We have had Taylor Swift’s newest album, “The Tortured Poet’s Department: The Anthology,” (TTPD) for over a fortnight now (two weeks for those who did google the word as soon as the song came out) and I have listened to it a truly amazing amount. Each time I listened to this 31 track album, I found new themes, new favorite tracks, and truly appreciated the way the songs fit together to tell a narrative about love, loss, and fame. Needless to say, I became a huge fan of this album, and it is undoubtedly in my top three of Taylor’s works. The fun thing about being a therapist is that there comes a point where, if you have consumed something enough, your, “fan,” or, “civilian,” hat falls off, and your counselor hat sneakily slides back on. That is precisely what happened around my tenth listening of TTPD – my relationship counselor hat came out, and I began noticing messages in these songs that I have seen in session and in the continuing education I have done for my field.

One theme which I could not ignore was that of codependency, and how many (if not all the songs) from TTPD seem to capture the experience of being in a codependent relationship and/or trying to leave a codependent relationship. With this in mind, I have decided to share my observations with you all. A brief note before we begin – I obviously am not Taylor Swift’s counselor and have no idea if this was her intended meaning from the songs, so please remain mindful of your own interpretations as well. This blog can thus serve as an added piece to your enjoyment (and dissection) of the album.

What even is Codependency?

Before we dive into TTPD it is important to first have an understanding of what I mean when I say “codependent.” I think this word, for better or worse, has made its way into the pop culture lexicon, yet many of us still cannot offer a firm definition of what exactly it is. For that, we turn to one of my favorite discussions on codependency, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, by Melody Beattie (I would highly recommend reading this if you think you may be struggling with codependency). In the book, Beattie describes the codependent person as one, “who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” This other person can be anyone in our lives: a friend, a partner or a child. Although a lot of discussion about codependency started in the substance use field, the other person can be struggling with anything, or nothing in particular. When looking at codependency, the focus is often placed on that other person. However, the core of codependent behavior is in the person who lets others affect them so deeply and, in return, try to change, affect, and control others. I know – this definition might seem harsh. You might think, “Taylor, aren’t we supposed to care for the people in our life and want the best for them?” My answer – yes of course! However, codependency often takes this natural desire a step further, and turns us into reactionary creatures whose lives are completely determined by the actions of others. These experiences are not usually satisfactory or safe, hence why we place such importance on developing healthier relationships that are not necessarily based on codependency.

“The Tortured Poet’s Department” (Taylor’s Version)

Now that we have a basic understanding of codependency, it is time to take a look at some examples from TTPD! Below, see the top 15 TTPD lyrics featuring themes related to codependency, as well as a brief explanation of how it ties into the codependent experience.

Content Warning: Language and exploration discussing suicide and/or self-harm behaviors

  1. “I love you, it’s ruining my life” from “Fortnight”
    What a perfect song to begin this discussion with, and I could not think of a better quote to sum up the experience of being codependent. For many people experiencing codependency, there is real love present in the relationship. Whether the codependent relationship be with their child, partner, or friend, it usually started out of genuine care and concern for that person. However, the dynamics of a codependent relationship can at times push us to a place we don’t recognize and can have long term effects on our well-being. For some people, a codependent relationship can lead to more noticeable implications such as job loss, constricting social circles, or body breakdown (bodies tend to demand rest when we refuse to give it). For others, the impact of being in a codependent relationship is less noticeable but just as damaging. One may look like the person who has everything together and doesn’t need help, but in reality they are struggling to accept help from others and, due to this, are feeling burnt out and experiencing feelings of isolation. In short, codependency, although starting in a place of care, can often spiral out of control, and leave you feeling as though codependent patterns are ruining your life.
  2. “Sometimes, I wonder if you’re gonna screw this up with me / But you told Lucy you’d kill yourself if I ever leave / And I had said that to Jack about you, so I felt seen” – from “The Tortured Poet’s Department”
    A trademark of a codependent relationship is difficulty with communication. Difficulties in communication can span a wide range of concerns, from difficulties communicating emotions to becoming overwhelmed and shutting down during a conversation. However, a common communication issue that is seen in codependent relationships is a difficulty being direct and assertive. Sometimes, when direct and assertive communication is not a skill someone possesses, they may resort to manipulative language instead. This use of manipulative language can come from many places. Sometimes it comes from a desire to please people, or to not make waves, and can take the form of saying what others want to hear. Other times, it can be more direct and take the form of blame, guilt, and shame towards their partners. This removes the risk of advocating for oneself while still communicating the hurt one may be experiencing. The threat to harm oneself is this manipulation on an extreme level – in this lyric, instead of voicing one’s concerns about their partner leaving them (which is a form of advocating for self) they are threatening to hurt themself if their partner leaves. This demonstrates a tendency to guilt the partner into staying without the other partner needing to use their skills. Please note that a partner threatening to harm themselves if you leave is also a sign of emotional/psychological abuse and, if this is happening in your relationship, receive support immediately.
  3. “Put me back on my shelf / But first – Pull the string / And I’ll tell you that he runs / Because he loves me.” – from “My Boy Only Breaks His Favorite Toys”
    A common characteristic of a codependent person is reactivity. Reactivity includes being very sensitive to other’s feelings, needs, problems, opinions, wants, and more. Oftentimes, a codependent person may take these other people’s experiences and make them their own. When this happens, a codependent person is no longer rooted in their own sense of identity, and instead is taking on another person’s wishes and sense of self. In this lyric, we see Swift describing herself as a toy her partner plays with – he pulls her string and she recites the justification he gives – that he leaves because he loves her. This is the experience of many reactive people – they are wound up by the person they are codependent on and take on their beliefs and thoughts.
  4. “What if I can’t have him / I might just die, it would make no difference.” – from “Down Bad”
    Something people struggling with codependency can often face is low self worth. This can take various forms, and may not be as obvious as we think. Of course, low self worth can take the form of degrading statements towards ourselves, self-harm, or letting ourselves be hurt by others. Other times, however, people you wouldn’t suspect also are experiencing low self worth – maybe it’s in the form of overworking because we feel we don’t deserve peace, or maybe it’s the person who always seems confident and is bragging about their accomplishments but, in reality, they only do this because they want external validation. For those experiencing codependency, low self worth usually comes in the form of having difficulties prioritizing your wants, needs, desires, and life in general. The relationship, and sometimes the other person, become the center of the world, and one might feel selfish for putting themselves before that. In “Down Bad,” Taylor sings of wanting the relationship so bad that, if she can’t have it, her life means so little she might as well die.
  5. “My spine split from carrying us up the hill / Wet through my clothes, weary bones caught the chill / I stopped trying to make him laugh / Stopped trying to drill the safe” – from “So Long, London”
    Listening to this song, specifically this lyric, is what inspired me to write this blog. Although this lyric holds a special amount of meaning, I think this whole song can really sum up the codependent experience, especially healing from codependently supporting a partner. When a person is codependently supporting their partner, oftentimes they take on more responsibility than they can bear. In general, when we discuss responsibility in sessions, we like to highlight that a person is only responsible for their behaviors, feelings, and thoughts, and they cannot control anyone else’s. In a codependent relationship, this barrier gets blurred, and the codependent partner may try to control and “fix” their partner’s behaviors or feelings or take full responsibility for making the relationship “work.” In this song, it seems as though the narrator wore themselves out trying to make the relationship work and make their partner feel better. In the last line the narrator engages in loving detachment (discussed more later!) and relinquishes that control over their partner.
  6. “My friends tried, but I wouldn’t hear it / Watch me daily disappearing / For just one glimpse of his smile” – from “Fresh out The Slammer”
    For people on the outside who have witnessed a loved one being involved in a codependent relationship, the worst part can be watching their friend slowly fade away. In a codependent relationship, a process of enmeshment occurs. Enmeshment is when the boundaries between two or more people become diffuse or even non-existent – a relationship loses some necessary separation and they become intertwined with one another. Because of this process of intertwining, an individual can at times become lost in the relationship. They may sacrifice their own needs, wants, interests, and outside worlds to completely focus on their partner and relationship, therefore making it feel as though the individual is truly disappearing. Furthermore, bringing it back to the control aspect discussed in, “So Long London,” at times this disappearing act can be further complicated by the codependent tendency to try and fix a partner; the more involved one gets in trying to help and fix their partner, the less time they have to take care of themselves and tend to their own interests and lives.
  7. “And this city reeks of driving myself crazy” – from “Florida!!!”
    Oftentimes, someone who is codependent may experience an all consuming worry or concern for someone else in their life which goes beyond the typical feelings one may have for a loved one. This worry may border on obsession and often comes from a false belief that, “If I worry enough or care enough, something will change.” Unfortunately, that is very seldom the case, and this worrying can lead to the person becoming trapped in their own head and detaching from their own needs. It can feel as though you are “driving yourself crazy,” through the anxiety and worry you may be experiencing on a daily basis.
  8. “Am I allowed to cry?” – from “Guilty as Sin?”
    A central part of healing for many people in a codependent relationship is learning to feel their own emotions and allowing themselves the time and space to experience these emotions. In a codependent relationship, as mentioned previously, a partner often becomes intertwined with their partner’s emotions and puts most of their focus on their partner’s emotions and well being. In doing this, a codependent partner can suppress their own emotions and assume their emotions are unimportant in comparison to their partners. As a codependent person begins to heal, they will slowly begin letting their own emotions through – and that can start by asking themselves and giving themselves permission to cry and feel grief. An exercise to help with letting those emotions in is to practice noticing your feelings. This can look like stopping at random times of the day and doing a check in on what emotions and feelings are happening in that moment.
  9. “I was tame, I was gentle ’til the circus life made me mean / Don’t you worry, folks, we took out all her teeth” – from “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?”
    If you want a good look at rage, DEFINITELY check out, “Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?” The whole song captures the feeling of being twisted into an angry person that you, by nature, are not. As mentioned previously, some core concepts of codependency are trying to people please others and control others to make the other person behave better or, “fix.” the relationship. These patterns of behavior can lead codependent people to expect other people to make them happy, agree to things they don’t want to, have undisclosed expectations of other people, fear confrontation, or deny or devalue our needs. These actions put the responsibility for the codependents’ well-being on another person which then leads to the codependent person being let down and not having their needs met. This can further lead to feeling angry, victimized, unappreciated, uncared for, and powerless which can blossom into feelings of anger and resentment.
  10. “But your good Lord doesn’t need to lift a finger / I can fix him, no, really I can / And only I can” – from “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)”
    No notes – just listen to this whole song. Pay special attention to the last line, where the narrator comes to a stunning realization. It’s time to put newfound insights and information related to codependency into action!
  11. “Who’s gonna stop us from waltzing / Back into rekindled flames?” from “loml”
    A pattern that can often be seen in codependent relationships is an, “off and on again,” pattern where one partner leaves, and the other may make every effort possible to bring the other partner back. This can look like begging or pleading, becoming inconsolable, trying to make a partner feel responsible for and guilty about the breakup, coming up with things that could be done differently in the relationship so repeated retries happen, becoming seductive in the hopes that sex could keep things going, and much more. This leads to an unsustainable relationship pattern where relationships keep dancing in unhealthy flames.
  12. “You needed me, but you needed drugs more / And I couldn’t watch it happen” – from “Chloe or Sam or Sophia or Marcus”
    This is an interesting lyric as it points to a needed step in healing from codependency and points to the history of codependency. Codependency was first introduced in reference to the partners of people who were using substances. It was conceptualized to address the fact that family members of those who use substances often exhibit similar side effects as those who were using, and end up feeling their lives were out of control and littered with obstacles and losses. This term has been expanded to include anyone who feels as though their life is out of control and tied to another person’s, but understanding the roots of the term can help us better understand what codependency is.
  13. “A feather taken by the wind blowing / I’m afflicted by the not knowing so” – from “I Look in People’s Windows”
    We now return to the idea of being reactionary (or reactive, whichever best floats your boat). Previously when we discussed reactivity, the focus was on absorbing other people’s feelings and experiences and making them your own. This lyric captures a different aspect of being reactionary – being blown by every wind or, in more grounded terms, letting anything and/or everything throw you off the course you want to be on. In a codependent relationship, this can look like vastly changing your plans, life, goals, etc., to accommodate for something that is happening at the moment. It can also look like letting ourselves sink into every emotion someone has. When this happens, the codependent person begins to forfeit their ability and right to think independently and make decisions, and instead ends up tossed about in whatever waves life throws at them instead of sailing out of the storm in a boat. A huge part of recovering from a codependent relationship is giving yourself the space and trust to make your own decisions.
  14. “They say, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you aware’ / What happens if it becomes who you are?” – from “Cassandra”
    Here is a wonderful quote from Codependent No More; “The surest way to make ourselves crazy is to get involved in other people’s business, and the quickest way to become sane and happy is to tend to our own affairs.” Although Beattie may be a bit blunt in this quote, she is making a valuable point about a codependent relationship that is echoed in “Cassandra” – sometimes someone can get so intertwined in a codependent relationship that it becomes who they are. Codependent relationships come with pain, turmoil, and vast ups and downs. Sometimes, individuals may start to believe that that is all they are – their fear and pain. They may also falsely believe that a life without the extreme highs and lows isn’t worth living. All of these implant the false belief that life, and the person in the relationship, isn’t real or worth exploring on its own. This simply isn’t true, and can keep people in dangerous or unhealthy situations. A first step to escaping this mindset is taking time by yourself and listing to what YOUR personal needs are. Note – I said YOUR needs. These needs cannot be, “I need my partner to do more dishes,” or, “I need my kid to call me back more.” We can’t control other people, remember? So, instead focus on what you as an individual needs. Maybe you need to feel safer in your relationship. Maybe you need to regain some control over your child. Maybe, at that moment, you just need a nap. When you have your needs listed, begin acting on them and see what happens.
  15. “Forgive me, Peter, please know that I tried / To hold on (Hold on) to the days (To the days) / When you were mine / But the woman who sits by the window / Has turned out the light” – from “Peter”
    The song, “Peter,” chronicles a Peter Pan love affair, where the narrator was with a partner who continued to make promises to grow and change. However, these promises continually went unfulfilled. Throughout the song the narrator discusses waiting for her partner to come back and tell her all that he had learned and become grounded with her. However, this never happens and, as seen in the lyrics above, she eventually stops waiting. In Codependent No More, the author discusses the art of detaching quite a bit. In short, detachment is the idea that each person is responsible for their own behaviors, and their concerns are not yours to solve. Detachment isn’t cold or heartless, but it is instead often done out of love for yourself and that person. It can involve giving them the freedom to solve their own problems and the codependent partner the freedom to live in their identity in the present. In short, detachment is stopping the waiting by the window and turning out the light, just as the narrator does in Peter.
Now What?

Welcome back from your journey of Taylor Swift quotes – did any stand out? Were there any songs you immediately went and listened to (maybe more than a few times)? The question now: what would I do if these quotes really resonated with me? What do I do if I think I might be in a codependent relationship? Luckily, there are numerous options to help better your life and your relationships.

First, there are many books about codependency which can get you started with your journey – I mentioned Codependent No More a few times here, but there are so many quality books out there which speak to codependency and provide practical steps to begin learning to lovingly detach. Although books are a great start, sometimes we need a little bit more assistance.That is where counseling (individual or relationship) can really come in handy. In individual counseling, you and a counselor could work through any past experiences which put you at risk for being in a codependent relationship, and work to overcome any core beliefs about yourself that may keep you there. As an EMDR therapist, I would guide you through rewriting some of those beliefs about yourself that keep you in unhealthy patterns and help you find new alternate routes of belief. Couples counseling can also be an excellent option to help both partners become aware of the dynamics of the relationship and how each contributes to an unhealthy relationship. I also employ Emotion Focused Therapy where we focus on patterns that cause relationships to get stuck, as well as how our partner’s behavior triggers underlying emotions, fears, and insecurities and how, in return, your behavior may trigger something similar in your partner. Together, we would work to identify the cycle you are trapped in and find ways to escape.

Overall, it is important to know that engaging in codependent behaviors or being in a codependent relationship is not a terminal concern – with work and intention you can grow greatly and discover new aspects of yourself and your relationship. Every individual is Bejeweled; now, it is just about figuring out how you can make the whole place shimmer.