“Codependent” and “enabler” show up a lot in popular media and casual conversations, often more as a joke than a serious evaluation of a relationship. As Shawn M. Burn, Ph.D., jokes in her Psychology Today article, “Popular definitions of codependency are so broad that Jesus would be classified as codependent.” Over the years, I’ve noticed a significant increase in codependent relationships among young professionals and millennials in my practice located in Miami, FL. And by relationships, I mean any kind of relationship, not just romantic. It’s not unusual for codependency to exist between a parent and child, best friends, bosses, and/or coworkers. If you suspect that you or someone you love might be in a co-dependent relationship, then read on to learn more about the differences between healthy dependency and problematic codependence.
Who Codependents Are Not:
- Anyone who feels like they have needs in a relationship.
If this were all it took to be codependent, then basically everyone would be a codependent. Healthy relationships consist of people who have needs. In healthy relationships, each person adds value to the other, and both are capable of maintaining a self-identity without the other. As Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., explains, “The relationship contributes to both individuals’ resilience, resourcefulness, and inner strength. All the same, each party remains self-sufficient and self-determining.”
- Only people involved with addicts.
You very well might have an association with alcoholics, drug addicts, or any other type of addict when you hear the term “codependency.” This is because the term originated with Alcoholics Anonymous. In fairness, codependency often does involve one person who’s addicted to something. Not always, though. Plenty of people are in codependent relationships that don’t involve any addiction at all except for the codependent’s own addiction to being needed.
- People who have certain personality traits that make it impossible for them to change their codependent ways.
Psychologists have different opinions about whether codependency might come more from learned behavior or from innate personality traits (with most believing it’s a complex web of both), but they agree that people with codependency are fully capable of changing.
Who Codependents Are:
In contrast to some of the false ideas about codependence that are out there, Jonathan Becker, DO, defines codependence as:
“…any relationship in which two people become so invested in each other that they can’t function independently anymore. Your mood, happiness, and identity are defined by the other person. In a codependent relationship, there is usually one person who is more passive and can’t make decisions for themselves and a more dominant personality who gets some reward and satisfaction from controlling the other person and making decisions about how they will live.” So, a simple way to think of it is that whereas in a healthy relationship two people are meeting each other’s needs in a way that makes both of them better.
In a codependent relationship, two people depend on each other for their very identity and are actively harming each other’s lives.
Some experts think that codependency derives in part from personality traits. There’s also a very, very good chance that a codependent person will have grown up in a dysfunctional family where codependency was modeled. Mental Health America’s codependency page explains, “Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. They become ‘survivors.’ They develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions.”
As adults, people who grew up in such dysfunctional families often tend to derive a feeling of reward from the sense that they’re needed. They might even seek out relationships with people who seem to have very obvious needs so that they’ll feel necessary. If they perceive themselves as necessary in a relationship, whether it’s for money, practical needs, excuses, or other resources, then their fear of abandonment decreases.
How Co-Dependents Act:
Now that we’re getting an idea of the difference between healthy dependency and harmful codependency, let’s take a look at some very common codependent traits and behaviors:
It should come as no surprise from what we’ve already discussed that co-dependent people commonly don’t believe that they would be worth staying with if they didn’t make themselves absolutely indispensable, which very often stems from the way their parents or guardians made love conditional during their childhoods.
By this, I don’t mean that codependents often barge into people’s homes without asking. I’m talking about emotional boundaries, boundaries that delineate a person’s sense of self. Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, describes this trait of codependent people: “If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. With a boundary, you’d realize it was just their opinion and not a reflection of you and not feel threatened by disagreements.”
Codependent people look for projects, people who will be sure to need them for a long time. Therefore, they often confuse someone that they just pity for someone that they love in order to make sure they’re in a relationship that won’t end in abandonment.
Codependents hardly ever recognize themselves as codependents. If they did, then they would have to deal with the fears they so regularly suppress. Therefore, they often feel like victims or martyrs because they don’t realize that they’re not only making sacrifices but also getting the unhealthy validation they need from the relationship.
- Very needy or very controlling
You might expect codependent people to always present as needy, but, paradoxically, they sometimes present in the exact opposite way. Seltzer explains, “…they can disguise, even beyond recognition, their urgent reliance on others to confirm their fundamental worth. Having learned in childhood to please and placate their parents, most of them can be ‘managerial’ with others, and in ways that convey a contrary message about themselves.”
Codependent people often have trouble communicating what they’re feeling. For one thing, they may have no idea what they’re feeling; they’ve programmed themselves to be more in tune with what other people are feeling than what they themselves are feeling. For another, they’re frequently people-pleasers, so they’re hesitant to express any feelings that they think might be received badly.
If you think that you or a loved one might be codependent, the good news is there are a lot of resources for you. You might start by visiting the Codependents Anonymous website; whether you decide to join or not, just browsing around the website might help you get a better sense of whether you really are in a codependent relationship. This checklist is particularly helpful. You might also check out a few books on the subject, like The Road Back to Me by Lisa A. Romano, The New Codependency by Melody Beattie, or Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody and Andrea Wells Miller. And don’t forget – any therapist will be willing to talk to you about this issue and work toward resolution and change.
If you’d like to talk more about your struggle with codependency, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult.