Learn to stay detached from unhealthy behaviour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


Louisa is a devoted wife and mother of two, remaining committed to her family even as their home life is slowly being poisoned by her husband's alcoholism.

While she has lost her passion for living and laments that she has no life outside the home, Louisa manages to appear in control and to remain an excellent mother even if she is falling apart inside.

She has been obsessed with trying to push her husband, Jerry, away from the bottle, to no avail. Louisa lives in a constant state of stress and often feels like she has failed Jerry.

'I'm afraid if he does not come home from work on time that he is out at a bar drinking,' she says. 'He often expects me to come and pick him up, and then I have to call [his office] the next day to say he is sick.'

Her habit of basing much of her life and happiness on another person's behaviour is a sign that Louisa is codependent. This is when a person is highly affected by and becomes obsessed with controlling another person's behaviour. This is usually seen in relationships between a spouse, sister, child, father, brother or friend and someone struggling with addiction.

Louisa feels trapped in a vicious cycle. But the moment people like her realise they are powerless over other people, they can become free to create their own happiness.

Often, she feels depressed and guilty for not being able to feel happy for the sake of her family. She also thinks it is a form of betrayal if she takes care of her own needs ahead of theirs. Over the years, her duties to the family have eclipsed her friendships, her job as a teacher and her own hobbies.

But depriving yourself or not being aware of your needs only leads to resentment and feelings of hollowness and exhaustion.

Thus, people must watch out for mindsets that encourage unhealthy relationships. The following are some signs of codependency:

Feeling responsible for other people, their feelings, thoughts, well-being, needs and future

Feeling that others don't do as much for you

Finding it hard to say no

Fearing loss of control

Believing that you are unworthy of love and that others don't love you

Staying in relationships that aren't working

Finding it difficult to relax and have fun

Crying frequently, using substances to cope and having violent outbursts

Talking about the problematic person constantly

Feeling victimised

Feeling guilty frequently

Living in fear of rejection and abandonment

Louisa complains that she has 'lost herself'. To regain her sense of well-being, she must get in touch with her own needs and feelings, and become adept at communicating them, instead of attempting to control others.

This will mean recognising that her self-worth does not hinge on her husband's behaviour. It will mean setting limits and boundaries with others so that she is comfortable giving when she chooses to. This will result in her retaining her own sense of power, which will help increase her self-esteem.

Although Louisa cares for and loves her husband deeply, it is essential to detach herself from his alcoholism so she can stop being codependent. Real healing and real love comes from people who are both totally committed to helping each other while being able to maintain their self-worth, independently.

In a perfect world, it would be great if everyone else acted the way we wanted them to so we could feel secure. But Louisa can feel in control without being consumed by fixing Jerry's behaviour.

You can feel sane even if your teenage son won't pick up his laundry or if your brother is dating yet another crazy woman. When others are losing their heads, you don't have to lose yours. This is called loving without caring.

Codependency can be difficult to overcome, and is best shared and dealt with by a counsellor. Louisa has learned that her happiness doesn't depend on Jerry's ability to cure his addiction, and she has turned her life around.

Hayley Thomas is a child, adolescent and family therapist who specialises in eating disorders. For more information, go to her website at www.relatehk.com