Although Wikipedia refers to codependency “symptoms” and Mental Health America talks about a codependency “diagnosis,” codependency is not a clinically recognized diagnosis like depression or schizophrenia. Rather, it’s a pattern of problematic emotions and behaviors.
The term “codependency” originated from research on families of alcoholics. Studies show that an alcoholic’s family members become tangled up in the problems of addiction. In most cases, that means supporting the alcoholic through enabling (helping the person get the substance) or appeasement (agreeing or complying simply to avoid conflict). Codependent family members sacrifice their own needs and go out of their way to meet the addict’s needs. Thus, while not personally dependent on alcohol, they are so involved in supporting the addicted person that one could call them “co-dependent."
Co-dependence is not limited to alcoholic families; now we use the term “codependence” to refer to any unhealthy dependence within a relationship. Sometimes physical abuse, emotional abuse, or even chronic illness replaces substance abuse in the relationship equation. The key factors here are that the codependent person 1) feels compelled to care for or “rescue” others, and 2) places excessive emphasis and value on that person/relationship at the expense of personal well-being.
Codependent people go to great lengths to maintain the illusion of control and normality despite significant dysfunction. Driven by love or survival, codependent family members restructure their lives to maintain the family’s “stability”—even when that “stability” involves great dysfunction such as substance abuse. This typically takes the form of self-sacrifice or martyrdom, insecurity, and confusion about emotions and relationship boundaries.
Over time, what starts as well-intentioned helping behavior becomes compulsive. The codependent person comes to fear change and rejection above all else. Fear of conflict and abandonment feeds into denial of the relationship’s imbalance and dysfunction. Because confronting the problem may result in rage, abuse, or rejection, codependents go to any extreme to maintain the status quo. They focus all their energies on trying to keep the other person satisfied.
Unfortunately, that is an impossible task—no one can make someone else happy; each of us must do that for ourselves. Futile efforts to gain approval and recognition leave the codependent person frustrated, angry, or depressed. And because codependents cope with these feelings by trying to regain a sense of control, they invest even more of their energies in the cycle of manipulation and self-sacrifice. In the process, they grow increasingly out of touch with their own needs and more reliant on the relationship for their sense of self. And so the cycle escalates.
But like any cycle, it can be broken. The first step is to recognize codependency’s characteristic perfectionism, insecurity, lack of boundaries, and need for (or relinquishment of) control. Consider the following questions (based in part on material from Codependent No More by Melody Beattie):
• Do you feel responsible for taking care of others and solving their problems?
• Do you have trouble accepting praise, help, or gifts from other people?
• Do you become obsessed with other people’s problems?
• Do you feel desperate, worthless, or confused when you aren’t in a relationship?
• Do you tend to abandon your own interests and goals when in a relationship?
• Do you sacrifice your own well-being or safety in order to be loved?
• Do you feel anxious or angry when things don’t go as planned?
If you recognize signs of codependency in yourself, the next step entails defining your own identity and worth. As you grow more secure in your self, you will depend less on others and maintain a healthy sense of boundaries that does not revert to extremes. That process may necessitate help from others in the form of psychotherapy or a support group. Be patient with yourself. It took time to learn codependence, and it will take time to learn to recognize and nurture healthy relationships.
In addition to contacting a mental health professional, I suggest the following self-help resources:
Codependents Anonymous is based on a Twelve Step program format. While a bit cluttered, their website offers some valuable resources and links to local support groups. I especially like the “Recovery Patterns of Codependence” chart (link below), which provides an overview of codependent beliefs (they call them “patterns”) along with healthier alternatives. The statements included in the “recovery patterns” column would work nicely as affirmations or meditation mantras.
I also recommend Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, a self-help classic by Melody Beattie that has guided many people toward healthier relationships.
Preview or buy Codependent No More at Amazon.com.