While codependency is not defined by romantic relationships, this tends to be the area of our lives we notice our codependent behaviors first.
Codependency can include our relationships with friends, family, work, children, and other aspects of our lives as well.
However, romantic relationships can quickly unearth our codependent behaviors and have devastating, and often rippling, effects on our lives.
In the early stages of a relationship, codependents may have a tendency to lose sight of their individuality and become enmeshed with their partner. This can look like approval-seeking, wanting to do everything together, or losing interest in friends or hobbies you once had outside the relationship.
When I think about this type of codependency expression, I often think of Buster Bluth and Lucille Two in “Arrested Development.” If you haven’t seen it, the bottom line is that Buster was always referring to Lucille’s nausea as “our nausea,” indicative of enmeshment in the relationship.
Enmeshment occurs when the boundaries between two parties become unclear, especially emotionally. If you notice that you are mirroring or experiencing your partner’s feelings or emotions, you may be dealing with enmeshment. This is fairly characteristic of the early stages of a relationship as we feed off each other’s energy, but it is important to be aware of as a codependent and be sure you enter into any new relationships with clarity on your boundaries.
As our relationships progress, codependency can show as resentment and subtle forms of control. Perhaps your partner wants to spend a night out with friends, and you make passive aggressive remarks causing them to feel guilty for not spending time with you. This is a form of attempting to control their behavior. With clear boundaries and communication, this type of manipulative behavior gets nipped in the bud. Detachment from outcomes and learning to love without expectations become more of a focus in the later stages as we work to accept our partners as they are.
That being said, as a codependent, I believe it can be difficult to fully understand and have clarity on your boundaries prior to a relationship and that some boundaries are often best explored in a relationship.
While many therapists, books, and self-help guides will tell you that you need to be healthy prior to being in a relationship, I don’t find it so cut and dried. Some codependents heal while married. Some heal through divorce. Some heal while dating. Some heal alone. There is no one-size-fits-all prescriptive view of what your relationships have to look like in your life right now to heal.
I wholeheartedly agree that you need to have awareness of your issues, own them, and be working on them, but healing is a long journey that is not unidirectional. You will have times you are moving forward, times you move backward, and times you are stuck—and all of that is okay. Some healing might not happen until the right person enters your life and reflects things back to you that you couldn’t see before.
The most important part is having a positive relationship with yourself, whether or not you are in a relationship, and regardless of where you are in your healing journey. Regardless of where you are in relationships or healing, start with you—set boundaries with yourself, prioritize your relationship with yourself, and love yourself. The rest will fall in line in time.
I think it is important to add a quick sidenote on boundaries at this point:
You cannot expect to have clear and respected boundaries until you first have a positive, loving relationship with yourself.
If you do not set the most important and fundamental boundary that you will always treat yourself with kindness and respect, you will often send the message to others that it is acceptable to treat you unkindly and disrespectfully. Listen to the way you talk to and about yourself. Notice if you keep the promises you make to yourself.
Boundaries in relationships are really, really hard. Start with the boundaries you set for yourself to practice, and your self-worth and self-esteem will increase over time.