by Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC

A reader recently asked if it is possible to stop being codependent in a relationship, and how one would go about that. Yes, it is possible. Not necessarily easy, but possible. First of all, how do you know if you are in a codependent relationship?

Are you in a relationship where you:

  • Are constantly focused on your partner and feel that his or her happiness is your responsibility?
  • Work harder than your partner does on the relationship?
  • Feel that when your partner isn’t completely happy or successful, it’s because you haven’t done something, or anything, right?
  • Are giving more than you are getting?
  • Are sacrificing what you need and want in life for the sake of the relationship?

If any of these is present in your relationship, you may be exhibiting signs of codependency.

Codependency is a set of beliefs and a pattern of behaviors that can, with work, be changed over time within the context of a relationship. Whether you decide to leave a relationship or stay, if you do not challenge the faulty beliefs that fuel codependency, you are likely to repeat the patterns in other relationships.

What you cannot control, though, is how your partner will respond if you do stop being codependent. There is a risk that your partner will not change with you and that your relationship could end. People who attract codependent partners tend to be quite self-absorbed, unable to take responsibility for their own lives, and are often addicted to substances or unhealthy behaviors. These people often need to have someone in their lives who will accept responsibility for them, and they are unlikely to welcome change or growth in a partner that shakes up their comfortable dysfunction.

So, how do you begin to deconstruct codependency within a relationship? First let’s look at a primary faulty belief that codependent people tend to have, whether they are aware of it or not. Codependent people tend to believe that they are responsible for their partner’s happiness. Therefore, if their partner isn’t happy, it’s their own failure. It is the codependent person’s job to maintain a constant focus on meeting their partner’s needs and wants, and making sure they don’t experience any discomfort.

When you strip away the flurry of frenzied behaviors codependent people involve themselves in to keep their partners happy, and look at the core belief that drives those behaviors, does it make any sense at all? Does it make sense that one person should be responsible for another’s happiness? If you are responsible for your partner’s happiness, who is responsible for yours? Doesn’t it make better sense for us each to be responsible for our own feelings, thoughts, attitudes and behaviors?

The second faulty belief codependent people have is that they should pursue making their partners happy at whatever expense to themselves, even their own happiness. Making his or her partner happy, or constantly trying to, robs the codependent person of the ability to focus on his or her own life; what do I want, what do I need? When we aren’t focusing on our own dreams and desires, they tend to go by the wayside, neglected and then forgotten entirely.

A third unhelpful belief that codependent people hold is that they must stay in this situation despite the cost to their own lives. They feel obligated. “Well if I leave, who will take care of him?” “If I stop taking care of her, she’ll fall apart.” Thoughts like this, almost invariably seconded by the seemingly helpless partner, keep their over-functioning partners bound by a false sense of obligation and a crushing guilt at even considering not continuing in their futile role.

Why do I describe the role of the codependent person in a relationship as futile? Because it is. How often, after years of trying to make things right for their partners, make them happy and fulfilled and effective in their lives, does the partner wake up one day and say “Ah! I get it now! You have shown me the way! From now on I am going to take responsibility for my own life, and you can focus on your own. I am finally happy and fulfilled — thanks for your years of tireless support.” Has it happened yet for you or anyone else you know who is in a codependent relationship?

So, how do we take these beliefs into action in our codependent relationships? We must begin to look at all of the decisions we make in these relationships through the filter of “Is this what I want and is this what is best for me?” We must look at what we are doing within the relationship and determine if we are acting based on any of the three faulty beliefs, and if we are, we must change those actions.

At first, it will probably seem as though every decision we make, every action we take is based on codependency, and the task of changing these will seem overwhelming. If you can change one each day, you are successful. Persistence is the key, especially because these changes will be met with “Change Back!” behaviors from partners. To make these changes, you must be committed to doing so no matter what the reaction from your partner.

This is notoriously difficult because you have developed a long standing pattern of doing everything you do in order to make your partner happy, so to do something you need to do for yourself regardless of your partner’s happiness will go against your grain. In fact, just reading these words may sound mercenary to you, but if you want to stop living in codependency, sacrificing your own happiness for the illusion of someone else’s, you will have to make different choices. As I said early on, your partner may not be able to tolerate these changes and may decide to leave. That is their choice.

Making these changes is difficult, so get support. Find friends who will be there for you if you need to talk and who will commit to help you stay focused on your own needs. Find a 12-step group for codependency and get a few of the many helpful books on codependency from the library. Finally, individual therapy can be helpful to you. Couples therapy or marriage counseling can be helpful, too if your partner shares an awareness of the problem and is willing to work with you to make changes.

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.