Taking Responsibility in a Codependent Relationship

codependentYou know the worst thing about living alone? When you misplace something, you have no one to blame but yourself. I was looking for my headphones the other day. I was frustrated that I couldn’t find a single pair and more frustrated I had no one to blame but me! That got me thinking about how we tend to seek out someone, something else to blame for our troubles. Focusing on the behaviors of others is the foundation of a codpendent relationship.

How often have you heard (or said), “If it weren’t for my job/my spouse, I would be happier.” Or, “If my parents had loved me more/been less strict/more discipined, I would be successful.” This thinking puts the responsibility for your situation on someone else’s shoulders. And it leaves you helpless and a victim to your circumstances. If you’re in a codependent relationship with an Unreasonable Person, it creates a vicious cycle or frustration and pain.

Being Stuck in a Codependent Relationship

If you want to be successful at changing a codependent relationship, you must look at yourself and your responsiblity in it. Then you can decide what you can do to make a change and how best to go about it.

In 12 Step recovery terms, they call this, “identifying your part” and it is explained in Step 4 of the AA Big Book. Step 4 is the step where you take a personal inventory and a major part of the inventory is making a list of all the persons, places, things for which you hold resentment and why. But Step 4 also warns, “To conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got.”

When you are wrestling a problem with an Unreasonable Person, you can easily identify their behavior as the source of the problems. If they wouldn’t drink, or could manage their temper, or would just do the right thing, your problems would disappear. But you have no control over their behavior. Their changes are solely their responsibility. In my experience as a therapist, pushing someone to change causes them to fight harder for the status quo. About focusing on others, the Big Book says, “The usual outcome was that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore.” Certainly, you remain caught in a no-win situation: being frustrated, maybe lashing out, rescuing them, again. Rinse and repeat. (For further reading see this article on the Drama Triangle.)

Accepting the Reality of a Codependent Relationship

The Big Book offers a solution: “Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes…Though a situation had not been entirely our fault, we tried to disregard the other person involved entirely. Where were we to blame? … We admitted our wrongs honestly and were willing to set these matters straight.” YIKES! Could we actually be to blame?

It is a challenge to identify your part when someone else seems to be the cause of a problem. My client Alicia had a sister who could not keep a steady job and was verbally abusive to Alicia even though Alica was paying the rent for her sister’s apartment and giving her a monthly allowance. Alicia said, “I’ve tried everything. I’ve bailed her out countless times. She should be grateful but she’s not. Speaking up for myself or trying to reason with her only makes things worse.” Alicia’s sister was at fault in so many ways. But focusing on the sister did not help Alicia.

We spent many sessions working on acceptance that her sister had no motivation to change. She realized her sister was getting the money she wanted and maybe some satisfaction in acting out and upsetting Alica. Alicia gave up the belief that she could reason with her sister. She also concluded that continuing to engage with her sister was hurting herself and not helping her sister. Instead, Alicia chose to accept responsibillity for continuing to be hurt by continuing to engage.

Getting Unstuck – Changing the Focus to Yourself

Once Alicia accepted that she had to change if she wanted things to change, she was ready to put a plan in place. Alicia recognized that she was part of the problem. She recognized she did not have to take her sister’s calls and she could delete any hurtful text messages without responding to them. Alicia also realized she cared about her sister’s health and welfare and did not want to cut off all ties completely.

Implementing Changes in a Codependent Relationship

We worked together to identify a healthier role Alicia could play in their relationship. Alicia knew her sister needed financial help. Alicia decided on an amount of money she felt comfortable giving her sister each month and stopped giving her more than what she allotted. Eventually, Alicia told her sister that she would no longer take her calls and asked her sister to stop texting except to acknowledge receipt of her allowance. While Alicia’s sister still sends more text messages than that, happily, they are kinder messages, showing some appreciation for what Alicia is doing for her. But Alicia maintains the boundary and only responds when appropriate.  While Alicia would like  for more in the relationship with her sister, she believes she is doing the best she can for both of them and is content.

Practicing for Yourself


What about you? Do you have people in your life who cause you hurt and pain? Can you stop thinking about how they contribute to the pain? Can you finally accept them where they are, for who they are? If you can stop expecting or even hoping that they will change, you have a chance to be free from the codependent cycle.

Owning Your Part

Once you give up on changing them, ask yourself this question: Given who they are, who do you want to be in this relationship? What do you want? What do you need to do to feel comfortable in the relationship?

Another client, Martin, was unhappy with his relationship with his father. Martin wanted his father to dote on his grandchildren, come around to the house for dinner once in a while but the father was distant from Martin’s family. If Martin requested his father to show more interest in Martin’s family, his father would comply for a short period of time. But soon he would be back to his own interests and communication stopped. Martin finally accepted that his father was just not a family man and young children made him nervous.

Implementing Changes

So, Martin took on the responsibility of being the one to call and check in with his father. He began making arrangements in advance for dinner for just the two of them, with occasional dinners with the family. To his surprise, Martin was delighted with more one on one time. Martin said, “I came to know my father as a distinct person and not just his role as my father and grandfather to my children. He isn’t comfortable with young children but maybe some day he will be good with older kids. In the meantime, I think we both like our guys’ nights.”


If you can give up the dream of who you want the other person to be, you may find the gifts of who they are. You will be free to become who you need to be in the relationship in a way that works for you. It may not be what you thought wanted, but it may be what you needed all along.

Are you struggling with a codependent relationship? Need help in sorting through these questions? Give us a call. We have excellent therapists who can help you build relationships where you thrive.