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Overcoming Codependency: Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships

Couple holding hands

“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” ~Melody Beattie

From a young age, I felt insecure in my own skin. I was a highly sensitive child and, subsequently, struggled with low self-worth for most of my life.

Although I had many friends and a good family, I consistently looked for approval outside of myself. I grew up believing that the opinions of others were the only accurate representations of my core worth.

As a teenager, I witnessed the crumbling and eventual demise of my parents’ marriage. During these years, I felt a lot like an island.

I was often plagued with a dark, mysterious unhappiness. The standard teenage growing pains conglomerated with the trauma of losing my familial identity. In a desperate attempt to counter these negative feelings, I sought the approval of others; when it was not provided, I felt like a failure.

I was caught up in vicious cycle of seeking outside confirmation that I was good enough.

At school, I adopted the role of boy-crazy-funny-girl. I wanted to be adored and nurtured and cherished.

I kept a list of all the cute boys at my school and spent hours daydreaming about a blissful, fairy tale love.

I consistently focused on seeking happiness outside of myself. This habitual practice, over time, led to an inability to be content unless something or someone was providing validation. Most of the time, I felt like I was not good enough.

This falsely instilled belief led me into a decade-long struggle with codependency.

The first codependent relationship I was involved in began when I was nineteen. He was ten years older than I was, and, unbeknownst to me at the time, a cocaine addict.

Our routine was unhealthy and unproductive. We would spend our weekends drinking and gambling at a local pool hall. More often than not, I spent my entire weekly paycheck by the end of Saturday night.

He belittled me, called me names, and consistently criticized my appearance and weight. He compared me to his previous girlfriends. I began to see myself as an incomplete person, one who was in need of major repairs and upgrades. I was so emotionally fragile that the wind could’ve knocked me over.

In a frantic effort to self-preserve, I adopted several fear-based behaviors. I became obsessed with him. I was controlling and jealous. I needed to know everything about his past. I wanted desperately for him to accept me.

Over the ten months we spent together, I neglected my body and mind. My weight dropped a staggering thirty pounds. I was completely disconnected from my family and friends. I developed severe anxiety and suffered crippling panic attacks. I knew something had to change, so I gathered the courage and left him behind.

I thought that I was rid of this unhealthy and unsatisfying lifestyle, but the bad habits carried into my next two relationships.

I spent four years with a person that I loved very much; however, his alcohol dependency brought all of my insecurities and controlling behavior back into play.

We spent four years flip-flopping between wonderful loving moments and horrific physical fights that left us both numb and depressed.

When this relationship ended, I sought comfort in yet another unavailable partner, one that could not provide me with the stability that I so badly needed.

Such is the nature of the codependent person. We seek out what is familiar to us, but not necessarily what is good for us.

After logging close to a decade-worth of codependent hours, I finally faced myself. I knew that if I didn’t make significant changes, I would be forever trapped in a life that was unconducive to my spiritual and emotional growth.

In a scene eerily similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love bathroom breakdown, I faced the music. I got myself a small apartment and started my recovery.

The first few days spent alone were absolutely torturous. I cried and cried. I had trouble doing basic tasks, like walking my dog or getting groceries. I had completely turned inward, nurturing my turmoil like an old friend. Anxiety-ridden and lonely, I did the only thing I could think of: I asked for help.

The first step I took was ordering Melody Beattie’s book Codependent No More. This is probably the most significant self-improvement book I have ever read. I felt a weight being lifted as I read, page by page.

Finally, I was able to understand all of the behaviors, feelings, and emotions I had struggled with for so long. I was a textbook case, my highlighter affirmed as I completed the “codependency checklist.” Perhaps some of these questions will speak to you, as well.

  • Do you feel responsible for other people—their feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, and destiny?
  • Do you feel compelled to help people solve their problems or by trying to take care of their feelings?
  • Do you find it easier to feel and express anger about injustices done to others than about injustices done to you?
  • Do you feel safest and most comfortable when you are giving to others?
  • Do you feel insecure and guilty when someone gives to you?
  • Do you feel empty, bored, and worthless if you don’t have someone else to take care of, a problem to solve, or a crisis to deal with?
  • Are you often unable to stop talking, thinking, and worrying about other people and their problems?
  • Do you lose interest in your own life when you are in love?
  • Do you stay in relationships that don’t work and tolerate abuse in order to keep people loving you?
  • Do you leave bad relationships only to form new ones that don’t work, either?

(You can read more about the habits and patterns of codependent people here.)

After acknowleding my codependency, I connected with an online support group for family members of addicts/alcoholics. This gave me a platform to share my story, without judgment, and little by little, I healed my aching heart.

The most significant things I learned on this journey are:

1. Without change, nothing changes.

This is such a simple yet profound truth. It’s reminiscent of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The cycle of codependency can only be overcome by establishing and nurturing a super-loving relationship with yourself. Otherwise, you will continually find yourself in unhealthy, codependent relationships.

2. We can’t control others, and it is not our job to do so.

Over the years, I was constantly trying to control and micromanage other people’s behavior, in an effort to escape my own negative feelings.

I chose partners with alcohol and drug dependencies. Often, I chose angry and avoidant men. By focusing on what was wrong with them, I could ignore what was empty and unfulfilled in me.

I thought, naively, that this would give me a feeling of stability. In fact, it did the opposite. Surrendering the need to control other people provides us the necessary space to connect with ourselves.

3. Love and obsessions are not the same.

I falsely believed for many years that love and obsession were one and the same. I gave so much of myself to my partners, naively thinking that this was the road to happiness.

I’ve learned that real love requires both partners to have unique, individual identities outside of the romantic relationship. Time alone, time with friends, and time to work on personal projects allows you to really connect when you are together, without feeling suffocated. We build trust when we afford ourselves, and our partners, some breathing room.

For many years I neglected my own needs. I now prioritize personal time to do individual activities: reading, writing, walking, reflecting. I started to heal once I learned to incorporate self-love rituals into my life. One of my favorite things to do is spend the evening in a warm bubble bath, light some candles and listen to Alan Watts lectures.

4. Life is not an emergency.

This is a biggie! I consistently lived in a high-stress vortex—terrified of people, abandonment, and life itself.

I worried so much about all of the things that were outside of my control—often, other people. I realize now that life is meant to be enjoyed and savored. Good and bad things will happen, but with a centered and balanced heart, we can get over any obstacles.

The key to balance, for me, is to live fully in every moment, accepting life for what it is. Even when I’m feeling down, I know that the Universe has my back and everything in life is unfolding as it should.

If you don’t hold this belief, it might help to remember that you have your own back, and you can handle whatever is coming. When you trust in yourself, and focus on yourself instead of others, it’s much easier to enjoy life and stop living in fear.

I have assembled a group of super-hero coaches and teachers that have helped me significantly over the years in my quest for self-improvement. I have loving support and encouragement from so many sources. It’s my dream to be able to give some of that back to the world. I hope I have done that with this post.

About Ariane Michaud

When not devouring every foreign film she can get her hands on, Ariane loves snuggling with her pug and running tirelessly down the road towards self-fulfillment. Though she is excessively organized, she is spontaneous when it comes to love. Follow Ariane’s blog The Shadow and the Shimmer at www.theshadowandtheshimmer.blogspot.ca.

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  • Matthew

    I identify with many of the traits you described, and hate finding myself in waiting and expectation for my partners to “fix” their behavior. Thanks for the wise words, I’m taking them into account as I focus more on loving myself and finding fulfillment outside of relationships

  • Blondilocks

    So glad to help! Thank you for your comment, Matthew, and I wish you the best in your journey <3

  • fragglerock

    Very well-written and well-thought-out article. Codependency is still a highly controversial idea and for good reason. As women, many “codependent” behaviors are bred into us and then we’re pathologized for having them. For men and women who were parentified, abused and neglected by their parents, these behaviors are reinforced and integral to their survival. Personally, I choose not to use the term as I find it pathologizing. I also find that if forced to “diagnose” a person who is suffering from these behaviors, attachment disorder and even post-traumatic stress are more accurate diagnoses.

  • jocelynh

    This is such an amazing article. It’s like reading about myself. Recently a number of incidents have led me to realise or rather accept what I’ve known for a while, that my opinion of myself is firmly rooted in other peoples opinion of me and it’s causing so many issues. I’m in a constant state of panic going from person to person trying to get my ‘fix’ so I know I’m ok, I’m worth something, I’m pretty or important or smart. And if one person fails to give that to me I move onto another friend or family member. But the fix never lasts long. At the time someone saying I look good is such a buzz and then a few days later it might as well have never happened. It’s never enough -no one can ever ever tell me enough or reassure me enough that I am ok. I’m so exhausted by it, by the games and the worry and the arguments and realised recently it cant go on. I’m ready to be me. To love me and be happy with everything that I am no matter what anyone else thinks. So instead of expecting my boyfriend to give me all the love I’m craving – I can look inside myself and find it already there. It’s already there – just waiting for me to tap into it and connect. I think that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned -that everything I need, everything I could possibly want, as much love, understanding, help, advice – everything, is already inside me I just need to pay attention.

    So I realised recently – like you mentioned above -that it’s time for me. Time for me to spend some time with me. And when I realised that -I had the most intense feeling of happiness. So overwhelming I wanted to cry. It was like a friend had been standing there watching me for years. Patiently. Wanting to help me but I just kept ignoring them and when I finally turned to them they were so happy to fold me up in their arms at last. I know that sounds pretty cheesy but even now I can feel it. Such love just waiting there patiently for me to open my eyes!

    Anyway today has been a rough day and I came on here for some inspiration and your article was just right there at the top. I clicked on it and it couldn’t have been more perfect for me in my panic. Thank you. Someone is obviously guiding me today even if I cant feel it. Thank you 🙂 for helping me realise I’m not the only one.

  • Blondilocks

    This fills my heart with so much happiness! I am so happy that by sharing my experiences, I can help others’ dealing with similar issues!
    Take the time for yourself, guilt-free, and enjoy every moment!!!
    Wishing you all the best 🙂

  • jocelynh

    I just really needed it today and I’m back on track 🙂 xxx with love xx

  • Blondilocks

    Thanks for your comment Fragglerock!
    I agree that attachment disorder is a more inclusive definition.
    This offers a broader umbrella (ie: you can have an unhealthy attachment to a person, whether or not they themselves are addicts in need of “fixing”- as original definition implied).

  • Blondilocks

    <333

  • Cynthia_M_V

    I got a lot out of what you wrote. I didn’t think that my relationship was co-dependent but through your writing I recognize characteristics of mine that could fall into that category. I need to be aware of this.So thank you for this essay. (Just wanted to mention that Elizabeth Gilbert’s book is Eat, Pray, Love – not Eat, Pay, Love. Though it could work both ways, don’t think that’s what she or you intended:)

    Thanks so much for writing this. Namaste.

  • Jacqueline

    You said exactly what I think is wrong with me, only I could not find the vocabulary to express. I have been on a soul-searching journey for over a year, still growing pains, still confusion at times to not seek validation in others. I love myself but do I fully? That is the quest I am on. I shall be healed.

  • Cynthia Williams

    I love this article. I am going through the same thing now. This has really helped me on my path to self discovery. Thank you so much.

  • fragglerock

    I don’t find it to be more inclusive, just more accurate and less pathologizing. Attachment disorders place responsibility where it’s due–with caregivers. I find people described as codependent more often than not have suffered some form of abuse/neglect during childhood.

  • jocelynh

    It’s just such a huge huge step to stop and actually face it rather than keep running to other people for validation. You’re already most of the way there 🙂 It has just really helped me to try to hold on to the fact that inside us all is such amazing unconditional love -just waiting for us to turn our attention inwards. I wish you all the best on your journey xxx

  • Thunderbird

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I can honestly say i see myself in a lot of things you wrote here. its really helpful see this happen and people can move forward and find a solution. Again, Thanks a lot 😀

  • C L

    Thank you so much for sharing. Can you please recommend the online support group you talked about?

  • Blondilocks

    Hi CL,
    This is the Codependent’s Anonymous website; you can search through meetings by state or Internationally.
    I was more comfortable in a “chat room” setting – and found one via the resources page, if memory serves.
    Otherwise, try a Google search for Codependent’s Group Chat.
    It was really healing for me to be able to share my feelings, let go of the guilt I had carried for so long, and yet still feel anonymous and “safe”.

    http://coda.org/
    Good luck to you!!!

  • kristie Hoff

    Oh sooo true!! God bless u n the strength to overcome.

  • Maryam

    When I read this, I felt as if it were written about me. So scary to find myself realizing these things. Although I think everyone has a weird gut feeling while they are in a codependent relationship, that they are not well and that something is wrong. The hardest part is removing yourself from its grips; the insecurity and fear of loneliness can be crippling.

  • Roseanna Shaan

    An inspiring post xx

  • Cahrmie

    Is it possible to overcome Codependency without having to end the relationship? I mean, I am in a relationship that is currently undergoing “repairs” but to my heart, it is not right to end it. I can see my partner’s effort to really work things out with me and we are happy taking things slow.

  • stephanie

    Love this. Very valuable sharing. You inspired me to reach out and join an online recovery group. Thank you.

  • Tara Curran

    Thank you Ariane. My counsellor recommended Codependent No More the other day and I am waiting for it to arrive in the mail. You are an inspiration to keep going after finding myself in a toxic relationship I had to leave!

  • vedanta

    Thank you for this post. I am struggling.
    I need to overcome this.

  • In order to break out of the cycle of hurting and being hurt we need to re-establish a conscious and mindful relationship with those inner emotions of hurt, anxiety and fear that are in pain. This inner complex of habitual painful emotions constitute what we call the Little Self in Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy. The trouble is that we become disconnected from the Little Self and the emotional pain becomes frozen and unable to resolve and heal. Unable to resolve it converts into the patterns of emotional, cognitive and behavioral reactivity so common in co-dependency.
    From my experience, the best way through this labyrinth of suffering is to learn how to meditate on the painful emotions directly, to reconnect the Little Self with that greater and infinitely more resourceful ground that we call the True Self (Buddha mind). When you meditate and bring mindfulness to those emotions that is the act of reconnecting Little Self with True Self and this provides the right conditions for healing and resolution.

    The Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Kristianne Rounding

    Thank you so much! I needed to read this today! Thank you for writing and sharing!

  • muad’dib

    the problem is money.

  • Tracy Pittman

    Came across a post on Tmblr this morning and found that most points on the codependent scale are me. I work hard to hide behind a hard exterior, but I feel truly feel like I am crumbling. Thanks for the guidance. Ready to live for myself for once in my life…

  • diana neubauer

    Omg!!!!! This is the best work of art I have ever seen…. Where can I find an online support group to start me off on my journey???

  • HG

    Good day. Blondilocks, I have been searching for an online chat room setting, but have yet to find a decent one. Any recommendations to what you found?

  • Maureen D

    Such a positive article – thank you for the tips and guidance. I definitely identify with some of these traits, and I’m tired of living like this. I am working on change!

  • Shawn Williams JT

    Hello all im so stuck and broken, i had been a relationship with my partner who ive found out had a personality disorder ie is a pyscopath, ive gone 3 years of loving him, feeling like he was my soul mate, was the victim of extreme domestic abuse, and violence , and was discarded by him just over a year ago, and then been told the whole thing was just a game to him and that he never had any feelings for me, and was told he had given me HIV.. Im crushed to know the person i loved is a pyscopath and never felt a thing for me, im my confidence is zero, ive lost my job and soon to my home. I have therapy once a week but struggle alone , i dont find anything that makes me happy and miss the highs of the good times of him, and have a massive whole in my life without him, i understand i am probably co dependent, but feel like i need friends and want a partner to fill the void im left with, i try to go out Alone and make friends as a gay man but aren’t getting anywhere, so lost to know what i can do ? I had attended a few co dependents meetings, but cant say they were for me, i don’t know which way to turn!