Co-dependent Relationships

by Mr. Stone

The term "co-dependency" has become a common expression, appearing in articles, books and talk shows. But what does the term really mean? How do you know if you are in a co-dependent relationship?

Co-dependency occurs when two people form a relationship with each other because neither feels that he or she can "stand alone." Neither person feels capable or self-reliant. It is as if two half parts are trying to make a whole. Both partners are seeking to become psychologically complete by binding the other partner to themselves. For example, a female partner may spend most of her attention and time assisting her lover in recovering from drug addiction. She feels a sense of purpose and may appear to be wonderfully self-sacrificing. However, she may also be avoiding her own unhappiness and personal issues -- like her fear of abandonment. Her partner may believe that he can't deal with his addiction without her. He vacillates between feeling grateful for her help and resentful for what he feels is her nagging and smothering behavior. Many co-dependent partners report feeling "let down," "taken advantage of," or "trapped" by their needy partner when they are really "trapped" by their own overwhelming neediness. The addicted partner is also using his complaints about the relationship to avoid dealing with his own neediness and addiction

In co-dependent relationships, "We need each other," which can be a healthy thing, often covers over "I need you to need me"; this can lead to "I will keep you needy because, if you ever get better, I am afraid that you will leave me." This kind of interaction is grounded in desperation and often spawns abusive and obsessive relationships grounded in neediness and control rather than love and respect.

Where does dependency come from? We are born dependent and needy. Becoming self-reliant is the result of a developmental process which involves the support of our parents and other caretakers. Normal progression begins with "symbiosis," moves to increasing competence, then to independence, and, finally to interdependence. In co-dependent relationships, these normal shifts get "stuck," leading to an incomplete sense of self and an inability to stand on one's own.

Symbiosis is the stage in which an infant bonds with its mother and, perhaps, other caretakers. When this stage gets derailed, it's as if the frightened child within is saying, "I can’t live without you," "You have to meet all my needs," "Never leave me!" Alternatively, some people get stuck with an inner voice of a needy caregiver: "I will meet all your needs and never leave you – as long as you promise to need me and me alone forever."

The next stage of development involves, a growing sense of competence. The individual develops some ability to be a separate person and to care for him or herself. As infants become toddlers, they can stand on their own two feet, walk, talk, assert themselves, grab food from the cabinet, and rely on their "blankie" for comfort. This real progress is often accompanied by a willful denial of dependency: "I am no ba by !!" In co-dependent relationships, such real progress is a threat to the stability of the relationship. A co-dependent person believes that when his or her partner is no longer needy, he or she has nothing to offer.

The next stage involves the beginning of real independence. Toddlers become children who can make some decisions about what they want. They can go off to school or down the block to play with friends and can give voice to the person they are. Children who are encouraged to make independent decisions and to deal with the consequences of their decisions can begin to feel in control of their lives. They will be ready for the challenges of adolescence and for taking their place in the world as competent, dependable, caring adults.

This independence can lead to interdependence, where by children can move comfortably between being both independent and dependent, competent and needy depending on the situation and their own level of growth. Children need to know that their competence and initiative are appreciated. It is equally critical for children to know that they can ask for help and support when it is needed without being shamed.

The development of independence and interdependence mark the end of co-dependent relationships. For a co-dependent person, this is scary; without the ‘glue’ of neediness, they wonder what will hold a relationship together. Because they don't understand that there are better ways to bind a relationship, they fear that there can be no relationship at all.

This developmental pathway is not only a story of how we grow up from infancy to adulthood, but is also a map which can help us understand where things could have gone wrong. Co-dependency could result from any of these stages being interrupted; the death of a parent, the breakup of the family, illness, a move, a traumatic event, are all examples of things that can intrude on the normal developmental process. Co-dependency can also result from any of these stages not being supported by parents and other caregivers and partners who struggle with their own co-dependency issues.

How do we overcome co-dependency? This developmental pathway to independence and interdependence is always available to us and our loved ones. We can move from the symbiosis of "I can’t live without you," to the counter-dependency of "I refuse to be co-dependent" with its ba by -steps toward a separate self, to the more solid foundation of being centered in an independent self, and then to the maturity of interdependence. A first step is to recognize the problem and reach out for help. Once help is received, it is critical to stick with the process of recovery through the fears and protests of neediness from within as well as outside the self. In this process, a person needs support from others who can show them the way, challenge them when they are falling back into old ways, and cheer them on.

Date published: 2/21/00 10:28:21 AM




Last updated: 30 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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