Co-dependency is a common issue brought into session, from couples and individuals struggling in their relationships. But what do I mean when I say “codependent?” Many people imagine a couple that can’t stand to be apart from one another. However a simpler definition could be “an attempt to manage the emotional state of one’s partner”. This can take many different forms, even somethings as innocuous as asking your partner permission before doing something.
I can hear you already: “But asking permission is part of being a thoughtful partner, how is this a problem?” Inadvertently, you cede all the decision making power to your partner. Further, your partner may feel pressure to say “Yes that’s ok” because they fear looking uptight if they say “no.” Finally, if your partner does say no, you may begin to feel resentment toward them.
A recent example was with Anjali, who had been dating her boyfriend for a few months. She loves surfing, while her boyfriend recently started learning.
“Well obviously I’m going to help him, but at some point I’ll want to catch bigger waves; so I’m trying to figure out the best way to ask without him getting upset. I was thinking maybe something like “Hey, would it be ok with you if later on I paddle out further...just so I can do something less beginner?””
I asked her if she thought there was anything wrong with her desire to catch bigger waves, more appropriate for her skill level. “Well, no” she responded with some surprise.
“So if he says “no” what are you going to do?”
“I didn’t think about that…I guess I would have to stay closer to the shore with him even though it’s going to be boring.”
“How long do you want to date someone who doesn’t feel comfortable with you doing something that you know isn’t wrong - like catching these bigger waves?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it like that…I guess I wouldn’t really want to be in a relationship like that long term.”
By asking permission, Anjali allows her boyfriend to decide how she spends her time. He may feel threatened by her skill level and worry that she would rather date a better surfer, and subconsciously want to limit her exposure to such people. Rather than work through these feelings on his own, he can simply say “no” and avoid the emotional work. Anjali now has two choices: either do it anyway, which is in direct contradiction to his request, or repress her own desire to surf bigger waves even though she knows there is nothing wrong with it, causing resentment.
Why is this behavior codependent? Because inadvertently, Anjali is saying to her boyfriend “I know that my desire to surf independently might bother you, so instead asking you to work through it, I will sacrifice something important to me so that you aren’t inconvenienced.”
How did we conclude our session? I reminded Anjali that dating is a fact finding mission, and sometimes we need to create experiments to test whether the person we are dating can be the partner we want. In this case, Anjali wants someone who accepts her skill level at surfing and doesn’t mind when she wants to challenge herself, even if it means he will be left to practice on his own temporarily.
We decided a better way to approach the situation might look like this: “Hey I’m going to surf with you and help you out, and I want to catch some bigger waves too. Which works better for you, me going out at the beginning of the day so you can warm up on your own, or me going out later after you’re already warmed up?” We also decided that if her boyfriend got upset at her question, maybe she should reconsider whether she wanted to continue dating him.
So how else can we validate our partners without reverting to asking permission?
“Is it ok if I go to this networking thing after the conference?”
“Hey is it cool if I plan a weekend trip with my friends?”
“Hey could I take this new job even if it’s further away?”
These are just some simple suggestions for improving communication in your relationships, whether with family, friends, or even co workers. If you feel like your relationships might benefit from this type of reframe, book a free consultation with Pathwork Therapy today!
Like any field that spent decades trying to justify its existence, psychology is full of ambitious, overly-academic language - fantastic for sounding intellectual at parties but unhelpful in fostering an understanding of psychological processes with clients. Recently, an example I've encountered is the defense mechanism “projective identification.” I described this concept to a friend who is not in mental health, who after digesting my mini-lecture replied, “this just sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy.” I was grateful for this layman’s definition and wanted to discuss its role in relationship dynamics, as I see it frequently in couples counseling.
Most of us are somewhat familiar with the idea of “projection,” wherein we take something we don’t like about ourselves and project it onto our partner. An example might be the man who becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is cheating and texting men on the side. However in counseling we later discover that he is, in fact, that one who is cheating.
Projective identification is an extension of this concept, only it begins to ensnare the partner unsuspectingly. Let’s say in our example that our male client becomes so accusatory and unbearable that the female half of the couple does seek romantic attention from someone else. When our male client finds out, he can justify his accusations saying “See! I knew you were going to cheat!”
To over-simplify its definition, projective identification is a process in which one partner induces the other into acting out the projection. A more common and less extreme version of this dynamic can originate with an anxious attachment style. Perhaps a couple, Simon and Ian, are spending the weekend together. Simon notices that Ian has been on his phone frequently throughout the day and resents that fact that Ian is not paying more attention to him. The idea of being mad at his partner is unpleasant, so Simon rids himself of the feeling by deciding that Ian is actually the one mad at him. It should be noted that this process occurs subconsciously.
Simon then says to Ian, “Hey what’s wrong, you aren’t talking to me.” Ian replies, “Oh, nothing’s wrong, I’m just reading an article I really like.” Suppose Simon has an anxious attachment style, which unhelpfully tells him “if my partner isn’t paying attention to me all the time, they hate me.” Ian’s answer is not sufficient to ease Simon’s discomfort, so Simon presses him, “No, really what’s wrong, I can tell you’re mad at me.” Ian again repeats that he is simply reading the news online. Simon pushes the issue, and feeling irritated, Ian snaps back “Nothing is wrong! Geez, just let me read something for a second!” Simon, responding to hostility says, “see, you’re yelling at me, I knew you were mad at me.” Projective identification has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Simon.
In this example, we can see how a defense mechanism, an attachment style, and a subconscious belief all combine to create a breakdown in communication between partners. The good news is that there are therapeutic methods to address each of these components, including cognitive behavioral therapy and object relations/self psychology. If you find that this dynamic is hindering your relationship from growing further, consider individual or couples counseling. Use the contact information below to set up a consultation today!