The Difference Between Compassion and Codependency

All relationships are going to have friction and conflict. There’s no way to avoid that. But one of the ways that relationships get stuck is when we try to avoid the disagreements and conflicts. It happens all the time:

  • “I don’t want to say anything and make my partner angry.”
  • “It’s not a big deal. I’ll just clean the mess/run the errands/be ok with what they’re doing.”
  • “I really don’t mind. There’s no point in making waves.”

There are a lot of reasons you might avoid conflict. Maybe you never learned how to talk about your feelings. Maybe you’ve had experiences with past partners or your current one that taught you that it isn’t safe to express anger. Maybe you grew up in an abusive family, where disagreement led to yelling or getting hit. Maybe you don’t know how to recognize your anger when it happens. Maybe you were taught to smile and pretend that everything is fine. Maybe you were taught to swallow your pain and hide it in order to survive. Maybe you feel so much discomfort when you witness someone else’s pain that you feel like you have to “fix” it. Maybe you were taught to put someone else’s wants ahead of your needs.

These kinds of patterns show up in a lot of people’s lives. There are some gendered trends, too. In many families and cultures, girls and women are taught to take care of everyone else first, which usually means that their needs never get addressed. And there are different ways that various families and cultures talk about (or don’t talk about) anger. While it’s definitely worth looking at how those larger patterns have shaped your life, I talk to people of lots of different genders and from lots of different backgrounds who face some of the same struggles.

Friction Happens

The problem with avoiding conflict is that the difficult situations are still going to happen. In his book, The Science of Trust, John Gottman points out that in happy relationships, we’re friends who sometimes annoy each other. In unhappy relationships, we become enemies. One way that relationships slide into the unhappy category is when we avoid conflict and let the anger crystallize into resentment. Once it does, it becomes difficult (more often, impossible) to open up, to share your thoughts and feelings, and to allow yourself to be intimate and vulnerable with your partner. When you’re holding back your anger and feeling resentment, the sexual connection suffers or disappears because hiding the anger also puts the brakes on the erotic energy. As Brene Brown observes, you can’t numb just one emotion. It’s hard to open up to someone else when you’re pretending that you aren’t feeling anger towards them.

In some of the communities I move through, I see plenty of people avoid talking about the things that bother them by framing it in terms of compassion. They seem to think that speaking compassionately means never saying something that will lead the other person to feel sad or hurt or upset. But there’s a word for it when we try to protect someone from ever feeling bad: codependency.

Codependency is all about rescuing the other person from their feelings. It’s deciding what to do or say in order to make sure the other person doesn’t feel upset or angry or scared. It’s taking responsibility for their emotions instead of trusting them to be able to take care of their own experience. It’s about losing your individuality and your sense of self in someone else.

We often slip into codependency because we think it’s a good way to protect ourselves from the other person’s emotions and negative reactions. In effect, we don’t trust them to be able to manage their feelings, so we try to do it for them. That’s a fine way to take care of a young child and it’s part of how children learn emotional self-regulation. But when we do it to an adult, we keep the other person from being their full self. And when we call it compassion, we allow ourselves to pretend that it’s an effective way to support a relationship. The irony is that we end up weakening the relationship. Sometimes, we create the very situation we’re trying to avoid.

This is a very different thing than when we need to manage other people’s feelings because they might lash out, become violent, or act abusively. If you genuinely can’t trust someone to self-regulate their emotions enough to keep from becoming abusive and you can’t get away from them, managing their feelings can become a survival skill.

The Meaning of Compassion

Compassion is a very different thing. The original definition of the word is “to suffer together.” While I think that there’s some truth to the adage that pain is inevitable while suffering is optional, it seems to me that real compassion means hearing someone when they’re feeling hurt or scared or angry or upset and being there in the emotion with them.

Compassion isn’t about being nice and avoiding conflict. It means being in the conflict together. Compassion is when you see their sadness, their anger, their fear, and their pain, while speaking your truth with care (and without attacking or shaming them). Part of that is bearing witness to their discomfort and pain without trying to fix it for them. Compassion doesn’t mean coddling them or protecting them from the emotions. It means holding space for the feelings and allowing the other person to be strong enough to go on that ride with you.

Compassion also means allowing them to see how you feel. It’s being vulnerable with your heart, without dumping your emotions all over them or expecting them to fix them. Compassion is when you hold space for the other person, while they also hold space for you. That doesn’t have to be simultaneous- it can be difficult to do both jobs at the same time. But it does mean that you get your turn, too. If it’s only flowing in one direction, that’s not enough. Compassion needs to be given and received for it to work. (That might not be true in all situations, but I think it applies in interpersonal relationships.)

That’s not an easy thing to do. Learning to “fight fair” means discovering how to share your feelings with another person without attacking, blaming, or shaming them. It’s talking about your own experience and holding both yourself and them accountable for any choices or actions that led to the situation. It means recognizing the stories you make up about what’s going on and being open to hearing other interpretations and perspectives. It’s about not taking their emotions on, even when they want you to, and it’s about not demanding that they take your feelings on. It requires you to speak your truth with as much kindness and strength as you can, even when you’re calling someone in, and it asks you to hear their stories with an open heart. It means owning your own feelings, instead of blaming your partner for them. It’s the difference between “you made me feel this way” and “you did this thing, I think it means X, and that’s why I feel Y.” It’s learning how to not rescue the other person from their discomfort and pain and not looking for them to rescue you from yours. And it’s giving them the opportunity to ask for what they need, while also doing the same.

Given how difficult all of that is, it’s hardly a surprise that so many relationships shift towards codependency. It takes a lot of practice to be able to be in connection with someone, to be in the place of compassion and “suffering” together, to hold each other accountable with care, and maintain your individuality.

Tolerating the Discomfort

While there are a lot of different perspectives on codependency and how to move away from it, I find that most of them have at least one commonality. The ability to tolerate the discomfort of difficult feelings (both yours and the other person’s) is the foundation for being able to be in compassion. If you can’t make room for those uncomfortable times, the only thing you can do is avoid them.

One of my teachers pointed out that friction is what creates the spark that lights a fire. It’s the polishing of a rock into a gem. It’s the challenge that lets us grow. A relationship without friction stagnates. If you can reframe how you think about friction and allow those moments to be part of how you help your relationship thrive, you can find the sweet spot that you need rather than trying to avoid all conflict.

Tolerating emotional discomfort is a lot like tolerating physical discomfort when you’re working out. It’s not exactly fun, and when you’re starting out, it seems impossible. But with time, familiarity, and practice, you might get to the point where you see how the distress becomes manageable because you know that it’s in service to something important.

It takes experience to learn what kinds of discomfort help you get stronger, and what kinds cause injury. One way to approach that is to think about times when relationship difficulties led to a stronger bond, deeper intimacy, or new ways of dealing with challenges. It’s easy to forget about those experiences, so it can be helpful to call them to mind.

That can be tricky when both people in a relationship are in the middle of the unease because nobody is available to hold space for the other one. In the short term, it can be helpful to have a therapist, coach, or counselor to facilitate that. Over time, it’s possible to get to a place where you can take turns holding space for each other.

None Of This Is Easy

Learning how to step away from codependency isn’t easy. It takes a lot of emotional self-regulation to be able to be present with challenging emotions and not disengage from or rescue the other person. It takes a lot of skill to name what you feel without turning that into a demand. Since we each carry different emotional stories, attachment patterns, and histories of pain, challenge, and trauma, there isn’t a single solution to this. So healing and learning new tools will be different for each of us.

This isn’t something you can do by reading about it. Don’t get me wrong- there are lots of excellent resources out there and plenty of great books. But reading about relationships is like reading about cooking. It’ll give you some ideas, but it won’t get you fed unless you get into the kitchen and try it.

Moving from codependency into compassion is about how you are in relationship, which means you have to learn it in relationship. That doesn’t mean you have to have a partner to do the work. A coach, therapist or counselor is a big help there. In fact, even if you are in a relationship, there are things you can’t learn with your partner. You sometimes need to try them out with someone else before you try them at home. Plus, it can be a big help to share your story with someone who isn’t part of the pattern, and get their reflections and feedback. In some ways, it’s more difficult to do this work when you have a partner because you’ll occasionally set each other off.

I think that the most important thing we can do is recognize that any of us can slip into codependent patterns. They’re sneaky, especially since they often arise when we’re stressed out or having difficult feelings. And the flip side to that is that we can learn new ways of connecting with our emotions and with other people. When we do, part of the payoff is that we can be in genuine compassion without sacrificing our needs. And that is a much stronger foundation for happy relationships and amazing sex lives.

As a coach, I work with a lot of people to help them find new ways to create the relationships that support them and help them thrive. Get in touch with me to schedule a free Get Acquainted call and let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.