What is Co-Dependency?
Essential Healing for Families
Codependency is a relationship pattern found between individuals and within families most often when there is active addiction or other mental health issues. Those who are intimately involved with someone struggling with a substance use issue are most likely to fall into this type of connection. Often times there are multiple addictions connected to co-dependency including: alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, sex or another process addiction.
A pattern of unhealthy coping habits is generally established over a long period of time and is typically subconscious behavior. This makes it difficult for those involved to recognize or see objectively. Both people involved in the co-dependent relationship will partake in behaviors that are uncharacteristic of them under other circumstances. Its common for the co-dependent person in the relationship to attempt to diminish their anxiety and lack of control over the situation by trying to appease, “help” or “control” the actions of the loved one with an addiction. Unfortunately, attempts to help often enable and perpetuate the illness.
While the person with the substance use disorder may be obsessed and fixated on their addiction, the co-dependent is obsessed and fixated on the relationship. Both the addict and the co-dependent lose sight of self and become ultra- sensitive to one another’s behaviors. Invariably there are one or more co-dependent relationships in the life of someone with a substance use disorder.
In recovery, our clients begin to look at their part in the unhealthy relationship patterns that have been established. They gain insight and tools for navigating relationship hurdles that will hinder their recovery. It is essential that the family and loved ones who have been engaged in a relationship with the person in recovery also examine their part in the illness. Understanding the dynamic that has taken place is critical for growth. Setting healthy boundaries and establishing new relational expectations is key to the healing of all involved.
Clients at Safe Harbor will be working hard to understand themselves and their behaviors. We strongly encourage loved ones to seek support for themselves. In addition to receiving guidance from our Case Managers and Therapists, we encourage loved ones to explore outside resources to process, understand and educate themselves. Support groups, workshops, books and literature, 12-step fellowships including CODA and ALANON, therapy and spiritual guidance are all methods that can help. Our team will assist those in need with finding the best resources available to them.
Codependency occurs when an individual is trapped in a faulty, one-sided relationship whereby one partner is reliant on the other for satisfying all self-esteem and emotional requirements 1 . This term is also used to describe a union which enables one individual to keep up their underachieving, irresponsible, or addictive behavior. A person who expends all their energy trying to meet the needs of their partner is most likely trapped in a codependent relationship. Moreover, this sort of relationship involves one of the partners continuously making sacrifices to keep the relationship going. Codependency has initially been used to describe the spouses of people with alcohol use disorders. It has since been revealed that the condition is prevalent among the general population. It is difficult to assess just how widespread codependency is but it has been estimated that more than 90% of Americans manifest codependent characters 1.
It is fine for individuals to please people they care about but people who are codependent often feel like they do not have a choice. Uttering the word “No” makes them feel anxious which makes them say “Yes” to everybody 2. In the process, they end up sacrificing their needs to make other people happy. Codependent people often do not like to disappoint other people or hurt their feelings. Moreover, they always want to appear to be in their best behavior. As such, they think that they will appear to be rude by saying “No” 2 . Such individuals may end up pleasing everybody around them but they mortgage their dreams and aspirations in the process. According to psychologists, saying “No” is actually a difficult task that affects many people. Women, in particular, find it difficult to say “no” to men since they do not want any frictions in their relationships 2.
Boundaries refer to an imaginary line that separates an individual from others. It circumscribes what belongs to an individual and what does not. This distinction applies to a person’s belongings, money, and body. It also stretches to abstracts phenomena such as needs, thoughts, and feelings . In the case of codependent individuals, the boundaries that they have set for themselves are weak or blurry. They can feel responsible for the problems or feelings of other people or can blame others for their own. For some, the boundaries are rigid which makes it difficult for people to gain access to them. In some cases, people switch between weak and rigid boundaries. It is difficult for codependents to set effective boundaries since they place the needs and feelings of others before theirs. Moreover, they believe that setting boundaries can harm relationships.
Emotional reactivity is one of the consequences of having poor boundaries. It happens when one reacts to every thought or feeling of others. A codependent individual might take the opinions of other people personally and, therefore, get easily spooked 1. If someone tells them something that they do not agree with, they either believe it or get defensive. Codependent individuals readily agree with the opinions of others since they lack strong personal beliefs. Even if they do, they are too afraid to upload them because they do not want to upset the relationship. Wives of someone with a substance use disorder have been shown to have a higher level of agreeableness compared to other women 3. Since they lack a boundary, they fail to realize that different people have different opinions hence they should not be threatened by disagreements. Emotional reactivity makes codependents emotionally labile.
Another outcome of having poor boundaries is a constant need to help others when they have problems. This causes people to neglect their needs and focus on others to avoid feeling guilty. It is natural and right for people to feel sympathy and empathy for others. However, codependency looks like putting the needs of other people above their own. A strong desire to help results in a scenario where they feel bad if other people reject their help. In addition, a codependent individual keeps trying to assist or fix another individual, even if the other person is not taking their counsel 1. In some cases, codependents tie their self-worth to their capacity to be needed. This form of codependency is particularly prevalent between a parent and their children. As children grow, parents need to respect their boundaries and avoid becoming overbearing. In most cases, however, parents continue to intrude unnecessarily into the lives of their children, offering to help even when it is not warranted.
A constant need to control people around them makes codependents feel safe and secure. It is true that a degree of control over events is essential in the life of everyone. It does not feel nice to live a life full of chaos and uncertainty. However, codependents have a strong desire for control that they find it difficult to take risks or spread their feelings and emotions 1. In some cases, they are addicted to something like alcohol which helps them open up or work which ties their feelings on a leash. These addictions enable them not to feel powerless in close relations.
Codependent people may find it difficult to communicate their feelings, thoughts, and needs properly. This problem stems from struggling to know what they want, feel, or think. In some cases, a codependent might be aware of their feelings but fail to communicate how they feel. Codependents are not bold enough to state unequivocally what they think since they do not want to upset other people. Instead of saying something like, “ I do not like that,” it’s common for a codependent partner to pretend that everything is okay 2. This dishonesty creates a situation where communication is blurry and confusing. It can also create a gap for manipulation or blackmail.
Most people become stressed when their relationships encounter issues. As such, it is only natural for people to work to sustain a relationship. However, a codependent individual may go to extreme levels to ensure that a relationship does not fail. As such, the end up expending too much energy, effort, attention, and time to make sure it succeeds. They may spend a considerable amount of their time obsessing over what went wrong and possible mistakes that they could have made. Instead of moving on with their lives, they keep on focusing on their mistakes or failed relationships 1.
Codependent individuals struggle to receive instead of give. They do not feel comfortable receiving something in the form of a compliment, gift, or kind gesture from others. Instead, they prefer to be the ones dishing out favors. More than 50% of individuals with this characteristic tend to come from homes where everything was closely controlled or monitored. Its common to grow up in this environment feeling that they have to be perfect to please the people around them. They fear that if they do not conduct themselves in a perfect manner, they will lose the love, affection, or approval of others. In other words, they do everything in their power to be liked by the people around them.
One of the issues that face codependent individuals is that they tend to be in denial. As such, they continue to complain or try to fix other people, or move from one job or relationship to another 1. They may never admit that they may be having problems. Moreover, codependents do not acknowledge their needs and feelings. Even when it comes to needs, they focus on the needs of others instead of theirs. Therefore, they may be in denial of their right to autonomy and space 1. As much as some codependents may appear to be needy, others behave as if they are self-sufficient and, therefore, do not need help. As a result, some struggle to reach out and find it uncomfortable when offered help.
Codependents have a tendency to confuse love and pity which gives them an ingrained tendency to “love” people who they can pity or rescue from their misery 1. They often have the right intentions which drive them to try and look after a partner who is going through hard times. However, this caretaking often morphs into a compulsive situation and becomes self-defeating. In most situations, codependents wear a martyr’s coat and act as benefactors to a person that needs help. For example, a wife can cover an alcoholic partner or a parent can shield a truant child from punishment. A recent study reveals that one in eight adults in America is an alcoholic, which translates to 12.7% of the general population 7. This figure is significant enough to demonstrate that a large number of Americans are stuck in relationships with alcoholics.
A myriad of factors leads to codependents having an eternal fear of abandonment. Their insecurity and fear of being alone force them to do everything in their power to keep up their relationships. Their low self-esteem makes them feel uncomfortable being on their own, hence the constant need to be in a relationship. Moreover, their inability to say “no” means that they desire to be loved rather than rejected 2. They get their power from the approval of others rather approving themselves. Also, they have a strong desire to be in control of others. As such, if they get abandoned, they will lose this power of control. Even in relationships, codependents are constantly afraid that their partners might leave at any moment. They do not have the self-esteem required for them to feel constantly loved. This deficiency causes them to become more possessive.
Why Codependent Relationships Form
The trauma theory is one of the explanations put forth to describe the origins of codependency. Trauma can be environmental, physical, or emotional and is usually etched in a person’s childhood experiences 8. The experiences that an individual goes through during childhood have a significant impact on a person since children tend to have weaker coping mechanisms compared to adults.
A deeper analysis of codependents reveals that they tend to come from dysfunctional families which affect them physically and mentally. For instance, codependents may have grown up in an environment where they were punished for trying to express their thoughts and feelings or were simply ignored.
Moreover, events such as the death of a parent, illness, or divorce might leave an indelible mark on codependents 8. As such, this may lead to not trusting anyone as they grow up. They may take on the domineering characters of their parents, making them controlling as well.
Codependency is a trait that is generally passed from one generation to the next 8. This means codependents trace most of the traits from the relationship with their parents. Parents may a central role in shaping how their children come to identify. As such, the nature of parental relationships affects how children develop values, identity, and ability to communicate. 8
Children require adequate attention, devotion, and parental guidance to grow into strong and secure adults. As such, it is critical for parents to spend a good deal of time encouraging their children to explore life and have a strong belief in themselves. Moreover, it is important for them to ensure that their children feel secure, loved, and accepted. In the case of codependents, the relationship that they have with their parents is often tumultuous. They either have parents who are too controlling or parents who are physically and emotionally distant. As such, they grow up without adequate confidence which makes them insecure and codependent.