Its normal and healthy to depend on others. Codependency, however, is very different than the type of dependency found in well-functioning relationships.
Humans are social beings and weve always lived in communities and relied on each other for our survival. So, theres nothing wrong with needing others, relying on others, and asking for help. Healthy dependency, otherwise known as interdependency, involves a mutual give and take; both people give and receive support, encouragement, practical help, and so on. However, in codependent relationships, one person is doing most of the giving, but not being given much in return. This is a recipe for burnout, resentment, and dissatisfaction.
In contrast, interdependence increases individuals self-esteem, mastery, and confidence, and it promotes loving feelings, mutual respect, and a sense of emotional safety in relationships. When youre in an interdependent relationship, your partners help and encouragement make it easier for you to go out into the world and tackle problems, try new things, and overcome your fears. It also allows you to be your own separate person, so theres a balance of dependence and independence. In other words, healthy dependency doesnt hold you back, it supports you in being your best self.
Interdependent adults have a strong sense of who they are and feel competent to navigate the world and express their needs. They accept help but dont rely on others for their self-esteem. In contrast, a codependents identity is wrapped up in the relationship she doesnt know who she is, what she wants, or how she feels separate from her partner*.
In summary, an interdependent relationship doesnt compromise your identity as a whole and separate individual. It allows you to give and receive help, while also retaining your individuality and autonomy.
Codependency isnt simply an over-reliance on another person. Its an enmeshment, meaning that your identity is intertwined with your partners. In a codependent relationship, your focus is on the other person so much so that your needs, goals, and interests are suppressed and ignored. You may be an independent person in that youre completely capable of earning a living, paying the bills, and taking care of the children (hard work, dependability, and caretaking are common traits among codependents), but you have an unhealthy need to be needed that keeps you dependent on someone else to make you feel worthy and lovable.
Codependents build their self-worth on helping, fixing, and rescuing others. And as you can imagine, this creates an imbalance in their relationships. In order for codependent relationships to work, both parties must accept their roles one as the caretaker or giver and one as the infirmed or taker.
As a result of childhood trauma, childhood emotional neglect, and dysfunctional family dynamics, a giver feels fundamentally flawed and unworthy and believes he must earn love. So, you sacrifice your own needs in order to feel accepted and valued. This creates an unhealthy dependency on others for validation of your feelings, interests, beliefs, worth, and even your existence. Its never healthy to depend on others to validate your worth. This need for external validation leaves many codependents trapped in abusive, unfulfilling, and unhappy relationships because they feel purposeless and unlovable without the caregiver role.
As I mentioned earlier, interdependent relationships provide mutual support and aid — and the help thats given empowers the other person to grow and learn. But in codependent relationships, only one person is offering help — and the help tends to create more dependency because youre enabling, rescuing, or doing things for your partner rather than helping him do them for himself.
As a codependent caregiver, your need to be needed is so strong that you may unconsciously enable your loved one to remain dysfunctional and dependent because if your loved one gets better (sober, employed, healthy, etc), youll no longer have a purpose and without a purpose, you dont feel worthy of love. This is a frightening thought and your fear of abandonment can drive you to persistent nagging, giving unwanted advice, and enabling. Enabling is different than the kind of helping that characterizes interdependent relationships, which encourages your loved one to become more self-sufficient and confident.
Codependency traps people in unhealthy, sometimes abusive, relationships. Unlike interdependency, it doesnt encourage individuals to grow emotionally, professionally, socially, spiritually or otherwise. Codependent relationships focus on maintaining the status quo so the giver can continue to derive self-esteem from helping and the taker can get his physical, emotional, financial or other needs met. Codependent individuals have a hard time functioning independently because theyve consistently relied on someone else to compensate for a core lack of self-worth.
Relationships are important. They add an extra layer of joy and fulfillment to our lives; they bring opportunities for growth and they build us up. They cant, however, fix whatever core wounds we bring with us to the relationship. Instead, we tend to replay these dysfunctional relationship dynamics until we heal the root of the problem ourselves.
Understanding the difference between interdependency and codependency can be difficult, especially if youve never experienced a healthy interdependent relationship. The table below summarizes the primary differences between interdependency and codependency and I hope you will refer back to it when you need help distinguishing healthy dependency from codependency.
Mutual reliance on each other; a balanced give and take.
One person does most of the giving and receives little support or help in return.
Help promotes growth, learning, and self-sufficiency.
Enabling is disguised as help and it creates dependency and stunts personal growth.
A sense of being your own separate, independent person.
Enmeshment or merging of identity and feelings so that neither person functions like a whole, independent person.
Feel free to be your authentic self.
Lose sight of your own interests, goals, values and instead do and say what your partner wants.
Fully experience your own feelings.
Tend to absorb other peoples feelings and suppress your own.
You know you have value even when others are upset with you.
Rely on your partner to make you feel worthy.
Feel safe and secure in your relationship.
You fear rejection, criticism, and abandonment.
Ability to disagree or say no without guilt.
Fear of conflict, poor boundaries, and expectation of perfection.
Honesty and the ability to admit mistakes help promote growth.
Denial and defensiveness keep things stagnant.
Sharon Martin, LCSW
*Your codependent partner can be a spouse, parent, child, family member, or friend.
2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com.