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 a 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.”
Codependency prevents healthy relationships 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 there 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.