The term ‘co-dependent’ was originally coined when referring to relationships that involved chemical dependency (i.e. the spouse of an alcoholic dealing with that person’s addiction in the relationship). Since then, the term has broadened to include any relationship where there is a one-sided power differential. When you have a needy spouse, it can be a draining, tiring experience that seems more like parenting than partnering. In these relationships, there’s usually a partner who is very strong, independent and self-sufficient. That person knows what to do, how to do it, and where to go. Even though all of these attributes seem to represent high self-esteem, the co-dependent partner suffers from low self-esteem.
It is this person who represents the co-dependent part. In every effort made to help the other partner, there’s a sense of guilt, a need to control, and a lack of trust in self and others. One of the reasons why a strong partner would choose a weak one is to feel needed. When you’ve only known what it is to be caretaker, caregiver, or in “survival” mode as a child, when you grow up, your idea of safety comes in being able to fulfill that role in a relationship. What a co-dependent person quickly learns is this: having a needy spouse can be absolutely exhausting.
Needy spouses have their own issues. They tend to be weak, dependent, have low self-esteem, and consistently define their lives by the co-dependent partner. The needy partner is also the one who wants to always be physically close in the relationship (i.e. let’s shop together, watch tv together, go everywhere together, have all the same friends, etc.) and doesn’t see his or her life existing without the other person. It is a clear example of enmeshment where the relationship has structural closeness but lacks intimacy.
So what do you do when you realize that you’re a person who needs to be needed but you’ve married someone who needs you way too much? You have to set healthy boundaries. This is a HUGE paradigm shift in a marriage. When two people are used to operating under certain roles, it takes a long time to change and transition out of those modes but it can be done. In order to re-establish healthy boundaries, both partners have to be willing to change the paradigm. Once you have that, here are 4 ways to re-establish healthy boundaries with a needy spouse:
1) Release the need to control your spouse. Let your spouse make his or her own decisions and trust that no matter what, the situation will work out. That doesn’t mean you relinquish all control or you close your eyes to discussions and situations that matter. It simply means that you release the need to be the point person, the final say-so or the one who’s responsible for making ALL of the decisions.
2) Accept that you are enough exactly as you are and do your fair share (but not more than that). If you’re used to doing all of the housework (and you secretly do it because you think that you’re the only one who does it well), let that go. Give your spouse the room to make the bed, wash the dishes, care for the kids, even if the end result isn’t as perfect as you’d like it. Do enough and stop trying to overcompensate by doing it all.
3) Say what you feel as you feel it. One of the key issues for those who experience co-dependency is the inability to communicate their emotions and feelings. This is where hiring a highly qualified, licensed therapist comes in. A therapist can help a couple learn how to openly and honestly communicate their feelings in a safe, secure environment. In order to set a healthy boundary with a needy spouse, you need to learn how to communicate your needs and how to communicate when they are and are not being met.
4) Get good with being alone. Alone doesn’t mean lonely. One of the things a co-dependent partner fears most is not being needed. But the reason that he or she fears this is not because that person wants to be needed 24/7. It’s because that person fears that if he/she is not needed, then the other person will see that there is no value in being in the relationship and will walk away. That is a completely unfounded fear. At some point, you’ve got to accept that you are good enough exactly as you are. Coming to the place where you can say, “If this person leaves me, I’ll be just fine. If this person walks away, I’m still whole. No one has the ability to break my heart. Alone doesn’t mean I have to be lonely so long as I like the company I’m keeping” is critical to setting healthy boundaries with a needy partner. If you are always afraid of something leaving you, you won’t set the boundaries that allow you to say yes or no. You’ll say yes out of fear rather than love and that’s no way for anyone to live.
At the end of the day, we attract to us who we are. In relationships, we are mirrors of each other. Very rarely do you ever have a co-dependent partner without having a needy partner as a match. The gift in every relationship is that you are brought together with this person who has the greatest ability to help you heal and learn what you were born to heal and know. Don’t see this as an obstacle, trial, or tribulation. See this as an opportunity to learn, grow, and set healthy boundaries.