Psych Central is a top non-Wikipedia hit on Google for the term codependency. I’ve decided to go through the symptoms of codependency listed there and check what applies to my current relationship with DS. She and I have talked about the topic a fair bit, but it doesn’t hurt to listen to the experts. So here goes.
Symptoms of Codependency
Low self-esteem. Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem.
Well, I certainly do not feel that I have a low self-esteem! Fuck no! Though most other people might not see it that way, but I am an amazing person. Better believe it. Or don’t. The fuck do I care. What matters to me is what DS thinks. And a few other people whose opinion matters to me. Do I come across as arrogant? You betcha. It doesn’t mean that I am happy with myself, far from it. I have my own goals and, sadly, I am nowhere near achieving them. But it’s not because I am bad or incapable, or whatever negative self-talk goes with low self-esteem. I know my potential, and I know what is missing in my life, what keeps me from achieving my goals. But that’s a different topic. So, on the low self-esteem issue: Heck no! Next!
People-pleasing. It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. […] They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.
Well. You got me there. I do very much want to please those I care about. And DS is front and center. It’s how I am wired, and I often have to fight this tendency, because it’s so ingrained in me. I do sacrifice some of my needs for DS, there is no two ways about it. I get a lot in return, of course, I get plenty of my needs met. But if we go by the symptom, there is no denying it. There are things I want to do that I am not doing because I am forced to prioritize my partner’s needs. And indeed sometimes it feels like I don’t have a choice in the matter, as the alternative feels worse. So, check. Let’s go on to the next one.
Poor boundaries. Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else.
Yeah. That’s a big issue. I didn’t know what boundaries even were for the three decades of my first marriage, and my learning and asserting them contributed to its rapid decay. In my next relationship I was explicitly told that I have no boundaries with her. And again, once the boundaries went up, the relationship came crashing down. In my current relationship I constantly have to deal with this. DS has a lot of mental and physical struggles, and it is easy and tempting to neglect my own needs in order to keep her afloat. I had to cancel a trip to see my daughter overseas because of my partner’s struggles. I am routinely unable to attend events that I want to for the same reason. Sometimes even answering a phone call is too much. This constant de-prioritizing some of my needs is an issue, no denying it. This needs to be addressed somehow, but it is extremely unlikely to happen before she has medical coverage here, and then some level of medical and psychiatric support. And this can take months or even years to put in place. So, sadly, check again.
Reactivity. A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.
I most certainly at the mercy of DS’s feelings. But. I do not accept hers or anyone else’s opinion if it doesn’t ring true to me. I might become defensive. I don’t know if I feel threatened, disagreements are an integral part of human interactions, and the interactions with one’s partner are no exception. It’s when the disagreement leads to emotional outbursts, frustration, blame, manipulation and other fun consequences that I get upset, defensive and withdrawn. There is a lot less of it in my current relationship, though denying that it happens at times would be silly.
Caretaking. Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves.
Yep. Not random “other people,” but certainly the person I’m in a relationship with. I am a caretaker by nature, and it works well in our sexual and non-sexual dynamic, but it definitely goes overboard. I would like to find a good balance between taking care of DS and taking care of my own needs, but this is extremely hard. So, that’s another check.
Control. Control helps codependents feel safe and secure. […] for codependents, control limits their ability to take risks and share their feelings. […] Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people.
Well. I certainly want to exert much more control over that bitch, err, I mean, my lovely wife. She needs to be put in her place, told what to do and forced to do it. Sexually or not. 24×7 D/s is what we both want. But so far this consistently happens only in the sexual context. Outside of it I definitely have way too little control. DS is an expert manipulator, and I had told her as much as soon as got to know each other some three years ago. I must add the caveat that she is not an intentional manipulator, at least not most of the time, it’s just a part of her personality, happens subconsciously and without any desire to hurt anyone. Just to get her way. Which she usually does. She manipulated her doctors, her previous partners, probably many other people who never knew what hit them. She most definitely manipulates me. And we talk about it often. Otherwise I would have dragged her whiny ass to multiple doctors, to the events I want to attend, forced her to do things that are good for her. But it doesn’t work. I never know when to push and when to let up. She has her boundaries and doesn’t hesitate to assert them forcefully, and often hurtfully. So we are stuck in a rather ironic situation where I am, nominally, her Master, and she is my Puppet, but look below the surface, and you will notice that the situation is often reversed. So, on that count, no, I do not have nearly enough control, and she has too much, and this is not good for either of us. And it is not clear how to deal with this, even though we are in agreement about this being a problem.
Dysfunctional communication. Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. Of course, if you don’t know what you think, feel or need, this becomes a problem. Other times, you know, but you won’t own up to your truth. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else.
This has been a problem for me in every relationship I’ve ever had. Being direct, honest and truthful has never been safe, and expressing my feelings and needs had immediate (and sometimes also delayed) negative repercussions. Walking on eggshells and hiding my feelings has been my modus operandi for a long time. This is less of a problem with DS, because she is extremely communicative, intelligent and observant. And she doesn’t want me to hide my feelings, even if expressing them might hurt hers. And so I am trying, going against over five decades of conditioning, to communicate what I think, feel and need. And it often works. Still, I do have to be very careful at how I phrase things. She is easily wounded, and any feedback has to come with a lot of reassurance and soothing her feelings. Sometimes it is easier to let it drop, even though it’s not a healthy way of dealing with the situation. In fact, as I am writing this, I realize that this might be going too far or being too blunt. But what the heck. She wanted me to write this post, so here we are. So, there is a bit of a communication issue remaining, but I must say that it’s way better than it used to be, and we are both working on it. (That last sentence is both true and also the aforementioned reassurance and soothing.)
Obsessions. Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.” Sometimes you can lapse into fantasy about how you’d like things to be or about someone you love as a way to avoid the pain of the present.
Hmm. I don’t think it applies to me much. Or maybe it does? I am perfectly capable of switching my attention to the topics other than my partner, especially when she is doing reasonably okay. I can focus on my work, on the topics that interest me, without having “the relationship” being front and center in my thoughts. On the other hand, I do spend quite some time thinking about the mistakes I had made, and even fantasizing how things might have been, if only… If only I were more assertive (or more of an asshole). If only she had less trouble with her mental and physical health. If only I had someone I could get guidance and/or emotional support from when overwhelmed. But none of it is “to avoid the pain of the present.” The pain of the present is there and very real. And so are the pleasures of the present. So maybe this symptom does not apply. Or at least not something to worry about.
Dependency. Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own.
Nah. As I said above, I feel just fine about myself as a person. I am a good person, and anyone saying otherwise is a poopyhead. Do I fear rejection and abandonment? Well, I had been rejected before, but what stung was not the rejection itself, but the feeling of unfairness of how it transpired. The blame I got heaped on. Certainly it’s not the fear of abandonment that somehow forces me to take care of my partner’s needs. Do I feel trapped in this relationship? I don’t think so. Certainly there is room for improvement, but it’s not like I want out. Instead, I want to build on our solid foundation and make it better!
Denial. One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem.
Hell no. I am not in denial about the situation at all. Well, I don’t think I am. How would I know if I were? Does anyone ever say “I am in denial” other than facetiously? Let’s see what else the esteemed folks from Psych Central say on the topic:
Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling.
As I said earlier, I sometimes deny my needs, but I never deny their existence. I tend to know what I am feeling, even as I focus on her feelings.
Although some codependents seem needy, others act like they’re self-sufficient when it comes to needing help. They won’t reach out and have trouble receiving. They are in denial of their vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.
I most emphatically do need help. DS is a handful, and I often get overwhelmed. And yet I do not reach out and I do have trouble receiving. Less so from her than from others. I do not trust others. I am quite vulnerable, and I have always been clear about my need for love and intimacy. And by “love” I mean appreciation, gratitude, the other person occasionally making at least a small sacrifice in order to make me feel better. And I do get a lot of it now, DS is very vocal about her feelings, and I love that about her. So… no, I don’t think denial is an issue in our relationship, to the best of my knowledge.
Problems with intimacy. […] I’m talking about being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.
Well, I do not fear being judged by my partner, weak boundaries and all, which is a first for me. But there are parts of this description that do resonate with me. I have given up a chunk of my autonomy. DS certainly wants all of my time, or at least as much as she can get and then some. I ended up severely reducing my outside activities, such as the meetups I used to attend, or table tennis games I used to play. I miss doing those things. I do need some of my autonomy back. But at this point it’s not a high priority, though it is a source of sadness, and might eventually breed resentment if let fester. So… I don’t know. Maybe we do have some problems with intimacy?
Painful emotions. Codependency creates stress and leads to painful emotions.
Fuck yes. I have not felt so many painful emotions… ever. I didn’t even know I could experience some of those emotions. Anger, frustration, sadness, despair, irritation, hopelessness… Even loneliness sometimes. They are all there at one time or another, and sometimes with the intensity that is overwhelming and almost impossible to cope with. When it is too much, I end up dissociated and frozen, I wrote about it in one of my posts many months ago. This is the hardest part for me, the intensity of the negative emotions. Fuck that. I want to be happy all the time, not just here and there. So, yes. No doubt about that. And not clear what to do.
This is the end of the list. Let’s tally it up. 4/12 symptoms of codependency. Another 2 or 3 are relevant by not in a way the article describes. So, what does it mean, is my relationship codependent and unhealthy? Or is it healthy and needs more work? I hope it is the latter.
The article ends with
There is help for recovery and change for people who are codependent. The first step is getting guidance and support. These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. Join a 12-Step program, such as Codependents Anonymous or seek counseling. Work on becoming more assertive and building your self-esteem.
Well, I certainly would not mind outside professional help. Maybe not some “12 step program” where I am supposed to stand up in front of a group and say “Hi, I am MM and I am a codependent.” But maybe something more like honest feedback from a mental health professional, and some pointers on what and how to work on to make things better. But at this point this seems unlikely. My hope is that DS and I will keep building on all the good things we have going, and work on the areas that need improvement. Here is to us!