Codependency and Stoicism
Building the courage to leave unhealthy relationships
The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5
“Hi, I’m Kasey and I have a corrupt sense of piety, confusing relationships for charity cases. Because it gives me a feeling of self-worth, I’ll be acting as both your caseworker and enabler for the next 4 to 7 years. Yes, I have decided that you need to be saved from yourself and I’m the savior you’ve been looking for.
“When this is all over, I’ll resent you for a half decade’s worth of emotional unfulfillment, even though it was me who refused to leave because ‘I didn’t want to hurt you’, and made you ultimately worse off because I did not have the skillset to treat someone with mental illness. Instead, I opted to disrespect you by staying with you out of pity and because I have a deep-seated fear of abandonment.”
That is how I could have introduced myself to nearly every boyfriend I’ve ever had.
After three failed long-term relationships, I marched right into a therapist’s office desperate to know what was “wrong with me”. Surely if I got a diagnosis, I could be cured, right?
I felt a weird mixture of relief and disappointment when she told me, “There’s nothing wrong with you. In fact, you’re normal.”
“But…why do I keep repeating these same patterns?” I asked. “Repeating the same relationship over-and-over?”
“This is a strong behavioral trait you picked up”, she replied.
“From where, though?”
“Well…” she began with the click of her pen.
The journey to the why was short. The forgiveness took a little longer, but it would one of my gateways to freedom. The Stoic practices of “the view from above”, embracing discomfort, letting go of what I could not control, etc., would give me the courage to leave the dependent. There is nothing wrong with me, and there’s nothing wrong with you, fellow codependent. But your greatest strength, taking care of others, is also your greatest weakness.
For this piece, I’ve enlisted the help two cognitive-behavioral therapists I’ve had the esteemed honor of working with: Tim LeBon, author of forthcoming 365 Ways to Be More Stoic, and Scott Waltman, the coauthor of Socratic Questioning for Therapists and Counselors. They’ll be helping me give more insight into codependency through the lens of Stoicism and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
If you find yourself actively trying to “change” your partner, how’s that working out for you?
High on ‘savior syndrome’
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. — The Serenity Prayer
Several addiction programs have adopted the Serenity Prayer. These are the words of someone making an effort to discern what they can and cannot control. When we cannot control situations, most of us are programmed to do all that we can to avoid the feeling of discomfort that uncertainty brings. To avoid feeling unsettled, we turn to the sure thing that we know will be there, whether they are good for us or not. These creature comforts are things like drugs, alcohol, food… and other people.
In the arena of vice, the addiction to a person is rarely brought up. Perhaps it’s not the person you’re addicted to but the elation of saving said person. Either way, it has the potential to direct the course of your life if you let it. The tale of a codependent who refuses to see they’re staying with their partner and martyring themselves at the expense of their own emotional needs is a common one. A textbook example of this sort of relationship dynamic is the emotionally-needy overachiever trying to pull their partner out of their listlessness, depression, or whatever the “but” is in “I love you but…”
Allow me to save you some time while you’re trying change your partner: change is a conscious decision. No one in history has ever directly changed someone else. The individual him or herself decides to change, and you cannot coerce them. This is external and uncontrollable, something you must accept. The codependent does not, however, accept it.
If you find yourself actively trying to change your partner, how’s that working out for you? Another good question is do they need to change? Do you genuinely think they should, or do you need them to in order to fit your self-narrative? Are you trying to make them into the person you want, because it feels easier than searching for someone who actually has everything you want?
I’ve often compared it to an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer thinks he has his hand stuck in a soda vending machine.
“Homer, are you just holding onto the can?”
What if your “addiction” to people turns out to be based on behavioral patterns, which can be curbed almost as easily as they were adopted? I’ve often compared it to an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer thinks he has his hand stuck in a soda vending machine. After several attempts to get his arm out, crew members have arrived at a point where they may have to cut his arm off when one of them asks the golden question: Homer, are you just holding onto the can?
It’s the same with our attachments. We’re only attached to them because we’re scared to let go. Nothing bad is going to happen. You’re just not going to get the can of soda you thought you were going to get. If disillusionment is the worst thing you get out of this crazy little thing you call “love”, well, that’s a-okay.
When we’re in the thick of the situation, faced with the decision whether to stay or go, the feeling of letting go and the pain and uncertainty it might bring can make us very uncomfortable. Taking the view of the bigger picture, though, are we not feeling pain and uncertainty by staying in the same relationship that makes us feel that way anyway? The difference is that one pain is temporary and the other is not. You’ve heard the phrase “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”, yes? As cliched as it sounds, it’s true–especially in this case.
If you say goodbye, you’re both going to feel pain even if one of you feels relief. It would be unnatural for one or both of you not to mourn the death of the relationship. Someone once told me that they would like to leave their partner but won’t because “they’ll cry and be sad”. Well jeez, I would hope so! Listen, we love people on purpose and hurt them by accident, and pain is inevitable.
So, how would you like your pain? Slow and miserable, robbing you both of quite possibly the best years of your life? Or a short time that came with healthy coping strategies, so you can each learn something from the experience and move on? Another question to ask yourself is: would I want someone to stay with me out of pity?
What if I told you everything was going to be okay?
In a codependent relationship-dynamic, neither party is acting like a rational human being. Both the codependent and dependent lack intrinsic worth and rely on each other for emotional fulfillment… even though they’re unhappy and emotionally unfulfilled. It’s basically two people saying, “Well, we’re both unhappy but at least we have each other.” It just plain doesn’t make sense to say that you can’t live with someone but can’t live without them. In that scenario, what neither party wants to admit is that they probably feel lonelier with the other person than they do without them.
It’s also pretty irrational to think you’ll be alone forever, that this person was the be-all and end-all of your life. That’s a pretty high pedestal you’ve put them on to determine the quality and level of the rest of your life’s happiness — not to mention a lot of pressure. May I point out again that the relationship isn’t making you happy anyway!
How can you tell if you’re in a codependent relationship?
A codependent relationship, according to Tim Lebon, consists of a “giver” and a “taker”. How can you tell if you are giving inappropriately in a relationship?
Tim asks how many of these boxes you would tick:
I try to save my partner from themselves
I don’t look after my own needs properly
My friends tell me that the relationship is really bad for me but I find it difficult to leave
Despite repeated failed attempts to help them I keep trying
I keep planning to leave the relationship but not going through with it
A codependent would probably answer yes to most of these questions.
I’m not okay if you’re not okay
I kept planning, hoping that things would get better in the meantime or waiting for the other person to “be okay” with my leaving. Looking back, it was my own selfish, clamoring need not to feel like the bad guy that kept both of us from finding true happiness. If you find yourself waiting for your partner to “be okay” with your leaving, I have to ask again, how’s that working out for you?
I’ve often thought of what it means to be “the bad guy” in someone else’s eyes. Then I thought of how much control we really have over that. I don’t believe that we should never care what people think of us. However, I don’t believe we should be obsessed with it either — especially in the case where we’re willing to sacrifice our dignity just to save face with the other person. We should always consider the source and only care what the wise person thinks of us, not the angry, sad, bitter or emotionally unstable person. We should be able to say, at the end of the day, that our actions were born out of virtue, not ignorance and desperation.
The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus reminds us that, “Some things are in our control and others not…Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions” — reputation, or what other people think of you, is therefore one of the main things not under your direct control.
You cannot determine the narrative someone else has built in their minds about you. You can, however, act out of virtue and hope that they will recognize that you are doing so. If not, well, that is not within your control. Try to manage other people’s opinions of you too much and you’ll just drive yourself crazy.
You won’t make them okay, but perhaps worse off
“The challenge is that codependency breeds dependency”, Scott begins, addressing the other side of this toxic dynamic. “That is to say, if you are in a codependent relationship, you’re probably taking care of someone in a way that is not sustainable or natural. In these situations, the person might become accustomed to not taking care of their own needs. Meaning that if the relationship were to end, it could indeed pull out the rug from beneath them— in a way that they might not be prepared for. Though the therapist’s question at that point should be is it your job to take care of this person to that extent?”
Scott goes further, offering this analogy: “Imagine a person feeding an animal that would typically find its own food. Over time, that animal will stop hunting or foraging and become reliant, in an entitled way, on the human to feed it. If the human carer stops feeding the animal, it could become angry, which might be dangerous. The carer may then need to extricate themselves from the situation. Fear of the fallout often keeps people from leaving, though. The challenge is that the longer the person stays, the more severe the fallout becomes.”
We all tend to favor the short-term over the long-term and many are risk averse and favour the status quo to change. Both of these factors can make it very hard to break it off , and that’s where the Stoic virtue of courage becomes very valuable.
The Why of Codependency
“There are many reasons why someone might be codependent, but the most common one in my experience is low self-esteem,” says Tim LeBon. “There are also many varieties of low self-esteem, or feeling ‘not good enough’, including believing that you are a bad person, unacceptable, unlovable, worthless, ugly, etc.”
“So how”, asks Tim, “will a person who feels ‘not good enough’ try to cope?”
“Very often they overcompensate, adopting a strategy which means they will get by even if they feel ‘not good enough’. For example, if you think you are worthless, you might try to become of value by putting the needs of others before your own, being very compliant, lending people money if you don’t have the means, etc. That way the other person might stay with you despite your low self-esteem. Of course, the belief you are worthless is a fiction, but that doesn’t stop it feeling true.”
Tim says that low self-esteem is often a root cause of codependency: “In a sense, people are stuck in the relationship because they falsely believe they can’t do any better. Needless to say, their self-esteem only gets worse as a result of being in an unhealthy relationship. So people become stuck in a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and codependency.”
“If someone is in a codependent relationship because of low self-esteem,” he says, “then breaking off the relationship will feel very threatening indeed. Remember, the giver believes they genuinely are unworthy, or not good enough in other ways. However toxic this relationship appears to be, at least this person is partially ensuring that their worst fear does not come true. The person who fears they are unworthy, for example, feels of some value to the person dependent on them. So they stay in the relationship.”
“Of course,” he observes, “we all tend to favor the short-term over the long-term. Many individuals are also risk averse, and prefer to maintain the status quo rather than change. Both of these factors can make it very hard to break it off, and that’s where the Stoic virtue of courage becomes very valuable.”
Upbringing and parentification
“The essential component of codependency is the idea that”, as Scott Waltmann puts it, “I’m not okay if you’re not okay, and you’re not okay if I’m not okay. We could think about codependency existing on a continuum. At one end of the scale are families who are low on codependency, disengaged from each other or hyper-independent. At the opposite end, lie families who are high on codependency, or are what psychotherapists call ‘enmeshed’. Somewhere in-between, though, there’s a happy medium of healthy interdependence.”
“Often,” says Scott, “the function of codependency is emotional regulation. Individuals who have difficulty regulating their own emotional state find relationships where their needs are managed by their partner and vice versa. Of course, codependency extends beyond romantic relationships and can include business relationships or friendships as well.”
Scott goes on to say, “Fear is usually at the heart of what prevents people from leaving. There is a fear that leaving will somehow make them a bad person which is counter to their narrative of being self-sacrificing. There is a fear that no one else will want to be with them, which prevents them from leaving an unfulfilling relationship. There is a fear that leaving is a selfish act and that it will cause undue distress for the partner in a way that might cause irreparable damage.”
Scott observes that codependency can sometimes result from children having grown up in a situation where they are forced to take on the role of the caretaker or parental figure, before they’re psychologically equipped to do so. It’s essentially role reversal in the child-parent dynamic. The child takes on the role of being a parent to their siblings or even being their own parent; because they witnessed and experienced one or both of the parents struggling with alcoholism for example.
“In those situations,” Scott says, “the child is emotionally neglected, left to their own devices and to adopt poor coping strategies in response to stress. We call this parentification, where a child is put into a role of being a functional parent for their siblings or themselves. These individuals often become very good at caretaking at the expense of being in touch with their own emotional experience and living their own lives.”
My why and practicing forgiveness
Let me start by saying that I was fortunate to grow up middle-class with very loving parents. I was well-educated and wanted for nothing. So, while I’ll keep the details of my why under wraps, I will say that the Boomers were taught to put their emotional needs last: sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Strife becomes a contest and their children are seen not as individuals but as extensions of themselves — what are boundaries? Being trained to put emotional needs last breeds insecurity and a desperate need for control over what you see as a reflection of yourself. So, if you happen to grow up obese like I did, you’ll hear some things you wish you hadn’t…and you’ll believe them.
It’s hard because once I connected the dots, I wanted to holler, stomp, scream, and point fingers. Then I remembered what Socrates said, “No man does evil willingly.”
My parents loved me, still love me, and were acting in accordance with their virtues — doing the best with the emotional intelligence instilled in them by their own upringing. If I’m to stop putting my self-worth in the hands of others, I must claim responsibility for my own happiness. So, the first step on my journey to curbing codependence was to forgive.
Some of you may be angry and bitter towards your parents. But forgiveness isn’t always a “bring it in, big guy!” bear hug or saying that it wasn’t that big of a deal. It’s letting go of the anger, not for them but for you. If you automatically assume “that means they won”, then you’re as ignorant as they are. It may not happen overnight, but your refusal to forgive will only hurt you and keep you back in nearly every facet of life.
Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on all the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future. Just ask yourself in each instance of the present: ‘What is there in this work which I cannot endure or support?’ — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.36
In the panoramic view of my life, sh*t happened. Inevitably, there will be more that happens later. If we don’t let go of the past, we will not have the ability to cope with the future. We’ll just keep adding more and more to the pile until our lives becomes a big panoramic pile of sh*t.
This will destroy our world view, making us bitter people who see the rest of the world as a big pile of sh*t and us as its victims. Sh*t, you endured it. It’s over. Find a good therapist and begin to let it go, or risk repeating the same patterns. Your life depends on it.
Building the Courage to Leave
The “view from above”
Our feelings are deceiving. They often don’t reflect the reality of the situation.
Most of the time, we accept our initial impressions. We prevent ourselves from taking action due to the fear and pain that comes from envisioning our partner brokenhearted. We must remember that just because we feel a certain way, it doesn’t make it true. Some days, I wish I had those words tattooed on my forehead backwards, so I can be reminded of them every morning when I look in the mirror.
Practice, then, from the very beginning to say to every rough impression, ‘You’re an impression and not at all what you appear to be.’ — Epictetus Handbook 1:5
Our feelings are deceiving. They often don’t reflect the reality of the situation. You can gain a lot of clarity by desaturating the situation of how you feel about it emotionally, becoming indifferent, if just for a moment.
This immediately grants you a view of the grand scheme of things and what’s actually going on. You’ll find that the plain and simple truth is that if it didn’t work then, and isn’t working now, it’s probably never going to work. If you’re not making each other stronger, you’re making each other weaker. Pacifying, keeping the other person from crying for instance, doesn’t count as making anyone better. If you really care about them, set them free.
Stress inoculation and time projection
Embrace being uncomfortable, and feeling uncomfortable will lose its power over you. If the anxiety of breaking someone else’s heart cripples you, you should, paradoxically, try imagining it for longer than normal. Do not run from the pain but choose to expose yourself to it in your mind. Imagine your partner having a Meryl Streep-level cryfest. Imagine it again, walk yourself through the scene of your breaking it off. Over time, you’ll begin to realize that it probably won’t be that extreme or catastrophic. And even if it is, you’re trained for it, you’ve been there — you’ve decatastrophized it. As you imagine it, remember that, yes, there is a time that comes after this — that the worst will be over.
“People often wonder what they should say or how to go about it and the truth is there are no magic words that make it go perfectly well,” says Scott. “In these situations, the best strategy is often to embrace the fact that it is going to be messy but it’ll be messy towards a purpose that makes it worthwhile. Often, in practice, some level of risk assessment is necessary. You should consider when the best time would be to have this discussion.”
After you’ve detached yourself from the situation emotionally and seen the bird’s eye view of this scene, in all its enabling glory, time travel. Put yourself a day post-breakup. You will feel sad, but there will be some undeniable relief there. You were living in uncertainty, scared of the break up, but now all is certain.
Next, put yourself a month post-breakup. You’re bummed, but you’re getting better... Though their healing time may not parallel yours, they will heal. Their timeline is none of your business. I mean, what are you gonna do? Run over there and give them a big hug? Get outta here, heartbreaker! (I’m teasing.)
Awareness is key
Tim LeBon stresses, “Self-awareness is a key, so too is dealing with underlying causes such as low self-esteem. It will also be important to stop the habits that attract the wrong people,” he adds, “such as being overhelpful and self-sacrificing early in a relationship. Adopting a Stoic framework would also help. Foster the wisdom to understand yourself, the self-control to avoid repeating patterns, the courage to leave a relationship, and a sense of what is just both for yourself and the other person, which should guide you to seek appropriate help to get out of unhealthy relationships and avoid getting back into them in the future.”
Get good at saying no
Scott adds that one should also strive to get better at asserting yourself by saying no. “The hardest and most important skill is to learn to be good saying no”, he explains. “Asking what you want for yourself and being emotionally honest with yourself and others is the best prevention. It usually feels unnatural to do that; it can be like learning to write with your non-dominant hand. But if you hang with it you’ll find that the guilt subsides and you’re actually able to thrive.”
Purpose beyond a relationship
“One of the best strategies in preventing relapse into codependent habits, has to do with having a life beyond a relationship”, according to Scott. “Codependency often finds fertile ground where someone’s individualism is underdeveloped or undervalued. If a person develops interests and hobbies that they can pursue on their own or with other groups, that leaves less space for the codependent relationship to take up.”
“When a relationship first begins,” he explains “there is an intense infatuation that can often be intoxicating. That creates a drive to spend every waking moment with this person or thinking about them. It is essential for people who are given to codependency to remain mindful during this time and not set a precedent of codependent behaviour patterns. That can be hard because it feels so good. However, if they think about wanting a healthy relationship in the long-term and what that would look like, it can help to create habits, which maintain a healthy level of independence.”
“Codependency is often born out of a narrative that someone will complete you or be your missing piece,” he concludes, “learning to see yourself as whole and complete on your own frees you up to be in a relationship for enjoyment not out of necessity.”
Something else I’ve found helpful to consider is that time moves fast. One day, you’re going to die. They will die one day too. If it is time to end the relationship, out of respect for them and yourself, go find a healthy alternative that will make you both happy. Grant yourself the time and freedom to get on the path to coping. You owe it to them and to yourself.
Use the upside of codependency
“After all this, you mean there’s an upside?” you may ask.
Yes, there is.
You’re excellent at taking care of people, and the world needs people like you. The key is not to be “cured” of your codependency. It’s about taking good care of others but also respecting yourself by knowing your limits, setting boundaries, and taking care of yourself first.
“A common pattern for those who are rescuers is they tend to attract a lot of people who want to be rescued, and cast themselves in the role of a patient or victim.” Scott advises, “If you are a good caretaker you often will find people to take care of, and they tend to stick around because they like it when someone takes care of them. Setting better boundaries with those individuals might result in losing some of those relationships, which is not a bad thing.”
“If someone appears to view you as more of a caretaker than a friend,” he says, “that’s a sign you should assess whether or not you want to maintain the relationship. The time and energy that you put into caretaking other people is taken away from looking after yourself or finding more healthy relationships.”
You have a big heart, codependent! Never lose that. While you’re loving others, though, keep in mind what you can and cannot control — pain is inevitable, but setting boundaries does not make you a bad person. Remember too that being in a healthy relationship is not like being a tree bearing fruit only to see it picked bare — it should not emotionally exhaust you. If it isn’t making you stronger, it’s making you both weaker.
I wrote this to spare others decades of accepting initial impressions, like fear and pain, only for it to end slowly and painfully.
If you do not worry about what others think, say or do, but only about whether your actions are just and godly, you will gain time and tranquillity. […] Run straight towards your goal without looking left or right. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.18