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Am I In a Codependent Relationship?

The Invisible Strings of Codependency

If you know me, you’ve probably heard me talk about Disentangle, a book I recommend to any and everyone who will listen to me talk about it. It’s a book about codependency and expands what we typically think of when we hear that word - a lack of independence. Nancy Johnston, the author, takes us along her journey of recognizing how she was putting others before herself and neglecting her own self in the process and asks us to reflect on the relationships in our life.

She calls the work of disentangling, learning to recognize where we begin and another person ends. Invisible strings of codependency can tangle us in a web of worry, desire for control, or blame. But, how do we know when we are caught in the web?

Have you ever watched a movie and all of the sudden remembered you were watching it rather than about to get eaten by the monster coming towards you from the screen? The bubble is popped and you can come back into the present. Sometimes we have to see relationships for what they really are, not what we want them to be or the movie-like fantasies we might have about them. Johnston calls this the phase of “facing illusions,” when we recognize that maybe what we see in the relationship is different from the reality. Maybe we rationalize someone’s behavior or secretly hope that they will change. Or maybe we have the illusion that we can change the other person. Letting go of these tightly-held illusions can be scary, but helps us step back and see things for what they really are and make decisions based on the reality rather than the ideal.

Detaching also helps us get some space to reflect and recognize that we are not responsible for other people and do not have to control them. Our experiences in childhood can have a big impact on how we act in current relationships, based on how we saw others be in relationships with friends, family members and significant others, how we asked for attention as children and the way people communicated with us growing up. So if we grew up feeling like the peacekeeper in our families, we might feel that way in other relationships in adulthood. We might have to face the illusion that we are responsible for other people’s relationships and begin the work of detaching by taking some time to process our own thoughts and emotions before responding from the narrative we always have.

We couldn’t read a book about relationships without coming across the topic of boundaries. Johnston talks about healthy boundaries in the sense that we know our limits and how to communicate them. Taking care of ourselves helps us know how we want others to treat us. Instead of tangling the web further, pausing and reassessing what we need or want from an interaction can begin the disentangling process.

There’s one last area of work Johnston describes as helpful in getting to know ourselves - spirituality. I personally like that she doesn’t confine the term to one meaning, but instead can be anything you’d like it to be, whether it’s a higher power, nature, or finding solitude in the present moment. She describes spirituality as an important area to cultivate because it reminds us that there are things we can’t control and helps us let go of them.

Facing illusions, detaching, setting healthy boundaries, and cultivating spirituality help us recognize when we are tangled and get unstuck from unhealthy patterns. We are all dependent on others and have people dependent on us; it’s when we lose ourselves and begin prioritizing others or changing ourselves in hopes of changing someone else that we further tangle the web and can benefit from these different areas of work.

- Natasha Townsend, Resident in Counseling at RVA Counseling in Richmond, VA

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