“We’re so codependent.”
This phrase is thrown around a lot these days; sometimes it sounds like people are bragging about how close they are with their partners. Others are lamenting how much time they’ve had to spend home with their significant other during the pandemic.
Codependent. . What exactly does this term mean?
The beginning of codependence…
There was a time when “codependence” wasn’t a word. But when spouses of alcoholics started meeting together for support and understanding, the term was created to explain the dynamic between an alcoholic and their partner who was spending a lot of time making things work and “enabling” the alcoholic – and believing that they were doing the right thing by keeping the impact of the alcoholic’s behavior a secret. They’d lie about the reason their partner was late to work or they couldn’t make it to a party. Melodie Beattie, author of Codependent No More explains, “One fairly common denominator was having a relationship, personally or professionally, with troubled, needy or dependent people. But a second, more common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules…”.
These spouses began to recognize that they were all following the same formerly unspoken rules, “Hey, wait a minute. Maybe our behavior is part of the problem. What we all thought was our own private answer to the very painful problem of a partner’s alcoholism is something a lot of people do. And it actually enables the alcoholic to stay immersed in their illness.”
That’s when the very important support group Alanon was formed; their mantra of “detach with love” has been so helpful to so many.
The meaning of the term codependent has broadened widely since its inception.
Codependence as relationship addiction…
Now, codependence has also been described as “relationship addiction.” This means losing yourself in the relationship, including such an intense fear of it ending that you’ll sacrifice yourself and healthy boundaries to keep it intact. You may be experiencing low self-esteem, have a tendency towards extreme people-pleasing and a desperate need for control.
Instead of your partner enhancing the life you’ve created for yourself, you feel as if you couldn’t live without them.. Sure, we all get heady with first love and you feel as if you can’t breathe if you don’t get to see them soon. I’m not talking about that stage of falling in love. But you move out of that and into every day, pull-your-boots-on-and -live-life kind of love – and codependence keeps that normalcy from happening.. Instead, a “codependent” relationship can look like two people, not supporting one another’s individuality but instead holding one another back from their potential. “I need you so you can’t have your own life or interests or choices or….”. It can grow in similarity to a victim/savior relationship, which is very difficult and paralyzing for both.
If this is you, know that there’s CoDA, Co-Dependents Anonymous, a support group for people who have these issues and want to have a healthier relationship with themselves and their partner.
The vital difference between “dependence” and “interdependence”…
Yet why is the the word “dependence” getting a bad rap? Some are shouting that we’re all supposed to take care of our own needs and wants, without depending on anyone.
“No one can make you happy but yourself.“
“I don’t want to be dependent on anyone.“
“I don’t need anyone else to be complete.”
While there is truth to these statements, they are not what makes relationships or intimacy work. Denying the healthy aspects of a loving, interdependent relationship is the flip side to codependence, and neither extreme is healthy.
A while back, my husband was out of town for three or four days. Every time that happens, I notice what I count on him to do around the house. We, like most of us, have separate responsibilities. I don’t retrieve the dead mouse from behind the trash, or reset the trap. He has practically forgotten how to turn on the stove. If something happened to one of us, either the house would be overridden with rodents or fast food wrappers would abound in said trash.
Yes, I could learn about mouse traps and he could google how to boil an egg. We would learn to survive alone, like many people do every day. But we’ve become interdependent. I count on his strengths, he counts on mine.
The health of emotional interdependence...
That happens in an emotional realm as well. I count on his patience, because I need reminding every now and then that good things come to those who wait. He counts on my energy; I think ahead and plan things.
Interdependence. Being there for each other. Having the others’ back. Keeping your partner in your head when you make decisions, whether it’s buying their favorite piece of fruit at the grocery store, or deciding not to flirt back with someone at a party.
Interdependence doesn’t mean you lose yourself, or become less of a strong individual. It means life isn’t quite so hard, because you’ve got a partner. It means you have expectations that aren’t rigid, but that you’ve got someone to count on. It means you’re aware of how they’re different from you, and you rely on that difference at times.
Interdependence builds trust.
The loss of being able to depend…
One woman years ago came in to see me after her husband had died. He was well-known internationally, and she had spent the months after his death flying around the world, accepting honors on his behalf.
“I thought I was doing great with my grief. I cried some, missed him terribly. But I thought I was fine.“
She was walking up her back steps one day, fell, and broke her arm. He wasn’t there to hear her call for help. That was the moment the totality of her grief hit her.
People who are living life alone can miss having someone they can depend on. It’s reassuring and comforting. And you miss it when it’s gone. Don’t be afraid of depending on someone — if it’s the right someone.
Be dependable in return, and you’re that much closer to having a great relationship. Be supportive of their own life as an individual and they will do the same for you. Make choices that bring you happiness and know that their presence and their love for you only enhance what you’re creating.
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Originally published on July 2, 2016 and updated on January 4, 2019 and again on October 17, 2021.