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What is Codependency?

Codependency is an often used, but frequently misunderstood term.  It is a form of dependency, but it also differs from dependency.  “Dependency” in and of itself is not a bad thing and doesn’t automatically imply weakness.  It is healthy to be vulnerable in relationship and allow yourself to depend on another at times.  A certain amount of dependence, vulnerability and reliance upon another is necessary for a successful partnership.  A healthy relationship requires a mixture of self-care and care of another and necessitates healthy boundaries giving knowledge of when to say “yes” and when to say “no”.

It is true that codependency is a form of dependency, but the “co” implies two people are dependent on each other in different ways.  In a nutshell, a codependent gives, rescues, enables and over-functions and the other person is in some capacity dependent upon and under-functioning in the relationship.  A codependent is mostly focused on another person to the detriment of him or herself.  I like the following definition of codependency:

“Codependent relationships are a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.  Among the core characteristics of codependency, the most common theme is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity.”

what is codenpendencyCodependency prevents healthy relationship in a number of ways.  Codependency (and the corresponding dependency of the partner) keeps individuals and a relationship from developing the necessary transparency, intimacy, growth, vulnerability and boundaries that are essential to a strong partnership.  The dependent remains stuck in his/her cycle and the codependent continues to achieve his/her sense of self and validation by helping, rescuing, enabling and over-functioning while ignoring his/her own growth and development.  Since a codependent has difficulty saying no and setting boundaries, true understanding doesn’t form in a relationship because the codependent keeps hidden his/her needs.  How can their be intimacy in a relationship when the needs of another are not expressed?  Eventually, resentment is experienced by the codependent as they tire of giving.  Below is a sampling of codependent traits.

  • Tendency to get involved with people who need to be “rescued” or “fixed”
  • Taking on the role of the caregiver
  • Experience guilt when saying “no”
  • Have difficulty identifying and communicating your needs
  • Fear of abandonment in relationship
  • Avoiding expression and sharing of feelings as a means to feel safe and have control
  • Emotional reactivity if someone disagrees or is disappointed in you
  • Low self esteem
  • Poor boundaries

If you think you might be stuck in a codependent relationship dynamic or have a pattern of unhealthy relationships where you exhibit many of the traits above with someone who under-functions in response to your over-functioning, then I suggest exploring that.  There are many good books on codependency and counseling can be very helpful if you want to replace codependency with a healthy dependency.  I see this issue so very often in my practice and have been working with codependency for almost 15 years.

Sylvia Flanagan, MFT is a San Diego therapist with a private practice in Mission Valley. For more information about San Diego Counseling, feel free to call or email her.  Office hours are Monday through Thursday 10:00 to 6:00.