Codependency is a behavior, not a biological illness. It can, however, run in families. By perpetuating the same type of behavior through several generations, dysfunctional relationships can emerge. Codependency can often stem from taking care of a close friend or family member with a substance abuse or chronic mental health issue. While the impulse to take care of another may be a virtuous and helpful decision, it may also arise from a need to control.
Codependency, or as some call it, “relationship addiction”, occurs when the care-taker needs to control his or her own anxiety through another person. There is usually one person who needs to be taken care of and another who needs to provide. One example of codependency is the act of enabling. If an addict who has clearly been using drugs asks the codependent person for rent money, the codependent may feel like they are preventing something awful from happening to the addict by giving him or her the needed money. Although the care-taking may feel helpful, it is actually serving the codependent person more than the addict. By making excuses for the addict or preventing the addict from consequences, the codependent person feels in control of the situation.
Codependency creates problems such as: a lack of personal time, feeling overburdened, and stress. It also has hidden benefits.
The codependent in an unhealthy relationship may feel that they are:
- The healthier partner
- In control
- Hard working
The people most likely to become codependent are those who have grown up with dysfunctional relationships. Common characteristics include the need for approval, feeling empty without others around, an intense fear of neglect, low self-esteem, putting the needs of others ahead of their own, and difficulties setting clear and fixed boundaries. Both men and women can have issues with codependency.
If you suspect you may have issues with codependency, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you feel solely responsible for someone even though they have other avenues of support?
- Do you often find yourself in the ‘savior’ role?
- Do you have difficulty making your own decisions?
- Do you ask for what you want with actions rather than words?
- Is it better to be with someone than alone?
- If your gut tells you the opposite of what someone else is saying, do you first trust the other person?
- Do you feel mean saying ‘no’?
- Do you find yourself consistently resentful when others do not put in as much effort as you?
- Will you settle for less so that you do not have to argue?
- Do you alter what you say or look for friends or significant others?
- Without your help, would the well-being of others find themselves in jeopardy?
- Are you embarrassed for your significant other when he/she makes a mistake?
- Have you lived with someone who has experienced a substance abuse/alcohol problem?
- Have you lived with a physically abusive person?
- If nobody is around, do you feel inadequate?
- Do you feel that the burden of others often falls on you?
- Do you have trouble asking for help?
Not every question is indicative of codependency, but if you answered ‘yes’ to most questions, you may exhibit codependent behavior. To start asserting yourself in a healthy way, dependent relationships need to be treated differently. Allow consequences to happen rather than making excuses. If a significant other has a substance abuse issue and is treating the codependent person poorly, excuses do nothing except enable the behavior. Without proper responsibility, the codependent is in charge of both the good and bad outcomes of their partner/family member. This can lead to an unhealthy sense of identity for both the codependent and the dependent person.
Each person has their own life. No two people are exactly the same. Even if a couple or a family like to participate in similar activities, everyone has their own separate interests. It’s important that the codependent person discovers their own interests outside the relationship. There is a difference between being supportive and fixing the problem. Instead of solving an issue, listening for an allotted amount of time and then allowing the person to make their own decisions, establishes healthy boundaries.
Only talking to others who have codependent tendencies can actually lead to more unhealthy relationships. Going to a 12-step group in which everyone adheres to a specific formula, can help facilitate social interactions in a healthy way. In group therapy, the therapist will control the dynamic so as not to instinctually delve into the very behavior one is trying to avoid. Barbara Johnson, an American literary critic, said: “Being codependent means that when you die, someone else’s life passes before your eyes.” Without recognizing the dangers of codependency, a lack of boundaries and control may reappear in future generations.