Self‐Responsibility and Codependency

By Darlene Lancer

It’s natural to desire happiness for your loved ones and painful to see them suffer, but codependents make the leap of feeling responsible for others’ pain and happiness. It’s so upsetting that they try to resolve the negative feelings and problems of people close to them. The fact is you can only heal your half of the relationship — yourself.

You’re responsible for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and the consequences of those actions, and other people are responsible for theirs. Taking responsibility isn’t the same as blaming yourself. It’s likely you do too much of that already. The former is just an admission — an acknowledgement that “I said (or did)” something. Period! It doesn’t make you a terrible person.

Cheering someone up occasionally or giving him or her more attention is not codependent. A benefit of a good marriage is that spouses nurture one another when one is troubled, but it’s support, not codependent caretaking, and it’s reciprocal.

In contrast, when you consistently try to change others’ moods or solve their problems, you’re becoming their caretaker based upon the erroneous belief that you can control what’s causing their pain. You’re assuming responsibilities that are theirs, not yours.

Sometimes codependent couples agree that one spouse has the obligation to make the other happy. This is an impossible task and leads to mutual unhappiness, anger, and resentment. The cheerleader is always failing. Whatever he or she tries won’t be quite right or enough.

If you assume responsibility for your partner’s happiness, you’re enabling his or her dependence, irresponsibility, and childish behavior and depriving him or her of the opportunity to grow up and become independent. On the other hand, by taking responsibility to make yourself happy, you bring happiness to the relationship, and you’re able to interact with your partner from an openhearted place.

Another pitfall for codependents is that they take too much responsibility and blame for the problems in their relationship. They try to change themselves (the human pretzel solution) in order to make the relationship work. The belief is, “If I caused the problem, then I can learn what I did wrong, change myself, and then the problem will go away.” This denies that each person in a relationship is responsible for his or her own feelings and actions.

Do the following:

  • List the things for which you feel responsible. Include family and work responsibilities. What’s the difference between responsibility to others and responsibility for others?

  • List each responsibility you assume for others who can manage that responsibility. If the person is a child or teenager, is he or she old enough to take over that responsibility or learn to take it over? Talk to those individuals about assuming responsibility for themselves. (Shared responsibilities, errands, and chores aren’t problems — unless there’s imbalance and you resent it.)

  • For each of your needs, write actions you can take to be responsible for meeting your needs.

  • Create a plan to make time to meet your responsibilities and needs and let others manage their own lives.