Everyone told Angie she was controlling. She just couldn’t see it. As a matter of fact, she believed she was the one being mistreated and felt incredibly wounded when anyone saw things differently. The truth was probably somewhere in between. True, she was dating a needy, controlling boyfriend who’d proven time and time again that he was too ill to be in a relationship with her, but what she failed to see was the lengths that she went to try to change him, to make him be someone other than who he was. This wasn’t her first relationship of this type either. For some reason, she just kept coming back to the same kind of relationship over and over.
Phillippa had the best of intentions and only wanted to protect her son. For the fifth time this semester, she’d been contacted by the school because he hadn’t shown up. The first several times they called she actually lied and said he’d been at the doctor. This was the kind of thing she did anytime her son’s actions were about to have negative consequences. He needed her, she reasoned, and she was doing whatever she could for him to keep him from wrecking his life. Even she wasn’t convinced.
The last time Kevin’s mother came in town, Sandra almost lost it. Kevin waited on her hand and foot, and made excuses for her late arrivals, inappropriate comments to friends, and generally erratic and rude behavior. This wasn’t the first time she’d seen this kind of behavior surrounding his mother. And even when she was abusive or emasculating, he just seemed to work that much harder to please her. When Sandra confronted him, Kevin said, “Well, what kind of man would I be if I didn’t please my mom?!” She understood what he was saying, but somehow, the facts just didn’t add up. This wasn’t love.
Tamara’s husband Tim was in therapy for his addiction to pornography, and was even attending a support group 3x a week. Prior to this, she’d been his sole support network and had often enabled him, so she was genuinely glad he was getting help. But Tamara still felt compelled to ask her husband several times a week, and sometimes, several times a day, about whether he was using pornography. If, in her sole discretion, the answers gave her an “uneasy feeling” in her stomach, she believed it was within her providence to comb through Tim’s emails, his internet browsing and search history, and even, to accuse him over and over in the hopes that he would confess. A few well meaning friends and church members even said this was a good idea, and called it “accountability”. But more and more, Tamara began to question why she had a sense of violating her own integrity, and whether her behavior was intrusive and ultimately counterproductive. Perhaps most frightening, she began to wonder whether she wasn’t somewhat “addicted” to a cycle of fear, suspicion, investigation, and interrogation.
Because the meaning of the term “Co-Dependence” has changed over the years, you might find several working definitions out there. Today, the most commonly accepted definitions have a few things in common. Co-Dependence is a pattern of forming relationships where one individual is emotionally abusive and destructive, and the other individual is excessively caretaking and passive, always placing the needs of the abusive individual over his or her own. Also, the caretaking individual tends to have a need to control and/or change the abusive individual. However, its important to note that co-dependent individuals may get into relationships with other persons who are themselves codependent, and thus, they may flip-flop between between the abusive and care-taking/passive roles.
Co-dependence was the term originally coined to define the behavior of individuals who lived with someone suffering from alcohol addiction — the person struggling with addiction was “alcohol dependent” and the other person (typically a partner, parent, or child) was “co-dependent.” Now, it is widely recognized that this dynamic can emerge in many other scenarios as well, and the term co-dependent has enlarged its definition to include them.
Why Co-Dependence is so tricky.
Because co-dependence sounds and looks so unhealthy, you’d think individuals and families suffering from it would be immediately able to recognize it. But more often than not, they can’t. One reason co-dependence is tricky is that those suffering from it are often adamantly convinced that what they’re doing is helpful, when in fact it is often enabling or controlling. Also, co-dependent individuals are often unaware that their own motives are less than altruistic – i.e., they tend to see their relationship in very black and white terms with themselves as the “good” party, and their partner as the “bad”. In fact, co-dependent individuals often have a “need to be needed”, and are thusly attracted to unhealthy individuals who require their constant attention and unhealthily self-sacrificial love. Because they always play the “down” position in a relationship, they struggle to see how they contribute to the dynamic.
What causes Co-Dependence?
Its no secret that we learn much about the way we function from the families in which we are raised. Directly or indirectly, we learn a system of “rules” about how we should act, love, and relate to one another. Whatever rules our families operate by are known as the “family dance”. Unfortunately, the family dance some people learn sets the stage for co-dependence later in life. Some of the rules in co-dependent families include:
- Repression of feelings
- Sparse physical affection
- Arbitrary praise/criticism
- Do as I say, not as I do
- Perfectionism and unachievable standards
- Peacekeeping (not the same as “peacemaking”, a virtue)
- Serious approach to life (instead of playful or curious)
Even more specifically, co-dependent individuals come from families that are characterized by one or more of the big “A’s”:
- Abuse – One or more family members are abusive physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and/or sexually.
- Absence – One or more important role models are altogether absent, abandoning (present at good times, invisible at bad ones), or otherwise inappropriate.
- Addiction – One or more family members suffer from addiction
- Ailment – One or more family members have chronic physical or mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, etc.)
For the most part, the family’s attention is likely to be focused on the sick family member, forcing the needs and desires of other family members to the background. Even when these other family members are very resilient, they are often neglected in some critical way, resulting in struggles with sense of self and identity. In particular, everyone in the family strives to meet one person’s needs to the exclusion of their own, and their sense of well-being and worth is based on those attempts. This is the kind of pattern co-dependent individuals repeat in their relationships, often equating it with love.
The difference between Co-Dependence and Healthy Interdependence.
Of course, literature, life, and experience are all filled with tales of self-sacrifice and heroism. And surely we recognize that no relationship is truly 50/50. At any given point, one individual is likely working harder than the other(s). Relationships don’t stay afloat because it’s always easy or convenient, and many have gone as far as to suggest that relationships without mutual sacrifice are doomed from the start. But that’s just it – the sacrifice is mutual. This not to say that things are necessarily equal, and certainly not always equal, but generally speaking, love and sacrifice come from both parties.
In order to understand the difference between Co-Dependence and Healthy Interdependence, consider the following list:
- Co-dependence involves giving of ourselves to affirm our self-worth. Healthy Interdependence involves giving of ourselves because we know already know our worth, and want to affirm the same kind of worth in others.
- Co-dependence works in absolutes, and mandates that we give all of ourselves and surrender control. Healthy Interdependence acknowledges our limitations, and asks for portions from each partner that amount to influence rather than control.
- Co-dependence insists that love means we only acknowledge a part of the story about our partners or our relationships with them – the rest should be dismissed or denied. Healthy Interdependence acknowledges the entire story and still chooses to love.
- Co-dependence demands quick decision-making based on fear, threats, and manipulation. Healthy Interdependence allows decision-making together based on mutual best interest, even if the terms have to be negotiated painstakingly over time.
- Co-dependence forms its own kind of addictive cycle based on fear of being abandoned or mistreated. Healthy Interdependence advocates for freedom within relationships without being naive, works to develop a framework of trust within reasonable boundaries, and encourages each party in relationships to take responsibility for their own feelings, thoughts, and actions.
If you’re Co-Dependent, here’s what you should know.
- Chances are that you are or have been legitimately mistreated. If you’ve been vocal about your this, your friends and family may have grown tired of hearing about it, but that doesn’t change the reality that co-dependent persons are likely to have been mistreated in some very critical ways. However, consider that you may be the person who most needs to fully acknowledge that fact. You may need to look at how your mistreatment informs your present behavior, as well as the need to get help as a result.
- The relationship between you and your partner or family is complicated. Like most things involving people, relationships are complex. Your victimization is not your fault, and yet, your co-dependence does bind you to it.
- Stop trying to figure things out on your own. Because things are so complicated, it’s likely that the more you try to figure them out, the more confused you’ll become. Remember, the way you’re thinking about your relationships is part of the problem. Thus, no amount of “thinking” is likely to set you free.
- Talk with someone who can help. While going it alone isn’t helpful, the person you’re in a co-dependent relationship can’t help either. They may also be co-dependent, and may just confuse you further. On the other hand, therapists are used to working with this sort of thing all the time. The privacy, confidentiality, and non-judgmental attitude of a therapist are helpful to persons who are codependent. If you want more help, you could also contact CoDa (Co-Dependents Anonymous) to find a meeting in your area.
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