Behavioral health conditions affect a person’s ability to maintain a normal quality of life. In some instances, behavioral health conditions result in personality disorders that markedly affect a person’s ability to relate to others. Codependency is a type of psychological construct that affects a person’s relationship with others, usually focused on one person or family unit.
Codependency is a term originally used to describe those in relationships that involved substance abuse. Modern definitions of the term have evolved to encompass a wide range of situations. On the whole, codependency involves two parties: the codependent and the enabler. The codependent, in the simplest sense, depends on the enabler to structure their identity. However, this extends further to depending on a person in a physical, emotional, or financial sense. A true codependent will lose his or her entire self-worth and self-perception to another person. The enabler becomes the entire reason for existing. As a common consequence of being codependent, affected individuals neglect to care for themselves because they are so focused on prioritizing the needs of the enabler. In other words, a codependent person’s happiness revolves completely around another person’s needs, even if those needs are unreasonable.
How to Recognize a Codependent Relationship
It’s important to realize that no two codependent relationships are the same. Each relationship is unique and presents its own challenges. However, there may be common threads that signal a relationship is codependent. Keep the following signs and symptoms in mind.
A Codependent and an Enabler
Codependent relationships have both a codependent and an enabler. Codependents build an entire existence dedicated to serving others, focusing on fulfilling their every need or want. They sacrifice everything – including their own well-being – to fulfill the wishes of others. Outsiders to the relationship might call the codependent a martyr.
The following are common behaviors of the codependent:
- A misplaced responsibility for the actions of others
- Confusing love with pity
- Doing more than their “fair share”
- Becoming hurt when others don’t recognize their efforts
- Depending too heavily on interpersonal relationships and fearing abandonment
- Need to control others
- Lacking in trust for those outside the relationship
- Lying/dishonesty to “preserve” the relationship
- Poor communication skills
- Struggles to make decisions
- Difficulty with change
The other party in the relationship is the enabler, the person who allows these feelings to continue, whether or not intentionally. Since enabling and codependency are closely linked, it can be difficult to separate the distinction between the two. As such, it is more helpful to think of enabling as part of codependency.
In a positive sense, we think of “enabling” someone as giving them the tools to help themselves, e.g., teaching a man to fish. However, in the realm of codependency, enabling is negative. It prevents the codependent from making progress and growing as a person, and it breeds resentment in the enabler – even if the enabler loves the codependent.
Examples of Codependency
The distinction between dependence and codependency is an important one. In a healthy relationship, two people are dependent on one another. They rely on each other emotionally for support, but they have their own interests and successes. In a codependent relationship, there is little distinction between the two parties. The following examples help illustrate the difference between healthy dependence and unhealthy codependency:
- In a dependent relationship, both parties make working on their relationship a priority, but they are free to pursue other interests and hobbies. In a codependent relationship, the codependent does not have any interests or values outside the relationship.
- In a dependent relationship, both parties express their needs and wants in relation to one another. In a codependent relationship, the codependent feels his or her needs are unimportant. It may be difficult for the enabler to identify the codependent’s needs or wants regarding the relationship.
- In a dependent relationship, two people are bound together by mutual respect and love. Both find value in the relationship. In a codependent relationship, the codependent only feels worthy when making sacrifices, sometimes extreme ones, for the enabler.
The Relationship between Codependency and Addiction
Addiction often plays a role in a codependent relationship. Codependency does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with substance use disorders, but the original iteration of the term was to recognize the destructive relationships that often occur when someone in the family struggles with drug dependence. Codependency often occurs in people who are in relationships, manifesting itself in several different forms:
- Partners with someone who struggles with a substance use disorder
- Children of someone with a substance use disorder
- Parents of a child with a substance use disorder
Frequently, children grow up to be codependent when raised by a parent or caretaker who struggled with addiction. This is often because of dysfunctional family roles. Rather than growing, learning, or “being a kid,” these children take care of their parent or make money to maintain the household. They may have heard they were “selfish” when they tended to their own needs, setting the groundwork for later codependency.
The professionals at Family First Intervention often see a history of emotional abuse in codependent adults, though physical abuse may have been present as well. Above all, it is important to understand the role addiction and dysfunctional family roles can have in the development of codependency.
Myths of Codependency
Unfortunately, myths about codependency abound. Oftentimes, people misconstrue behavioral health conditions and distort the definition to make a point in casual conversation. A good example is someone (who does not have OCD) looks at a messy room and makes the offhand comment, “I couldn’t live like that – I am too OCD.” A person truly struggling with obsessions or compulsions would understand just how erroneous and hurtful that seemingly offhand comment is. Similarly, people tend to use the term “codependent” lightly. When someone takes an issue regarding something his or her partner is doing, a response might be, “He [or she] is so codependent.”
True codependence is more than simply “needing someone to be around.” We all rely on our interpersonal relationships. A relationship becomes truly codependent when one party cannot conceive of a reality without the other in it. This notion progresses to the point where the codependent, fearing abandonment, will go to any length to keep the enabler in his or her life.
How to Stop Being Codependent
True codependence is the result of a complex interaction between two people, their environment, their upbringing, and several other factors. As such, it is not as simple as recognizing there is a problem and stopping it in its tracks. Understanding the depth of the issue is an important precursor to recovery, but it is only the first step. There are several ways to learn how to stop being codependent..
Take an Honest Inventory of the Relationship
Based on what you’ve learned about codependent relationships so far, do you notice any red flags? Does your partner or loved one exhibit any signs of being codependent? By allowing yourself some introspection, you can better decide how to proceed with the information you have.
Understand the Impact a Codependent Relationship Has on Your Life
Remember the difference between a dependent relationship and a codependent one. In a dependent or mutually beneficial relationship, both individuals find value, grow, and pursue their own interests. In a codependent relationship, the overall effect of the relationship is negative. It stymies the growth of the individuals and can breed both resentment and desperation over time.
Only you can be responsible for your own actions. A codependent frequently tries to take responsibility for the feelings and shortcomings of others, even when unfounded or unmerited. An enabler often allows this to happen, often without realizing it. Remind your partner that your feelings are your own – you control them, as you do your own destiny. Telling a codependent that you are responsible for your emotions and shortcomings can help break the cycle.
Seek Professional Help If Necessary
In many cases, a codependent relationship will not improve without professional intervention. Remember that dysfunctional family roles and the childhood presence of parental addiction can play a role in the development of codependent adults. These are deep-seated psychological constructs that a true codependent may have trouble coming to terms with.
Codependent behaviors may require targeted professional help in the form of cognitive behavioral therapy and counseling. The codependent needs to understand the nature of these feelings, how they evolved, and to learn compensatory strategies when they arise. This process requires the assistance of a trained professional.
Do You Need Professional Help for Codependence?
Codependence is the mark of an unhealthy relationship in which neither partner benefits. If you are unhappy in your relationship and these signs and symptoms seem familiar, you could be in a codependent relationship. Given that a wide range of factors contribute to feelings of codependency, professional help is often needed to elevate the relationship to a healthy, mutually beneficial place.
Is an intervention necessary? Take the quiz. Family First intervention services take a holistic view of your relationship and apply evidence-based practices to get you on the road to codependence recovery.