How to Escape the Co-dependency Trap
The winter holiday season is a time of showing our loved ones that we care, with gifts, elaborate meals, and simply spending time together. But as much as we love our families, getting everyone together inevitably means revisiting all of the family dynamics we experienced in childhood. Yikes!
Co-dependency is one of the most common dysfunctional family patterns, and it can be the hardest to step out of. Even when it seems like we’ve succeeded, when we’re back in the family soup we grew up in, we can find ourselves right back where we started. Or at least that’s what it can feel like!
So let’s explore what’s really going on with co-dependency, and how to hold our ground in the face of it - in a loving and non-confrontational way.
Before we go any further, let me be clear: true independence is a myth.
In the closed biosphere of this planet, everything I do and everything you do impacts everything else, in tiny ways and not-so-tiny ways. You’ve heard of the butterfly effect? In truth, every action we take ripples out, in ways we can’t even imagine.
And as a social species, we’re all dependent on each other. None of us could exist if we were entirely alone. Not only are our brains and our bodies wired for connection (so we need other people to stay healthy and sane), but we also depend on other people for our survival in countless ways. How many of you fix your own plumbing, or manufacture the products you use every day?
But with all that said, co-dependency is not the same as the kind of healthy inter-dependence that has made humanity so successful as a species. (Ok, it’s arguable how successful we really are, but you get my point!)
What makes people co-dependent, as opposed to inter-dependent, is a lack of healthy boundaries in the relationship.
To illustrate this, think of the cells in your body. They all work together to support the health of the whole, but each of them maintains clear boundaries with every other cell. If their cell membranes lost integrity, the cell contents would leak everywhere and they would cease to function. We’d die!
When two people don’t have clear boundaries, their boundaries tend to mush together, and become enmeshed. Because of this, they lose their own healthy sense of self; there’s no clear sense of “this is me,” “this is what I want,” or “this is what I feel about that.” It’s as if both people have become one person.
Without clear boundaries, it becomes really hard for each person to advocate for and meet their own needs - because they won’t even know what their needs actually are. Each person’s wants and needs have now become entangled with the other person’s, creating massive confusion.
And co-dependency takes this lack of boundaries a step further. Not only would I be confused about what I’m actually wanting or needing in any given situation, I wouldn’t even understand that it’s up to me to advocate for my own needs. Instead, I’d outsource them onto you, assuming that it’s your responsibility to take care of me (and vice versa).
But here’s the kicker. I can’t know what your needs are if you don’t tell me - and you can’t tell me if you don’t know what they are either! So both of us would just have to guess, and hope for the best.
And if I get it wrong? Then you get upset because your needs aren’t being met. Because even if you don’t know what your needs are, your anger does! (Because that’s anger’s job). We’ll explore the implications of this in a minute.
There’s only one kind of relationship where boundary enmeshment is healthy, and that’s the relationship between parents and children.
When children are young, they don’t have any functional boundaries of their own. (When they’re babies, they don’t even know they’re a separate person from anyone else!)
In the parent-child relationship, the parents assume responsibility for all of the child’s needs - anticipating them as best they can. This is how it should be, because children are truly dependent, in every sense of the word.
Co-dependency among adults is another story entirely. This is fundamentally unhealthy, because the mother-child merging of boundaries is not meant to extend beyond childhood. Around the age of 5 or 6, children should begin to develop boundaries of their own - and it’s vital that parents encourage and support that.
At its core, the process of becoming an adult is all about taking responsibility for one’s own needs, and releasing one’s parents from that responsibility.
But what happens if the child grows up, but never becomes a functional adult?
Young people can move out of their parents’ house and start supporting themselves financially, but doesn’t necessarily mean they truly “grow up.” It’s entirely possible to for them take care of themselves on a material level, and still continue to seek love, approval, and validation from other people - just as they needed from their parents when they were a child.
They’ve merely transferred the responsibility for meeting their emotional needs from their parents onto others, whether that’s a best friend or a significant other. They still aren’t showing up for themselves as the adult, the parent who loves and validates them; they’re still expecting it to come from other people.
And what happens when this person then has children of their own? Subconsciously, they will end up relying on their children to meet their emotional needs, in addition to (or instead of) the other way around. And in this way, co-dependency is born - and passed on through the generations.
Co-dependency has become so normalized in our culture that it’s actually considered to be the way our relationships are meant to be. This is a serious cultural problem, and the only way this will change is if we refuse to accept responsibility for the needs of others, and stop expecting other people to take care of ours.
So how can we tell if we’re falling into the co-dependency trap?
This is an important question, because it’s not like relationships have a label that clearly marks them “healthy” or “co-dependent.” Co-dependent tendencies and behaviors can pop up anywhere, even in relationships that are normally healthy.
The biggest red flag is when someone chooses not to speak up for what they want in a situation (and yet they clearly care what happens). Instead, they just expect the other person - or people - to know, and get annoyed if they don’t.
When people do this, they’re expecting others to anticipate their wants and needs, so that they’re absolved of the responsibility of speaking up for what they want. Unless, of course, the need isn’t met (and they get annoyed). Then you’ll probably hear all about it!
This expectation is enshrined in many cultures as how people - especially women - should act toward those they care about.
My mom and I have a generally healthy relationship, but it drives me crazy when she tries to get me to do the co-dependent behaviors that she was taught by her parents. (Luckily, this doesn’t happen too often!)
Here’s an example: imagine that you’re sitting around a table with your family, eating dinner. All the dishes have already been passed around, so now it’s time for seconds. You want more salad, and it’s next to you, so you grab the salad bowl and serve yourself some more.
This is what my mom would do. She would tell me to pass the salad around the table, forcing everyone else eating to stop what they were doing and pass it on by if they didn’t want any more. Sure, it’s a small thing, but by doing so she made it my responsibility to ensure that everyone else got all the salad they wanted - as if they weren’t capable of asking me to pass it over if they wanted some.
She was taught that if you don’t do that, you’re being impolite. But it always felt “off” to me, as if I was projecting my own desire for more salad onto others, and pushing salad on people who didn’t want it.
And I got to wondering, why are they somehow incapable of asking me to pass the salad on over if they want some? Why is it my responsibility to anticipate their desire for seconds, instead of it being their responsibility to communicate that? You can see the problem here.
If you’re working to step out of co-dependent patterns and embody clearer boundaries, anger is your biggest ally.
Another hallmark of co-dependency is when people refuse to say what they want or need, and then get angry and end up blaming others for things not being how they want them to be.
As I mentioned earlier, anger’s job is to let us know where our boundaries are, by showing up as tension or irritation when our boundaries are crossed. If we aren’t willing or able to speak up for our boundaries, others won’t know where they are, so they’ll inevitably end up disrespecting them. Which will inevitably make us feel frustrated, irritated, annoyed, or straight-up angry!
Anger is the force that motivates us to assert ourselves and speak up for ourselves, by letting us know when something important to us is being disrespected or disregarded. Even if you have no idea where your boundaries are in a situation, your anger will know!
Look to it as your guide, by learning to pay attention to when it comes up (ideally when it’s soft and subtle). That will let you know where your boundary is - and when you should speak up for it.
Because here’s the thing about anger - the bigger the boundary violation, the louder anger gets. One inevitable result of co-dependency is bitterness, resentment, and a lot of anger, because no one is honoring their boundaries properly!
So the best way to get a handle on our anger, and be able to act on it calmly and wisely, is to learn to have healthy boundaries. And we do that by paying better attention to our anger, and acting on it when it’s still soft and quiet - before it starts to shout.
When you do this, you’ll find that there’s no need to argue or fight to set a boundary; all you need to do is calmly and firmly hold the line. But I understand that isn’t always easy - especially at first!
Co-dependency can feel like a trap, sucking you in even when you try to step out of it.
If you grew up in a family with co-dependent tendencies, you might find yourself falling into this dynamic without realizing it. Here are the three essential keys to getting out of it:
knowing where your boundaries are (differentiating your wants and needs vs those of other people)
honoring your own boundaries (by being willing to speak up for them and enforce them as needed), and
refusing to take responsibility for anyone else’s wants and needs (you can meet them if you wish, but make sure it’s a choice, not a requirement).
If you’re wanting to shift a relationship to a healthier pattern, you can’t control other people… but you don’t need to! It’s amazing what happens when you simply refuse to play the game.
To do this, consider which of these 3 keys you tend to have the hardest time with. That’s where you need to focus your efforts on doing things differently.
But make no mistake, it’s not always easy to hold the line - especially when other people don’t like your new way of doing things! Expect push back, but know that if you cave, nothing will change. So stay strong and centered in yourself, and you’ll make your relationships healthier!
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In my next blog post I’ll be reviewing a book that I’ve found incredibly helpful in establishing clear boundaries in relationships - by communicating them in a healthy way. The book offers clear steps for how to speak up for your wants and needs without causing a fight, which I’ll share in the review.
If you don’t want to miss it, sign up for The Unlocked Heart’s email newsletter and you’ll hear about it as soon as it comes out. Until then, happy holidays!