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!
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Ben Black, LCSW