Codependency: How Are You Thinking?

I work with several clients who say they are codependent or in a codependent relationship. Codependency is defined in a variety of ways by different experts, and plays out differently for different people. Many speak of codependency in close relationships between someone addicted to a substance or behavior and their counterpart (the codependent) who “enables” their addictive behavior. However, a parallel dynamic can also operate in relationships between a codependent person, "the giver" and a non-substance-abusing partner, "the taker", who might possess such qualities as neediness, immaturity, or entitlement or be under-functioning or emotionally troubled.

The codependent, sometimes labeled the giver might try to fix their counterpart, care-take them, compensate for their irresponsible behaviors, protect them from the negative consequences of their actions, etc. These acts of  “caring”, often involve making extreme sacrifices for the taker. The codependent enables their partner, rather than allow them to learn to take responsibility for themselves. The codependent’s sense of self: their mood, self-esteem, feelings of well-being, and subsequently their actions, are often contingent on the taker’s current emotional state, words, or behaviors. The codependent believes that their brand of loving and caring is a good thing, even though others can see how unhealthy it is for both parties. 

What’s going on for the codependent that keeps them in this dysfunctional pattern? Here are some ideas to consider:

What they are thinking: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is based on the premise that our thoughts, or cognitions, determine our feelings and behaviors. CBT posits that we all possess, and repeat to ourselves, a default set of automatic thoughts, which can cause problems for us when they are not appropriate to the situation at hand. CBT identifies irrational or exaggerated patterns of thinking – or cognitive distortions. These are not the thoughts themselves, but ways of thinking that that cause people to perceive reality inaccurately. There are at least three cognitive distortions common in codependent relationships:

1. Blaming

2. Control Fallacy  

3. Fallacy of Change

I’ll explain these distortions in depth in subsequent blogs, but here’s an overview to get you thinking:

  1. Blaming: When people engage in Blaming, they either blame the other person for their emotional distress and any subsequent actions, or they blame themselves for their partner’s dysfunctional behavior and emotional upset.

  2. Control Fallacy: There are two sides to the Control Fallacy:

    A. External Control Fallacy operates when either party believes their problematic behaviors are caused entirely by external forces beyond their control. 

    B. Internal Control Fallacy, is when a codependent might think they are responsible for and can even control their partner’s negative feelings.

    3. Fallacy of Change: A codependent who believes in the Fallacy of Change thinks they are able to change their partner to be who they want them to be and act how they want them to act if they just figure out how to do it. They employ all sorts of indirect and aggressive strategies to change their partner and because their attempts are based on a fallacy, they fail.

In Summary, if you can relate to any of these thought patterns -- if you see codependency in your relationship with someone --  know that this can be a painful situation and at times can feel beyond repair. The good news is that it is not a done deal. You can start by slowing down and increasing awareness of the dynamic you’re entangled in. An example of a practice that helps to increase awareness of your thoughts is mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice and psychotherapy combined can be a way to get in touch with difficult, uncomfortable feelings and make space to accept things as they are rather than viewing reality with a skewed perspective of what’s going on. t’s important to first understand and become more aware of our problematic thought patterns. Once aware, we have the potential to correct those thought patterns, so that feelings and behaviors can change. When one partner’s behaviors change, the other partner can’t help but adjust, and the potential for a new kind of relationship is born.

Stay tuned for my next blog where we’ll take a closer look at Blaming. Until then!