when both individuals have healthy personal boundaries.
When the personal boundaries aren’t healthy, break down, or don’t exist — it’s a codependent relationship.
When the boundaries are healthy, breathable, and strong — it’s an interdependent relationship.
So the key to ending a codependent relationship is using your anger to set and maintain healthy personal boundaries that protect your livelihood and well-being.
How not to end a codependent relationship
But simply getting in touch with your anger and being cognizant of the boundaries you lack, do have, and desperately need — still isn’t enough.
Well, it’s enough to end a codependent relationship, but not enough to end it the healthy way.
Here’s how not to end a codependent relationship (unless it’s a life-threatening situation or you have no other choice), because it’s ultimately unhealthy:
- Blaming it all on the other person’s dysfunctions before distancing yourself
- Cutting the other person out of your life without first telling them how you feel wronged by them
- Cutting the other person out of your life without warning, ultimatum, or giving them a chance to work with you first
- Deliberately hurting them in the process of ending it; it can’t be about revenge and still be healthy
- Not being direct with them about why you’re ending it, but trying to be nice to protect their feelings instead
- Ending it in a passive aggressive way — that is, doing it in a roundabout but surefire way that’s supposedly less painful to them, you, or both of you (but not)
- Having someone else end it for you
- Simply running away
Why ending a codependent relationship — the healthy way — is tricky
Ending a codependent relationship in any of the above ways isn’t healthy and can actually do more damage than good.
That’s because it’s setting a boundary (i.e. ending the relationship) in such a way that’s motivated by fear. Like fear of sticking around and being continually let down.
You can’t set a boundary because of fear and expect for it to last. Or expect for it to be sensible or well-reasoned in the first place. Very rarely do fear-based decisions end up as constructive ones.
But there’s also a deeper fear that’s involved when ending the relationship in one of the above ways.
Don’t fall back into codependency at the last minute
Let’s back up a few steps.
Once you’ve educated yourself on codependency and noticed your codependent patterns, you’ve done something pretty amazing.
You’ve transformed your awareness and how you relate to yourself.
And as a direct result of this, you’ve transformed how you view the other person. You can no longer see them as your only hope for love and/ or happiness. You can no longer paint them as a saint, or a damsel in distress.
Instead, you see the other person as someone who is not very healthy in how they behave or how they treat you. Now you have to be very careful here. Because you can easily see them as the enemy. The reason that you got so messed up. The trigger for your pain. Guilty, while you’re innocent.
For a time, that’s the healthiest thing to do — early on. Not when you’re about to end the relationship. But when you’re still figuring things out and emoting.
You also have to be careful because you can convince yourself that you’re now above codependency. Which makes you see the other person as unhealthy with the disease — and you exempt.
This is the trap of healing from codependency — ending the relationship in an abrupt and emotional way in order to get rid of the “problem” (the other person, who’s codependent). Without acknowledging and taking response ability for how you co-created or enabled that problem in the first place. And possibly breaking your heart in the process. Or doing something that you won’t be able to undo later on and will regret for the rest of your life.
If you try to banish the trigger, you may have gotten rid of the person, but you haven’t healed the problem.
You’re problem. That you’re still codependent because frankly, you don’t know how to end it without doing it in one of the above unhealthy ways.
How to end a codependent relationship the healthy way
You end a codependent relationship, the healthy way, by transforming your behavior.
A relationship requires two people.
A codependent relationship automatically ends when you stop relating to the other person in codependent ways — regardless of whether you actually “end” the relationship, or if it naturally falls apart.
A codependent relationship automatically ends when you develop a healthy, working relationship with your anger (in other words, yourself) and use that relationship as a springboard for creating and maintaining sound personal boundaries that protect you.
If you’re trying to end it in a more dramatic way — by cutting things off — it’s actually codependent.
Avoid codependency relapse by staying with your pain
Because you’re trying to control the situation. You’re trying to end your pain with force.
The whole point of healing from codependency is to finally feel your pain! To finally listen not only to your anger, but the deep wounds that lurk beneath it.
So don’t get rid of the other person just to avoid being reminded of how much they have hurt you, how vulnerable you are, and how horribly you can be hurt — for the rest of your entire life. Just work on yourself instead. Keep your relationship with you strong, and your other relationships will naturally fall into place.
The gift of codependency
End a codependent relationship not by focusing on separating from the other person, but by reconnecting with who you are.
When you really heal from codependency, you see the frailty of humanity. You see how delicate you are, and how chaotic and dangerous that means life can be.