Most people these days have heard the word “codependent” but what does it mean? It seems that there are as many definitions out there of the word as there are authors who write about it. Initially, the term codependency was used by those in the addictions field to describe a dysfunctional relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction. This definition was then broadened to refer to any relationship where two people have an unhealthy reliance on one another. Typically, one person takes on the role of the “needy one” whereas the other person has become the rescuer or “enabler”. While it may appear at first as if the “needy one” is the dependent partner, in actuality, codependency is always a two-way street. Each person in the relationship is dependent on the other, albeit in a different way. Substance abuse can play a role but it does not have to. A codependent relationship is one in which people are addicted to one another!
The needy individuals are often people with low self-esteem looking outside themselves for someone to take care of them, give them a sense of identity and make them feel better about themselves. They have not matured into fully functioning individuals and so, they seek someone who will take responsibility for them, boost their sense of worth and fill in the holes of what is missing. This inevitably leads to an inordinate desire to please that other person. On the other hand, people in the enabling role are typically those who tend to take care of things, provide direction, pick up the slack and make sure things get done. They have a strong need to be in control, take care of another person, rescue them if they are falling and take care of things so that they do not fall apart. People can be codependent in a myriad of relationships…with their spouse, partner, parent, teacher, coach, child or friend. In a codependent relationship, that other person has become the determining factor in how they feel about themselves. They have put their self-esteem in the other person’s hands. In other words, if their counterpart is pleased with them and values them, they feel great. On the other hand, if the other person is critical or displeased with them, they feel awful.
While at first, codependency may seem appealing, especially when in the throes of a new romance, sooner or later, participants are in for a roller coaster ride of emotions. Long term, the relationship is on very shaky ground. For those in the needy partner role, it can feel as if they have found the perfect fit. They may even feel like they are finally safe for the first time ever. However, as the relationship unfolds, it is just a matter of time before the person whom they are relying on can’t be there for them. Maybe their partner has become stressed out or they are emotionally unavailable because of other demands or maybe they have simply become genuinely pissed off. So now, what was ecstasy has suddenly turned into agony. Even if people in the enabling role do not become emotionally absent, exhausted, burnt out or resentful, when the needy person relies too much on somebody else to take care of them and they give their self-esteem over to somebody else, they pay the unavoidable price of never really being able to feel good about themselves. They do not form a solid sense of their own identity nor do they experience what it feels like to feel confident and trust themselves. They end up living with a false sense of confidence because at some level they know that without the other person’s vote of support, they would feel unworthy. On the other hand, for enablers in the relationship, their exaggerated sense of responsibility for someone else may give them a sense of purpose at first and make them feel important because they are clearly needed. However, once they agree to take care of another person, although they may not realize it, they have signed up for life! When taking care of another, enablers can never really rescue their needy counterparts from inner demons. It is just a matter of time before rescuers feel helpless and inadequate because their efforts to make things right cannot possibly succeed.
And yet, some people will protest: “Isn’t it natural to want to help and support the one you love?” The answer is, it depends on what you mean by “help” and “support”. In a codependent relationship, those in the needy role want to lean on someone else for the things that they should be capable of doing and providing for themselves. To give a few examples…if they find it hard to be outgoing, they may be counting on their partner to be the joiner at social occasions. If, as an adult, they do not trust themselves, they still may be deferring to a father to know what’s best when they have to make major life decisions. If they have never learned to save and budget properly, they may be relying on their partner to take care of all the finances. If they drink to excess at parties and don’t want to be responsible, they may be counting on their best friend to ensure that they get home safely. If they feel insecure about their worthiness, they may guilt their partner into not socializing independently with others so that they do not feel jealous. If they don’t want to have to be responsible for their own health, they may be counting on a mother to ensure that they take care of themselves medically despite having left home ages ago. Lastly, if they are a student living away from home, they might rack up their credit card debt because they know that if they get into trouble, their parents will bail them out.
I have worked with many clients who fall apart when a relationship breaks down or when they lose a parent because they no longer have that someone in their lives to take care of them emotionally and/or instrumentally. There is a difference between interdependence (the healthy version of relating) and codependence. In both situations, people may share responsibilities and lean on one another but when the relationship is co-dependent, each person would be lost without the other. A good barometer to use in order to determine whether or not you are in a codependent relationship is to ask the question: “If this other person got sick or God forbid if I lost this other person tomorrow, how would I fare?” There is a big difference between feeling a bit lost and feeling thoroughly devasted and unable to function. This is why family therapists no longer view rigid gender roles as particularly healthy. A measure of health for the contemporary family is that if one parent becomes sick or dies, the system is adaptable and flexible enough that the other parent can take over essential tasks so that the system can still function without much disruption.
While those who go overboard taking care of others often have good intentions, they often do not realize that when they do for another what that person is able to do for themselves, they are not doing that person any favors. In fact, to do too much is to cripple the other and to collude with the assumption that they are not competent to handle things on their own. A basic aspect of human nature is that humans are self-motivated and that whatever people choose to do, they do for themselves. If you have a need to rescue somebody when they are able and should be accountable for their own actions, then there is some unhealthy need being met in you. Perhaps you are rescuing your spouse, partner, student or daughter because it feels good to have someone need you so badly. Perhaps, you fear rejection and abandonment so much that this has become an unconscious way to ensure that the other person never leaves you. Perhaps you feel guilty about past actions due to a divorce or have regrets about your parenting and so, you are now over-compensating and over indulging your adult children. Perhaps you view your children and family as a reflection of your own success or failure and so have a need to rescue family members in order to maintain the image of a “perfect” family. Perhaps focussing on what another needs is a way to distract yourself from facing your own problems. It is easy for people who are the rock to feel that they have no dependency leanings. In actuality, when your sense of purpose in life revolves around making extreme sacrifices to satisfy another’s needs, something is not right. Giving support to somebody else at the cost of your own mental, emotional or psychical health suggests a problem. If you are the one in the relationship keeping it afloat, take a step back because something is amiss. As I tell my clients, it should take all of your energy to look after yourself so if you are catering too much to somebody else, you might want to ask yourself the question: “What, if anything, am I not attending to in my own life?”
Codependent relationships are particularly challenging to deal with in therapy because patterns not only become entrenched over time but because people in a codependent partnership have often interpreted the codependency as true caring. For example, the adult son believes that his parents are willing to bail him out of his gambling debts because they know how much trouble he is in and they care about him and his young family. Your girlfriend likes that you are willing to chauffeur her wherever she needs to go because you know how hard it has been since she lost her license. In cases where only one person wakes up and tries to break the unhealthy dependence, their counterpart may well view them as having become mean and uncaring. This is why it is best when trying to break a codependency to voice why the relationship has been unhealthy and why it needs to change. It is always best but not always possible when both agree and are willing to work together towards change. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is not the case. Typically, one person is struggling to break the unhealthy dependency and the other wants to maintain the status quo. Changing behavior is hard enough without the added hurdle of an uncooperative counterpart. Fortunately, therapeutic support is available to provide direction and to bolster the client’s resolve in the face of ongoing opposition to change. Sometimes, one person needs to take the lead before the other sees the wisdom of the change.