Codependent. You’ve probably heard people describe themselves or others as “codependent;” it’s a commonly used term these days.
But what exactly is codependency? Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or somewhere in the middle?
There are many different definitions, and many different experts on the subject. Initially, a codependent relationship was defined as one where there was substance abuse within the relationship, with the person who wasn’t the user enabling its continuation by hiding, discounting, explaining away, not confronting, or denying the painful impact of the illness.
A classic example of codependency and how it’s maintained..
Here’s an actual example from my own practice.. Someone’s alcoholic husband wakes up in the middle of the night, demanding more beer.. She gets up and drives to the nearest open grocery store to get it for him. Her reasoning? No one will get hurt if she drives. That’s understandable and even seemingly rational on her part. Yet what might a non-codependent partner do? Pick up the phone and call the police immediately when he gets his key and leaves. She doesn’t do that for many potential reasons. He’s abusive and she’s scared of him. He’s not going to get treatment, so why bother. The children would be embarrassed. She’d be embarrassed. It avoids conflict. She needs a sense of control. And on and on…
These days, however, the term “codependent” has morphed into something much more general. When you say, “I’m codependent,” or, “We’re codependent,” you’re often describing a loss of feeling responsible as individuals and/or that your lives are too tightly interwoven.
What’s also likely is that your relationship is bringing out some of your most unhealthy issues, including not knowing where you begin and your partner ends. You’ve become what’s termed “enmeshed.”
An example of more generalized codependency…
A highly insecure woman with problems with self-hatred purges (vomits her food). She’s partnered with a perfectionistic man who’s uncomfortable with conflict. He can hear what she’s doing late at night, but doesn’t confront her disease, instead avoiding it entirely. She continues purging for comfort, urgently needing his attention. When she becomes too sick, he waits on her hand and foot, and tells her how great she looks. She soaks up his attentiveness. When he returns to being “not there for her,” she begins the cycle all over again, focusing only on needing to please. They are both trapped in their own pain, yet their interaction is compulsive. It’s not good, honest caring and empathy. They may both feel they have no other choice than to do what they’re doing.
And so the destructive pattern continues.
Linda Esposito in Psychology Today offers questions about how you can tell you’re in a codependent relationship.
- Does your sense of purpose involve making extreme sacrifices to satisfy your partner’s needs?
- Is it difficult to say no when your partner makes demands on your time and energy?
- Do you cover your partner’s problems with drugs, alcohol, or the law?
- Do you constantly worry about others’ opinions of you?
- Do you feel trapped in your relationship?
- Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?
So what can you do when you realize that your relationship is taking up way too much of your energy? Or when you know there’s a secret in your family that you’ll do anything to hide from others? Or that you jump through all kinds of hoops to keep your partner “happy,” even though there’s a problem that neither of you is confronting head on?
Here are some ideas.
For the “enabled.”
- How are you personally confronting your problems? Do you blame others for them?
- Do you feel entitled or owed the help your partner offers?
- If you have an addiction or self-destructive problem, how are you denying it to yourself or others? Do you not even see it as an issue? Are you being honest about its impact on your family and your own life?
- Do you know how to give? If not, what work do you need to do to learn?
- What would have to happen for you to seek treatment or help?
For the “enabler.”
- How did you become afraid of conflict?
- What has caused you to be uncomfortable with receiving?
- When did you begin to find your self-esteem in being a giver? Or to make sacrifices constantly for others? Do you like control too much?
- Does your partner’s problem tend to make you feel superior to him or her? If so, what has made that important to feel?
- What is keeping you in the relationship? Are you afraid of leaving, and why?
These questions aren’t easy to answer, nor are they all that’s needed. They are a starting point, or a guide to the kind of emotional work that needs to be done if the relationship has a chance of being healthy. A good therapist can help.
There are some excellent books on the topic. Codependent No More is a classic. But there are others that you can find that more speak to you.
The goal is to unhook from one another — to take responsibility for fixing what problems you have as an individual, and not to live your life in denial, or martyrdom. Giving and receiving. Honest empathy and caring. Being there for one another in a real way, gently confronting when boundaries are crossed.
It’s not codependence. It’s called interdependence. And it can feel so much better.
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Originally published on January 6, 2018; updated and republished on November 15, 2020.