A very popular topic in codependency literature is the challenge that a codependent has in setting healthy boundaries.
Let’s take a closer look at codependency, from an overview of the typical behaviors and the causes of those behaviors. Codependency is not a mental health diagnosis; rather, it is a learned behavior, often developed in very early childhood. Most, but not all codependents, come from dysfunctional families, often with a history of codependency and addicted, narcissistic or emotionally unavailable partners.
The codependent parent and the addict or narcissist sets the pattern for how children see a relationship. Children learn from the codependent parent to try harder in the relationship, to give all to satisfy the needs of the narcissist, addicted or even abusive parent, and that somehow they can make the changes needed to correct or fix the relationship.
It is not uncommon in these types of dysfunctional families for children to actually take on a parental role as the parents are too caught up in the dynamics of their own destructive relationship. Children learn how to “walk on eggshells,” how to keep their needs hidden and put the needs of others before everything else, and how the outward appearance of the relationship is of utmost importance.
Children who learn these lessons and do not learn to foster their own self-worth and value, and to see themselves as an important and autonomous individual, struggle with future relationships. They are always looking for someone to fix, repair, or look after, rather than finding a partner who is secure, independent, and loving.
If this sounds familiar, and caring for the needs of your partner is more important than being happy yourself, you may be codependent. You may have a great deal of difficulty in setting boundaries in the relationship, and you may find that even the thought of saying “no” to the partner may cause anxiety if they were to become angry, displeased or upset.
At the same time, you feel unhappy in the relationship. Most codependents feel trapped in a relationship, but the need to be with someone rather than on their own is a more frightening thought. At the same time, it is very common for a person who is codependent to feel frustrated and even angry at the amount of energy and time they spend in a relationship without any reciprocation. Over time, this anger and frustration builds, but it is usually turned inwards as expressing anger and resentment to the partner only increases the risk of conflict and hostility, the very things the codependent wants to avoid in the struggle to create the “perfect” relationship.
The other side of the coin can also occur with a codependent. Over time, the frustration with the constant demands and drains on time and energy builds up and results in lashing out against the partner. It may also result in the codependent choosing a partner that needs a caregiver, allowing the codependent to have some level of control. At the same time, the dysfunctional partner is resistant to this control and is also lashing out, creating conflict and lack of control throughout the relationship.
The root of all of this conflict and strife, both internally and within the relationship, is often caused by a lack of boundaries. The codependent is willing to compromise their own personal happiness and needs to attempt to create a positive relationship with a person who will never be satisfied.
At some level, the codependent recognizes this inequity but is also fearful of being rejected and has a fear of confrontation. Remember, the goal of the codependent is to make everything fit their idea of the perfect couple and how that should look to those around them. Saying “no” or choosing to do something of importance to them rather than to the partner is antithetical to achieving this goal.
What Are Boundaries?
Boundaries are the rules or the invisible walls or fences that divide people and keep the physical, emotional, and mental elements of life separate from those of the others around you.
Boundaries are also the rules by which we let people know what we will accept and what we do not accept. When we fail to set boundaries for ourselves, we automatically and by default allows others to set those boundaries. We also open ourselves up to having to deal continually with irrational and unreasonable expectations by those willing to take more than their fair share.
So, how do you set boundaries, and how do others know what those boundaries are?
The key to setting boundaries is to let others know they exist. As a quick example, imagine you had a child and allowed her to access anything she wanted to eat in the kitchen, and you did not provide any dietary boundaries. Kids naturally choose foods that they like and would indulge in ice cream, cookies, chips, and other types of foods, typically avoiding healthy foods like vegetables and fruit.
Parents naturally set boundaries with kids about food, and let them know the rules and expectations. This may include having a small serving of ice cream after finishing your meal or having cookies occasionally and in limited numbers.
Kids learn these boundaries when the rule is explained. That does not mean they won’t test those boundaries, and the parent has to be firm and consistent. Through articulating the boundary and then being consistent, a rule is created that allows for the positive aspects of the behavior but also provides care and protection.
The same types of boundaries are needed in a relationship. However, as we have just looked at codependent behaviors, it is easy to see why setting these relationship rules or fences and holding to them is going to be a challenge.
Codependents may understand the boundaries they need, but enforcing them becomes the problem. To make matters even more difficult, the narcissistic or addicted partner is all too aware of the dynamic and takes great pleasure in pushing and manipulating these boundaries or plowing right through them.
The common reasons that boundaries are a challenge for codependents include:
- Fear of confrontation – simply the act of standing up to the partner may be overwhelming for the codependent, particularly if these types of issues have resulted in the partner leaving, threatening to leave or becoming emotionally or physically abusive in the past.
- Lack of understanding of needs – if you never know boundaries in relationships, including in your relationships with parents, it is difficult to know what you need.
- The belief that others are more important – the deeply ingrained belief that the other person is more important and needs to come first is an overwhelming factor in the challenge of building boundaries and maintaining them.
- Fear of loss of approval – when the partner has always had his way in the relationship, and particularly with a narcissist, setting boundaries is going to lead to a lack of approval. For the codependent, this is the biggest fear, and working with a therapist or life coach during this time is instrumental to developing effective coping strategies and not just merely giving in and going back to the old lack of boundaries relationship.
- Taking the blame route – some codependents become nagging or aggressive when they try to set boundaries. Instead of setting the boundary and following through, they constantly repeat information, criticize or blame the other person for the change in the relationship “rules.” This may lead to the codependent threatening to leave or to do something they will not do, which reinforces the lack of boundaries when the partner challenges this new need or value.
- Lack of support – it is also common for a person in a codependent relationship to be emotionally and socially isolated. After all, your time is spent trying to make the partner happy, and friends and family are often ignored or brushed off. This isolation and lack of support benefit the narcissist, addict, or emotionally abusive partner as they are aware they are your only connection.
- Low self-esteem and self-worth – if you are codependent, you have a low sense of self-worth and self-esteem. This makes it difficult to see yourself as worthy of the respect of others, which makes it a challenge to be able to set these boundaries and then follow through on consequences if they are followed.
The good news is that these types of beliefs, fears, and issues can be changed. It’s important to learn new ways of setting boundaries that are empowering, provide self-care, and help you feel good about yourself and those around you.
Getting Past These Boundary Barriers
Getting past boundary setting fears and barriers is not easy. It takes time, support, and a willingness to learn to believe in the value of yourself. It is possible to learn to set and articulate limits in any relationship, and then also set consequences you will use to hold yourself accountable to those boundaries.
The keys to setting boundaries include:
- Loving yourself – the first step is to begin the journey of learning to love yourself and develop a sense of self-worth and self-value. It is a learning process, and it involves unlearning all those negative messages and being open to looking at yourself from a completely new point of view.
- Understanding what you value – boundaries are general; they are not universal for all people. What one person may be willing to accept in a relationship, another may not. However, what is accepted has to be healthy, positive, and beneficial, or it is not an effective boundary within the relationship. Taking a look at what you value and what you need is the starting point for setting boundaries that are relevant and meaningful.
- Take a look at what you want to do – often, time and priorities are a problem for codependents. They are afraid of losing the friendship or status, so they say “yes” to everything, even when they don’t have the time or the energy to do the things they have committed to complete. By learning to take the time to consider what you want to do and prioritizing your time, it is easier to find ways to say “no” or “I am busy at that time,” without feeling overwhelmed with guilt and fear or hating yourself for not standing up for your needs.
- Talk about boundaries – talking to counselors, coaches, friends, and family members can be very insightful in understanding how they set boundaries. Understanding how boundaries are used in all types of relationships and not just in intimate partner relationships can be both educational as well as informative.
- Practice communicating messages – learning how to articulate and communicate your needs, wants, and values is always essential. This may seem like learning a new language, particularly if you are a person who has never spoken about your needs before. Practicing how to communicate is a core skill to master in your relationships.
It is also essential to reach out for help. Learning to set boundaries and holding yourself to those boundaries without giving in or going back to old, unhealthy behaviors is complicated and hard. There will be times when it seems easier just to give in, but every time you give in you send yourself, and the other person a message. That message is that you are not of value in the relationship, which is certainly not the case.
Over time, setting and maintaining boundaries becomes more comfortable. There may be times you start to think negatively, simply want to avoid the confrontation or are emotionally tired, but even in these situations, you can be strong, assertive, and practice caring for yourself.
Are boundaries something you struggle with? Are there certain people you struggle with boundaries with more than others? What can you do to build healthier boundaries with these people? What support might you need? Be sure to share your thoughts and questions using the comment section below so we can all learn from and help each other…