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If I’m acting in your best interest, that’s love, right? If I’m trying hard to help you out, to make you feel better, to turn your bad day good again, that’s love. Right?

Sometimes, but not always. I wish love were that simple, but love has a doppelgänger that we need to be aware of. It’s an impulse that tricks us into thinking we’re acting with love when our motives are actually anything but loving.

I’m talking about codependency. Where love heals and sustains my relationships, codependency erodes them. Where love leaves me feeling peaceful, codependency leaves me agitated and confused.

Just knowing the word for this phenomenon has been a game-changer for me. But although I’ve known about codependency for years, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between codependency and love.

What is Codependency?

Codependency has a lot of definitions depending on the context, but the bare-bones concept is this: Codependency is when you act as though you’re responsible for what you have no control over. The term was initially coined to describe wives of alcoholics. These women weren’t dependent on alcohol like their husbands were, but they became “co-dependent” on the alcohol, insofar as they let their husbands’ alcoholism dictate their own choices. Their lives totally revolved around their (understandable) desperate desire to fix, control, or manage their husbands’ addiction.

Of course, you can’t fix somebody else’s addiction. Only the addict has that power. These women were engaged in an impossible task. And so, tragically, the addiction they were trying to control began to destroy their own lives, too.

Think of the girl whose boyfriend is addicted to pornography. She loves him and wants what’s best for him, so she wants him to stop. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if she decides that it’s up to her to make him stop, say, by trying to replace the porn with her own degradation and objectification, hoping that he’ll no longer “need” the porn . . . then she’s taking it upon herself to change something that only he can change. It won’t bring her any peace, and it won’t heal his addiction. Her efforts might be well-meaning, but they are only going to hurt them both.

Codependency is everywhere

Addicts tend to bring it out in people, but it’s by no means limited to those situations. Anyone, in any context, who feels responsible for what they can’t legitimately control can fall into its trap.

In my own life, codependency often looks less dramatic, but it still affects my marriage, and I’m committed to breaking the habit. Say my husband had a rough day at work, and I can see how stressed he is. There’s nothing wrong (on the contrary!) with me wanting to cheer him up, help him relax, remind him that I love him. But I become codependent when I feel guilty because of his mood. Codependency would be thinking, as I often do, that he wouldn’t be feeling bad if I were a better wife. When I tell myself that it’s my job to cheer him up, and if I can’t do that, I have somehow failed—that’s codependency.

It looks so much like love, doesn’t it? But it’s not.

Interestingly, my husband doesn't even want me to feel guilty or responsible when he’s in a bad mood. He never asked me to take that on! I take it on because I love him, and it’s easy to get codependency mixed up with love.

The big red flag

It’s nice to want to help. It’s not nice to feel responsible for another person’s emotions. As similar as love and codependency sometimes look, there’s all the difference in the world. And helpfully, there’s one red flag that always shows up just in time to remind me that I’ve crossed the line: resentment.

When I am acting co-dependently, resentment will always be tugging at a corner of my mind.

My resentment says “You’re making me do this.” “You need me to do this.” “You can’t do this without me.”

I feel constrained. I don’t feel free. Resentment is like that. You feel forced into something you didn’t want to do and frustrated when it doesn't work. Love, on the other hand, feels free. It’s not that it’s easy, it’s just that in love, you understand that nobody “made” you choose your actions.

Say my husband is exhausted, stressed out, and tired, so I decide to spend some time cheering him up. I’d wanted to take a shower and withdraw into my phone, but instead, I make him a snack and hang out with him—or I take the kids out of the house so he can get a breather. I may not be terribly enthusiastic about making that sacrifice, but I won’t resent it, because I know I chose it freely. I am trying to help him, but I’m not trying to control what he thinks or feels.

And if I come home from that walk, and he’s still stressed out? I’ll be sympathetic, not annoyed. Codependency would be annoyed. After all, I was trying to change him, and he didn’t change! Love understands that my offer to help was just an offer. I won’t feel like I’ve been cheated, because I know that although I was trying to help, ultimately, it’s not up to me. It’s up to him.

I can’t even express how helpful it’s been to realize that codependency and resentment go hand in hand. When I’ve slipped up, let my controlling instincts take over, and then that familiar tug of resentment shows up? That’s my cue to back off, and remind myself of what I already know: the only person I get to make choices for is myself.