“Codependency can be defined as any relationship in which two people become so invested in each other that they can’t function independently anymore,” Dr. Becker says. “Your mood, happiness, and identity are defined by the other person. In a codependent relationship, there is usually one person who is more passive and can’t make decisions for themselves, and a more dominant personality who gets some reward and satisfaction from controlling the other person and making decisions about how they will live” (Gilbert, 2016).
“Co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Codependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior” (MHA, n.d.).
“Enabling is another sign of an unhealthy codependence,” Mary-Catherine Segota, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Counseling Resource Services in Winter Garden, Florida, describes enabling as “a behavior that’s used to ease relationship tension caused by one person’s problematic habits,” something that’s rarely seen in healthy relationships (Gilbert, 2016).
Who Does Codependency Affect
“Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or co-worker of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family” (MHA, n.d.).
“Codependent personalities usually follow a pattern of behaviors that are consistent, problematic, and directly interfere with the individual’s emotional health and ability to find fulfillment in a relationship. “Signs of codependency include excessive caretaking, controlling, and preoccupation with people and things outside of ourselves,” Says Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, a consultant, educator, and author of numerous books, including Understanding Codependency (Gilbert, 2016).
What is a dysfunctional family and how does it lead to codependency?
A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:
- An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
- The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.
“Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become “survivors.” They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited.
Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When codependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self” (MHA, n.d.).
This can be a child codependent on their parent, or a parent codependent on their child. In the situation where a child has a codependent relationship with their parents, the child sacrifices their own needs and wellbeing in order to have a relationship with their parents. This may mean dismissing their own feelings and needs in order to maintain a relationship with a codependent parent. This parent-child codependency is incredibly common during tumultuous child custody situations where the parent is in need of child custody in order to feel as though they are a worthwhile and capable parent. Children sense the need of their parents to have them around in order to be mentally and emotionally stable, and bend to their will in order to maintain the other individual’s health and happiness.
How do Codependent people behave?
“Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to “be themselves.” Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine – and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity” (MHA, n.d.).
They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need” (MHA, n.d.). This can look like a mother becoming dependent on a child needing them constantly to feel worthy, or a child can become codependent on a mentally ill mother needing them as it makes them feel needed.
“The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships” (MHA, n.d.).
“I am codependent when I deny myself self care.
I am codependent when I rescue others from their poor life choices.
I am codependent when I refuse to address my feelings.
I am codependent when I cater to others while I ignore myself.
I am codependent when I say yes when I mean no.
I am codependednt when I tone myself down because I understand my success will upset those around me.
I am codependent when I do for others out of a need to control how others view me.
I am codependent when I accept unhappiness as my norm.
I am codependent when I stay in unhearlthy relationships even though in my heart I want to move on.
I am codependent when most of my energy is spent worrying more about what people think of me than what I think of me.
I am codependent when I take care of others while I refuse to take care of myself.
I am codependent when I have no clue what I think, feel, or need and live to cater to others instead of focusing on my own life.”
Characteristics of codependent people are:
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
- A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
- A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
- A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
- An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment
- An extreme need for approval and recognition
- A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
- A compelling need to control others
- Lack of trust in self and/or others
- Fear of being abandoned or alone
- Difficulty identifying feelings
- Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
- Problems with intimacy/boundaries
- Chronic anger
- Poor communications
- Difficulty making decisions (MHA, n.d.).
Questionnaire to Identify Signs of Codependency:
This condition appears to run in different degrees, whereby the intensity of symptoms are on a spectrum of severity, as opposed to an all or nothing scale. Please note that only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis of codependency; not everyone experiencing these symptoms suffers from codependency. A copy of this questionnaire can be found at: MHAnational.org
1. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
2. Are you always worried about others’ opinions of you?
3. Have you ever lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem?
4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?
5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?
6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?
7. Do you feel rejected when significant others spend time with friends?
8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?
9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?
10. Have you ever felt inadequate?
11. Do you feel like a “bad person” when you make a mistake?
12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?
13. Do you feel humiliation when your child or spouse makes a mistake?
14. Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?
15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?
16. Do you have difficulty talking to people in authority, such as the police or your boss?
17. Are you confused about who you are or where you are going with your life?
18. Do you have trouble saying “no” when asked for help?
19. Do you have trouble asking for help?
20. Do you have so many things going at once that you can’t do justice to any of them?
If you identify with several of these symptoms; are dissatisfied with yourself or your relationships; you should consider seeking professional help. Arrange for a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed physician or psychologist experienced in treating codependency.
How Is Codependency Treated?
“Because co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood, treatment often involves exploration into early childhood issues and their relationship to current destructive behavior patterns. Treatment includes education, experiential groups, and individual and group therapy through which co-dependents rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behavior patterns. Treatment also focuses on helping patients getting in touch with feelings that have been buried during childhood and on reconstructing family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again” (MHA, n.d.)
When Codependency Hits Home
The first step in changing unhealthy behavior is to understand it. It is important for co-dependents and their family members to educate themselves about the course and cycle of addiction and how it extends into their relationships. Libraries, drug and alcohol abuse treatment centers and mental health centers often offer educational materials and programs to the public.
A lot of change and growth is necessary for the co-dependent and his or her family. Any caretaking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped. The co-dependent must identify and embrace his or her feelings and needs. This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.
Hope lies in learning more. The more you understand co-dependency the better you can cope with its effects. Reaching out for information and assistance can help someone live a healthier, more fulfilling life.
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Additional Resources On Codependency
Mental Health America: Co-Dependency (n.d.) https://www.mhanational.org/issues/co-dependency
Lancer, D., (October 8, 2018), PsychCentral: Symptoms of Codependency https://psychcentral.com/lib/symptoms-of-codependency/
Esposito, L., (September 19, 2016), Psychology Today: 6 Signs of a Codependent Relationship https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-zen/201609/6-signs-codependent-relationship
Raypole, C., (November 25, 2019), Healthline: 8 Tips for Overcoming Codependence https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-stop-being-codependent
Gilbert, B., (January 12, 2016), Everyday Health: Do You Have a Codependent Personality? https://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/do-you-have-a-codependent-personality.aspx