Is it Love or Is it Codependency

February 18, 2024

Is it Love or Is it Codependency

Codependency is a popular topic, but we don’t always understand its meaning or how it’s different from love. As single parents, we are often susceptible to codependency. So how can we tell the difference between codependency and love? Today we’re going to cover three main points. Number one, we’re going to talk about what codependency is. Number two, what is healthy connection? And three, we’re going to talk about how to set healthy limits.

What is codependency?

I went straight to the OG Melody Beatty, so I got several quotes or definitions pulled from “Codependent No More.” This is the definition of codependency according to Melody: “Codependency is consistently loving other people more than we love ourselves in ways that don’t work for them and don’t work for us.” I think that gives a good understanding. But the actual definition from “Codependent No More” is: “A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Here’s another little note: “Codependency is a dependency on people on their moods, behaviors, sickness or wellbeing and their love.” That one kind of punched me in the gut.

So why does codependency sometimes feel like love?
Coming from a marriage to an addict, being able to manage his emotions and learning how to do that—whether it was me tiptoeing around so that I didn’t poke the bear, walking on eggshells, or making sure he was always happy—felt like love. It felt like I was loving him well. And then on top of that, as long as he wasn’t mad at me or upset with me, then I felt loved. As long as he was in a good mood, I felt there was love there. But as soon as he was in a bad mood or hateful in any sort of way, there was that disconnection. And as long as I could manage his emotions in that way, then I was going to feel the love because everything was at peace, everything was good. And so that was a big piece of it: It can be mistaken for a deep connection because you’re not losing connection necessarily, but you never really have it to begin with. The disconnection for me was that anger, or if he got into a self-pity mode. Sometimes he would do that, especially after binge drinking for several days. He would go off the deep end with, “Oh, poor pitiful me. My life is horrible.” And then I would come in, swoop in to rescue him, and make him feel better—part of managing emotions. It was that rescuer piece that’s rooted in codependency. And if I could pick him up and put him back on his feet and rescue him, then I not only felt good about myself, but he would be grateful to me. I was telling myself that he would love me more.

Maybe we really are all veterans on this topic in this room. I know I am, but when I think about “Why does codependency feel like love to me?” is because old habits die hard and the patterns I learned in my family continue to manifest in adulthood. I loved in the ways that I learned to love. Kudos to my parents for all the wonderful recovery work they did as former alcoholics who became sober and found God, but they were in the process of growing in health as I was being raised. There were still tendencies to try to manage or control other people’s behavior by people pleasing, by walking on eggshells, by tiptoeing around things. God bless my dad—he would encourage me all the time to be a caretaker. “Hey, is your sister okay?” I didn’t know that the right response to that was, “I don’t know, dad, why don’t you go ask her?” But I knew in my mind that question was my assignment. Find out if my sister was okay and maybe if she wasn’t, do something to help her be okay. And so old habits die hard. The patterns we learn can get so ingrained. Even to this day, I’ll wonder if my sister’s okay, and I might even find myself leaning into those familiar ways.

Probably a year ago, my dad called me one day out of the blue. He rarely calls, but when he did that time, it was only to ask me to call my mom. He said, “Hey, can you call your mom and cheer her up? Make her in a better mood? She’s feeling really down today.” And I said, “No, actually I can’t do that.” I was like, “Sorry. I don’t think that’s my job.”

I have struggled with codependency all my life. I’ve realized that from my backstory, growing up as a missionary family, we were always there to serve. And we’ve talked about how we’re trying to sacrifice in the last couple episodes. I always viewed myself and my connection with others as how I made them feel. I realized I did that in my romantic relationships, my friendships, and all that. My codependency became most glaring to me with my kids: their happiness and feeling like everything was okay. As single parents, we jump through every single freaking hoop to make sure they don’t experience more pain than they’ve already experienced. An emotional entitlement develops in them where someone else is responsible for making them feel better. And that’s where I had to really start coming to terms with. It took a long time, and I still deal with it. If one of my girls is having a hard time, it’s hard for me to draw a boundary and go, “I’m so sorry to hear that” but not stepping in and fixing it and taking away the discomfort.

You say that about your kids, and I said earlier how Jax maybe doesn’t get in trouble for things that he should. I did the same thing and still at times I get called out by Lori, my counselor. I don’t allow people to suffer the consequences of their actions. I’ll step in and either be a safety net and cushion the blow or step in and fix it ahead of time. I can see what’s coming down the pike. Maybe they don’t see it, and I’ll step in and be like, “Hey, I just want you to know I did it. I did this a couple of weeks ago.” I called my ex and told him about something that was coming his way and I was like, “You just need to be aware that this might be happening soon, and I just want you to just be prepared.” Trying to manage his feelings. And I’m like, “Why am I doing this?” Well, the thing is, I was talking to him on the way to counseling and after I left counseling, I was like, “Dang it, I shouldn’t have done that.” She called me out and was like, “You do not let that man suffer the consequences, even now when you’re divorced. There are things that need to happen in the protection of your child, and in this, you give all the grace in the world.” Man, it’s my codependency right there flaring up. It’s the worst. And it’s because I don’t want the conflict. I don’t want to have an enemy—and that’s not for myself. It’s more so because I don’t want Jax to see his dad and I hating each other and going through that and for him to feel like he’s caught in the middle. It’s almost like I can take the brunt of it, but I don’t want him to so I’ll just take it on.

Old habits die really hard and it’s what keeps a lot of single parents in codependent and unhealthy relationships for so long. I was having dinner with a friend of mine years ago. We would meet once a week, and she just started dating a guy that was divorced. I wasn’t romantically connected to this person. It was after my divorce, but we were just friends and she’s like, “I am starting to date this guy. But I feel like his ex accused him of always being so controlling, and so now he’s the opposite of that. He’s trying to work out his old stuff in this new relationship and it’s all about control for him.” And that relationship wasn’t going anywhere. I can see myself doing that and overcompensating for my kids and trying to prove that I’m not the person I used to be. It’s all about control and managing everything, and it keeps us in relationships longer than we need to be sometimes. I’m not saying relationships with our kids—we’re meant to be there all the time. But we can get really stuck in this codependency cycle.

When you come out of a marriage like mine, and we talked about this before about how we lose ourselves, we lose our value in our relationships. And when you’ve lost your value and lost yourself and you’ve lived in this codependent state for so long, you put your needs on the back burner. You forget who you are. I know for my ex and I, we were so intermingled together and he became so much part of who I was (and vice versa), I didn’t necessarily have my own identity or my own thing. I didn’t have my own hobbies. I didn’t have my own type of music. We were so enmeshed, and he was the same way. And so, I think a big piece of this, especially if you know you’re coming out of a codependent relationship, before you even get into the next relationship, it’s important to take a step back and figure out who you are so that you can move forward in a healthy way. But changing yourself and losing yourself is such a big piece of codependency.

What does healthy connection look like?

God wanted relationship with us, and he designed us for connection. And so we know part of being human is to long for connection. The problem starts when we begin to do too much to maintain connection, or when we avoid certain behaviors because it might cause us to be abandoned. And so instead of healthy connection, we find counterfeit connection, codependent connection. A good way to think about healthy connection is as a balanced interplay of give and take. I know where I start and stop. I know where you start and stop. Instead of trying to get over into your lane and manage all of your emotions, your feelings, your behaviors, I stay within myself grounded, secure, able to manage my own being in life without having to try to do that for someone else. And so I think it’s an idea of mutual dependence where there’s give and take and there’s a balance of caring for self and caring for others and not giving away too much of yourself for the benefit of someone else.

What I’m hearing you say is it’s not about running from that relationship necessarily. It’s actually being present in it but realizing you can be present with empathy and compassion and not feel the burden of, “I’ve got to make you feel better. Or it’s my job to fix you.” And I think that’s one of the things that I love about our groups is that we talk about “no crosstalk” because it’s a natural tendency if someone brings up something they’re struggling with, to jump in and try and fix it. It’s uncomfortable to sit with someone in discomfort, but that is a sign of a healthy connection—if you can really be present and really listen without feeling like you need to fix it.  I did have to learn that. We all went through the same support group process where we actually learned how to do that and sit with people in their discomfort. And that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And it’s still hard today. It’s hard to sit there with someone pouring their heart out and not want to step in and be like, “Have you tried this? Have you done this?” But instead just sitting in that discomfort and being able to say, “I’m with you. I understand completely and I’m so sorry.”

Allow the other person to feel the weight of their own experience and decide what they’re going to do with that weight. Are they going to find a solution themselves? Are they going to put it down? Are they going to keep holding onto it? Will they let themselves be burdened even more? That’s up to them. They know their capacity; they know their limits. And when we take that opportunity away from someone, we are robbing them of either a strength exercise or self-awareness exercise, and all of a sudden, we’ve become their parent. We’re owning way too much. A healthy connection is a balanced dynamic of two people who individually can accept and own responsibility for how they feel, where their life is going, their behaviors, and their actions instead of rushing in to control or manage it. And I do speak from the inside on this one. I look back at all the times with my ex when I was so desperate for our marriage to work. I did 90%, maybe 95% of the relational work to try to stay connected to him. And that meant looking away after ugly words were said, and I’d think, “Oh, he was probably just stressed.”

And the question is, were you really even connected? You said to maintain connection, but a healthy connection would be, “Hey, what’s going on? Those words hurt. Is something bothering you? Because I don’t want to be talked to that way.” That might be a healthy connection where I show up authentically: “I’m hurt. I didn’t like what you said.”

One of the big things that I can still get caught up in is a habit developed over 12 years with my ex: If he’s in a bad mood, it makes me in a bad mood. If he’s happy, it makes me happy. I can get caught up in adjusting my own mood based on the moods of people around me. Instead of having that healthy autonomy and being able to say, “I’m just going to let them be where they are, and I’m going to show up as me where I’m at.” If someone’s in a bad mood, I can show up as me and say, “What do you need? Is there anything you need from me?” I’m trying to teach Jax this right now too because he’s dealing with some of that with his dad. He’s told me his dad gets upset about something and Jax automatically thinks it’s his fault. And so I was telling him to practice asking, “Is there anything that I need to apologize for? Did I do something to upset you?” And I hate that he even has to ask that, but I’m just trying to get him to not put blame on himself. I know I put the blame on myself in my codependency. And so anyway, just asking, “Is this about me? No, it’s not.” And so I’m going to stand here in my own autonomy and show up and say, “How can I be here for you? What do you need from me? Nothing. Okay, great. Then you’re not going to affect my mood.”

Amber, you sit in a chair where you hear people’s stories about good and hard things. As a therapist, how do you not get enmeshed? Are there some things that you practice that keep you from being enmeshed in someone’s story?  It’s being intentional in allowing that person’s experience to be their own, to let them feel the pain of what they’re experiencing. And for me to simply be an empathetic witness and a reflector of care and concern for them while letting them feel the weight, own the weight, decide what they’re going to do with it. And in my role, even offering sign points of helping them explore what their options are. Like, “Wow, that sounds really hard. What would you like to say to that person who caused you harm?” Whatever it might be. Allowing them to get curious instead of telling them what to do, because that would be very codependent: “Let’s just give you the direction you need” and helping them explore. Intentionally feeling and thinking within myself that this is theirs to own. I can listen with empathy and be an empathetic witness. And then let them become compassionately curious about their own story, where they care about themselves enough to say, “What do I want here? What do I need here?” Being curious helps a lot. Instead of being assumptive and jumping in with the solution or being someone’s rescuer or their savior or all of the things I was probably taught to do.

What happens when you’re working towards health as a codependent, but someone you’re in a relationship with (a potential mate, someone you’re dating, your child, a friend) keeps trying to drag you into a codependent cycle?

I had to understand my own issue with people pleasing. I wanted people to be happy with me. I didn’t want anyone to get angry with me. I didn’t want to risk a loss of connection. And so I would abandon all those parts of myself that would get in the way, even with my kids. The closer and more important a relationship is to me, the more my codependent tendencies want to rise to the surface. And I was like, “I didn’t want to lose connection with my kids.” I think recognizing my own fear of losing connection, but not losing yourself in this—and encouraging them not to either. As much as we think we’re helping someone when we take control of their emotions or problems, we are encouraging them to abandon themselves too by handing all of their stuff to us so they’re not even in charge of themselves. So not only are we not, but they’re also not either. So there’s no ability for healthy connection; we’ve both lost part of who we are.

How do we set healthy limits, especially with someone that we are in a forever relationship with (our kids or our parents)?

First and foremost, it’s important to get to know yourself, what you need, and being able to understand who you are, what your values are, even what you stand for. It can be small stuff from “I like almond milk better than regular milk,” all the way up to the big things, “I value X, Y, and Z, a relationship with God.” Or “I value honesty and truth.” Being able to individuate in that way and not take on so much of other people and the people around you. It sounds silly to start with “What kind of milk do I like?” But being able to kind of force the habit of who am I, what do I need, what do I want, and what do I stand for? Because if you don’t have that centered, grounded place, I don’t know where else you start.

A clear definition of self is a key defense against codependency. When I know who I am, I can immediately begin to sense, “Oh, hey, that’s not me. That doesn’t jive. That doesn’t feel right. That’s not quite right. I don’t need to carry that. No, that has nothing to do with me actually. Oh, you’re angry. That’s your anger.” It’s not, “Oh, what did I do? I must have…” No, that’s theirs. As we’re doing the work to have healthy limits, it’s learning to practice knowing what I value, knowing my wants and needs and the definition of who I am. No resentment, no people pleasing, no seeking approval, no secret agenda. And at the same time, just being able to honor that in others too, being able to hear yes or no without making it personal.

I had to learn that saying no to somebody is not rejecting somebody. And that was a big distinction for me. I always felt like if I said no, what was loaded into that no was, “I reject you.” I didn’t have a good sense of self, and it’s taken me a long time to kind of undo some of those things. But it’s interesting how easily we can go. So, being aware of your triggers and being aware of where you have fallen before is important because I can very easily go, “Ah, I’ve seen this movie before.” And so there is an awareness of self, but there’s also awareness of my pitfalls? Where are my triggers? Where do I get tripped up?

A tendency I learned from childhood that has continued on in my 42 years of life, is taking on other people’s moods. And if someone gets big, gets angry, I get small. I can go there really easily, and I know what that’s from in my childhood, but it gets triggered really easily. Now that I’m aware of it and can sense it and can see it, I’ve tried to practice it. But being able to say, “It’s happening” and responding, “Nope, we’re not going to do that. I’m going to separate myself out of that. I’m not going to go there. I’m going to care for that small child that’s inside of me that needs that. But you’re powerful. You’re strong. This is not you. This is something else that has nothing to do with you.” And having that ability to separate myself from the trigger and being able to say, “Nope, we’re not going to do that. We’re not going to get small.” But also having someone safe that you can say, “Hey, this happened. It happened again. I felt myself getting small. Here’s how I reacted.” Or showing your weaknesses to your point, but then also recognizing that in those moments that you actually do have strength on the other side of it. Recognizing that too and saying, “Oh, I didn’t let myself go small. I recognized that I started to go small, but I didn’t do it. I pulled myself out of it and was able to heal in that way.”

It’s a process of learning and noticing. As a recovering codependent, I’m no longer engaging in codependent behaviors. And that was step one. I wasn’t getting small. I might remove myself from the situation, but I would have a thoughtful response instead of a triggered response. And then after a while it was like, “I’m not even thinking codependent thoughts.” And that was next level where it was like, “Oh, I’m not even trying to own that. Not only have I not owned it, but I’m not even trying to on the inside.” And so, I think we’re in a healing process, and this will probably be a lifelong journey for me where I’m needing to notice old habits that die hard and having to confront patterns. One thing I think is important to note with healthy limits is that codependency is on one extreme where we’re giving ourselves away too much for others, and counter dependence is the opposite end of that spectrum where it’s like, “Nope, I’m not helping anyone. I’m cutting off. I’m doing an emotional cutoff. You’re not going to have a place in my life.” And the pendulum can swing really far and in its own kind of way, it’s still trying to control and manage a circumstance. It’s just the opposite extreme. And the healthy balance and limit is to say, “I’m going to own what I can. I’m going to let them own their part, but I can stay in the tension of relating to them without having to absolutely go one way or the other.” And it’s okay to feel like you want to go one way or the other. It’s just choosing to not to and staying in the messy middle.

It’s about setting healthy limits for ourselves. With codependence, we want to set healthy limits for other people. We want to fix other people. We want to make things better for other people. But if we can turn that inward, we can set healthy limits for ourselves. Two things happened this morning on my run. I ran by a car whose hatchback was up halfway, and I thought, “I wonder if I should close that for them?” Nope. I’m not going to do it because it’s not my car, not my monkey, not my circus. There was another one that I ran by—their mailbox was open and it was starting to rain, and I was like, “Oh, their mailbox might get wet. “ I was like, “Nope, not going to touch it.” But it’s small things like that: rescuing that person whether they wanted me to or not. And I’m not saying don’t do nice things for people, but I know for me those are codependent patterns because I will go and fix something for someone without them even wanting me to. And I’m trying to unravel some of that for myself where I’m not stepping in and fixing things for people without them telling me what they need or how I can help in that way.

We need to recognize that we’re all in different places with this. We get healthy and then we slip on a blind spot. We’ve got to have a lot of grace for ourselves with this. We try to control things, whether it be other people’s discomfort or ourselves, and we’ve got to learn to step into some surrender and allow God to take care of things more than we do.


1. In codependent relationships, we lose our entire self for the happiness of another person, and that is where it becomes dangerous.
2. Healthy connection has interdependence, which is a mutual agency where we are equals in this relationship, and we’re not controlled by their feelings. We can be sympathetic to it by being an empathetic witness to what someone else is going through.
3. In order to set healthy limits or boundaries, it’s important to know what you need and what trips you up.

Listener Question: I don’t have much extra money, but my kids are really disappointed that we never go on trips for spring break or summer break, etc. How can I make breaks fun without spending money I don’t have?

I’m all about adventures. There have been times where I know we have a break and we’re not going on a trip; we’re staying at home, but I want to make the most of it and spend time together. So, I’ll just tell him what’s within the budget and ask, “What’s one thing you want to do today?” And we’ll have one activity per day. So, it might be going to do go-karts one day. Another day it might be getting a pass to the zoo. If you have friends around with memberships, work out something with that. And if you look in parent magazines and things like that within your town, there are always free things to do. It doesn’t have to be this grand thing, but if you make it special and make it about being present with them during that time, you can find fun things to do. And especially if they have a say in what you’re doing: Today, we want to spend a whole day playing board games. Or today we want to spend a whole day playing video games. Just let them choose.

I think it’s just making designated special times, like we camped in our backyard. Or disrupt a pattern and say, “We’re all going to sleep in the bonus room tonight.” Kim, our old co-host said she would drag all their mattresses into the living room, camp out there, watch movies, and eat nachos and popcorn. It’s more about creating special memories. Now my girls are older, they remember going to Disneyland but there are so many other memories that equal that. They may not admit this, but we actually connected. Sometimes those more expensive opportunities are escapes and it’s a distraction. I’m not saying they’re bad. But realize that the true essence of what you’re trying to do as a parent is connect with your kids. And that does not have to be expensive. It just has to be different from the norm. So, try to find things that are just different from your normal routine.

I was thinking back honestly to my childhood, which was very humble. I grew up not having a lot of money. I had a lot of love, which mattered more. And even saying that feels so good to me because we couldn’t do expensive things and I learned something so deeply valuable about life. The memory that kept coming to me is that my dad, siblings, and I would put blankets out in the yard at night and we’d go look at the stars and make a fun contest. “Do you see Orion? And does anyone see Cassiopeia?” And it was a time of connection. It cost absolutely nothing. And it’s one of my deeply cherished memories. We sometimes just have to challenge those voices within ourselves that want to prevent disappointment and let our kids learn lessons that they will carry with them into adulthood and pass on to their own kids, which is really: expensive things really aren’t what brings this deep joy. Sometimes it can even get in the way.

One of the fondest memories I have with my dad is when it was raining, and we all took turns running and sliding through a giant puddle in our yard like a slip and slide. And my dad did it with us. It just makes me think that all kids want is for you to get in there and be with them and do the things with them and create that connection and that bond.

To send in a question yourself, go to our website, solo You’ll find directions on how to email, call, or leave a voice message. Please join one of our groups—download the Solo Parent app anywhere you get an app and look at our online calendar. And we would love to have you find us on social media, search Solo Parent Society on Facebook or Instagram.


Codependent No More by Melody Beattie