Love isn’t supposed to hurt.
But when you become codependent in a relationship, love hurts. A lot.
I was primed on the topic of codependency recently after stumbling upon a good self-help article on the topic (if it wasn’t obvious yet, self-help articles are my vice). The particular article I was reading was about codependency and how damaging it can be for a person’s psyche.
As I read further and further down the article, the reality became more and more clear: I myself had become codependent in a previous relationship. And it took a major toll on me, even after the relationship ended.
To get some more insight on codependency and its effect on people, I spoke to Lisa Ferentz, a psychotherapist with more than 30 years of private practice and motivational speaking experience.
So what is codependency, anyway? According to Lisa, “when people are codependent, they operate from a core belief that their happiness, well-being, inner peace, and sense of fulfillment is contingent upon something or someone else rather than their own thoughts, feelings and abilities. They allow another person’s behaviors to profoundly impact and shape their lives.”
“Codependent people put their needs, feelings, and dreams on hold, and instead, they become very invested in needing to focus on, fix, or change that other person or external situation so they can then be OK.”
So they can be OK. This phrase struck me. I had operated from this belief before – if I can just make it work, I will be OK. If we can just stick it through, I will be OK. I was so misguided and lost, but being deep in my codependent bubble, I was oblivious to my own self-destructive behaviors.
“Codependent people tend to be caretakers who spend lots of energy trying to anticipate their partner’s needs… They often ‘enable’ their partner, making excuses for their bad behaviors, covering up for them, or minimizing the impact of their unkind words or abusive actions.”
“And most importantly,” said Lisa, “codependent people struggle with self-care, always choosing to focus on the needs of their partner instead of their own.”
There are many people who struggle with codependency, not necessarily realizing how they arrived there or how to get out. Codependent people, said Lisa, are not masochistic. They don’t enjoy being in unfulfilling or abusive relationships. Codependency is something that gets learned and reinforced in life, usually sometime in childhood, and it becomes “normalized.”
So how do you beat it? If you are in an unfulfilling, codependent relationship, you may have already taken the difficult first step of ending it. But often, the negative feelings associated with codependency are magnified at this point. There are typically very mixed emotions, including ones that may seem contradictory, at the end of a codependent relationship, said Lisa. There can be relief mixed with deep sadness or depression, partly because the codependent was so invested in trying to make over their partner and make their relationship work.
“There can be feelings of having ‘failed’ when change doesn’t occur, which can trigger a sense of shame rooted in past trauma or childhood,” said Lisa. “Self-esteem can be profoundly impacted. Often codependents think, ‘If I was worth it, my partner would have changed.’ Given the reality that we truly don’t have the ability to fix or change another person, it’s common to experience feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, or depression both during the relationship and when it ends. And there is also the normal sadness that accompanies the ending of any significant relationship.”
I definitely experienced each listed emotion above. But it wasn’t until I had time to reflect on my behavior and learn about the characteristics of codependency that I understood the true root of my struggles. And that’s when I began to recover, by surrounding myself with positive people, and most importantly, by focusing on my own needs and myself.
“One of the essential ingredients in healing is to be encouraged to shift from an external focus (what does the other person need, feel, and want) to an internal focus (what do I need, feel, and want.),” said Lisa. “Initially, those can be difficult questions to answer because there’s never been time set aside for self-awareness. After finding the courage to end a codependent relationship there can be a strong tendency to immediately seek out another relationship. This is a way to distract from the pain that accompanies something ending. But landing quickly with another partner won’t allow for that critically important time for self-reflection. It’s essential that a codependent person commit to being on their own for a period of time, to lessen the distractions, focus inward, and really work on figuring out themselves.”
For those who need more support, there are many resources. Seeking out a support group (such as CODA-Co-Dependents Anonymous) or individual therapy can be extremely helpful, said Lisa. Psychotherapy is also highly recommended for several reasons: Everyone deserves guidance and support when navigating any big transition in their lives, especially when it involves loss. Additionally, since the roots of co-dependency often connect to childhood experiences, those events are best resolved in therapy.
If you are struggling with codependency, don’t lose hope. “It takes tremendous courage, resiliency, and determination to break that cycle and seek out something that is genuinely satisfying,” said Lisa. “Moving beyond codependency can happen when people become curious about and open to the possibility that they deserve more, combined with self-compassion and a inner thought process that is loving and kind.”
For more of Lisa Ferentz’s advice and guidance, see her newest book: Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons From the Therapist’s Couch [PESI Publishing & Media, January 2017]. Therapy without the therapist’s couch.