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How to Stop Creating Codependent Relationships and Overcome Codependence

Article by Elena Ryabtzeva (Translated from Russian by Galina)

codepdenencyThe question about how to stop creating codependent relationships and overcome codependence is a loaded one. One can write several books on the subject and yet it wouldn’t be enough.

For starters, I want to say that I am not a fan of pathologizing any specific contact style. Codependency is a merely contact style and like any contact style it exists to satisfy interpersonal needs. Everything is poison and medicine at the same time; the effect of any substance on the organism is determined by its concentration within the system.

When I write about codependency, I don’t want to encourage self-stigmatization (“I am codependent”) and create the shame that comes with it (“There is something wrong with me if I am codependent”). These are my recommendations on any writing: if this or any other teaching is useful and helpful, use it. If this is too difficult, too hard to digest – drop it , spit it out, don’t swallow it in its entirety.

First of all, it’s useful to separate the concepts of codependency and codependent relationships. Codependency defines your relationship with the world in general. A codependent relationship exists when a person is totally obsessed by the relationship with another person (lover, spouse, friend, parent, etc.). This person is so absorbed that (s)he pushes all other relations and her/his own needs to the back burner. The ultimate form of codependency leads to social isolation and the complete ignoring of one’s own needs.

Codependency as a contact style is how a person acts in any relationship with people including professional, with friends, relatives and loved ones. A contact style is a communication pattern that was formed when a person was adapting to his/her environment where they grew up. In the past, it was a guarantee for survival, an attempt to preserve relative psychological wholeness.

There is no good or bad contact style. For example, let’s assume that I like to use a hand fan when I’m hot. This is my style of fighting heat. Too much movement? Yes. One hand is always busy? Sure. Conversely, I save money on electricity and look mysterious at the same time. My style of dealing with heat may have originated in time when I didn’t have an air-conditioner. Other people might prefer an air-conditioner. These people will laugh at me with my fan, but they have to pay a lot for electricity and might get sick because they spend too much time in an enclosed space.

Meanwhile, a third group soaks in the pool and laughs about all of us waving our hand fans and the others who choose to be stuck inside. But these people are prone to develop skin cancer and have to wear a hat to prevent heat stroke. What’s important is not how I deal with the heat, but whether it brings me comfort within a range of resources available to me. If I keep using the fan despite nearly collapsing from a heat stroke, my way is not working too well. If person must have an air-conditioner but can’t pay the electric bills, their way isn’t working too well either.

Using this analogy, we can say that psychological health is defined by the flexibility and extensiveness of our contact repertoire. Here is good news: you’re already an adult and your survival doesn’t depend on another person. Now you can experiment with expanding your contact repertoire. But to expand or diversify doesn’t mean you should get rid of your current contact styles. It means that you can add new styles to the ones you already use everyday. You don’t need to throw out your fan; you can buy an air-conditioner and use the fan at other times.

Second. A relationship between two adults does not start as a codependent relationship. People are not normally attracted to (fall into, plunge) codependent relationships.  It’s created together(!) with a partner. Remember that this is simply a process and we have a choice if we want to participate in it or not. To be able to make a conscious choice, it’s important to recognize the codependent relationship before it develops, not after it hits us over the head.  After that, it’s too late and it hurts.

Third naturally follows the first and second. Any relationship is a dance: my move is born in response to yours and yours follows mine. It means that my contact style is changing and evolving depending on my partner’s needs and contact specifics. If I am limping on my left foot but my partner is stable, this may provide me with enough support to compensate for my personal deficit. This allows me to move at a comfortable speed and we, as a couple, won’t be tripping and falling all over the place because of tension, pain and exhaustion. But if my partner is also limping and loves break-dances, our dance together will probably end up in mutual re-traumatization. In order to find a partner with whom you can dance without re-traumatization, you must learn to be aware of yourself. To be aware of yourself means being able to differentiate your own emotions, body sensations and needs that are hiding behind them.

Fourth. There is no ideal psychological health, but there is a concept of the norm. The norm stops where self-destruction begins.  But being involved in a codependent relationship doesn’t automatically mean that this relationship is destructive. Various needs may get satisfied in relationships – including needs in safety and security, (emotional, physical and financial); in autonomy (maintaining personal boundaries), intimate contact, in being accepted and respected, in freedom of interests and self-expression (intellectual, emotional and physical), and in self-actualization (personal growth, achieving one’s goals, living life to the fullest, etc.). However, all of our needs can never be completely satisfied in a relationship with just one person. Because of this we need multiple relationships – the most intimate ones at one end of spectrum, and our relationship with a higher power on the other end. Everything else exists between these two poles.

A relationship can become destructive in two ways. One way is when the fulfillment of your needs is being blocked. And the second is when the whole world narrows down to just one relationship and all your other relationships fade out or cease to exist all together.

The choice about whether to stop a destructive relationship is a personal one. This should be a conscious choice, (in addition to everything else) and it should be based on a clear understanding of the area of one’s responsibility and its well defined boundaries. You can discover these boundaries by becoming aware of and ultimately eliminating the affect of family and cultural conditioning, (such as “we are responsible for everybody in our lives”, or “the mother is sacred”, or “treat others as you want to be treated,” etc.). Any relationship can be ended except the ones that can’t be ended by the law.

And finally, the fifth part. Two things stand behind any change – a willingness to change and actually working towards change. If you’re experiencing some difficulties now, it doesn’t mean that you are doomed to experience these difficulties the rest of your life. When you were first born you couldn’t hold your own head straight. But you practiced for a couple of months and learned how. Next, you crawled, got up, fell down, crawled again, got up again, fell down again. Then one day you were able to walk and since then you never had to crawl again. If you have an opportunity, it’s safer and more effective to strengthen your contact muscles in the supportive environment of a therapeutic session. Also, relational trauma can only be healed within a relationship, not alone. Your therapist acts as a safe partner in this case. If it’s not possible for you or you’re unwilling to start traditional therapy, then this work can be partially done on your own by carefully choosing partners for this purpose.

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