The traditional dictionary definition of codependency describes a condition or relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another person who has a pathological condition. The classic example that many of us know, is that of the alcoholic and the enabling spouse or partner. But codependency can exist in many forms and in many types of relationships, even those without addiction as a component.
Common Codependency Traits
Some common traits of codependency include:
- Poor boundaries
- Caretaking and helping behaviors in excess
- Inability to identify one’s own feelings or needs
- Fear of abandonment or rejection
- Need for approval or acceptance to feel good about one’s self
This article will address and explain just a few of the ways that these common characteristics can express themselves in surprising or even subtle ways.
Manipulative helpingThe fact that an individual with codependency exhibits a high amount of “helping behaviors” towards others is not a surprise. We have all known that person who seems too eager to lend a hand, do a favor, share their belongings, or give money to others.
We might go so far as to think, “Wow, that person sure is kind!” What we may be surprised to discover, is that the helping behaviors that we witness, or that are offered directly to us, might represent a form of manipulation. You may be thinking, “how is offering to babysit my kids a way to manipulate me.”
To understand that, you have to understand the psyche and the motives of a codependent. For these individuals, the fear of abandonment is often so strong, that they may find themselves going to extreme measures to avoid it, even making themselves so indispensable to others that they become necessary and needed. That may even involve keeping someone in a dependent position in order to reduce their likelihood of becoming independent.
Of course, the simple act of helping does not solely belong to codependency, that is a behavior that can be engaged in by a healthy individual. But you might consider asking yourself, “Did I ask for help or communicate a need from the start, or, did the individual seem to manufacture an opportunity to become helpful out of thin air? Were they insistent that I accept their help even when I try to turn it down? Did the person seem almost anxious when they couldn’t be of help to me, or did they simply accept it and connect with me in a different way?”
These questions may help with differentiating between healthy and codependent helping behaviors. Legitimate and healthy helping behaviors should lead the receiver feeling appreciative, not skeptical and used.
We could all benefit from a little advice now and then, but what happens when someone continuously finds opportunities to share their opinion regardless of how appropriate it is? Because a core characteristic of codependency is taking on responsibility for other’s problems, an individual will often find opportunities to share their opinion even when it is not requested or invited. The advice may be accepted at first, but over time, others will begin to resent the intrusiveness of having direction sent their way when it isn’t asked for.
Taking ownership of another’s behavior or choices is something that is common in codependency. Because of the constant focus on other people’s lives, a person with codependency often feels obligated to watch, analyze, and then intervene either through behavior or advice. In their mind, they have a responsibility and are potentially helping the individual with the unsolicited direction or advice.
This goes back to one of the core codependency traits: lack of healthy boundaries with others. The codependent individual may feel that other people’s lives are indeed their business. The line between when to jump in and when to stay back is either blurred or nonexistent.
Always saying yesHave you ever known someone who says “yes” to virtually anything? Whether it be an invitation to an event/party, a request for help, or agreement on a side of a debate, they always answer with a yes. You may also notice that these individuals have a tendency to back out of their original commitment or agreement later down the road, which can be frustrating and confusing.
You might think to yourself, “Why did you say that you wanted to go if you actually never did?” But for a codependent, they may not even know if they really do or don’t want to do something, or agree with an opinion. Often they aren’t in tune with or aware of their own feelings, emotions, or needs. They have become so distant from them that they don’t show up on the radar until it’s way too late and a problem has developed.
What they do know, however, is that they want to please you and agreeing with you or your request is a quick and easy way to accomplish that. If someone’s priority is acceptance and approval over convenience, boundaries, or their own needs, they will often find themselves agreeing to anything. Again, this goes back to the basic codependent traits of poor boundaries and people-pleasing, as well as the overwhelming fear of rejection.
Although codependents are generally people-pleasers by nature, they often harbor a fair amount of resentment towards others. How can someone want to please people and be resentful simultaneously? Well, that starts with having unrealistic expectations, to begin with.
If someone believes that they can help or please just about anyone, they will find themselves frustrated and upset when it doesn’t happen. Additionally, the expectation that others want, or will appreciate their efforts (requested or unrequested) also sets them up for disappointment and frustration, which over time turns to resentment.Its what we might call a “covert contract.” A contract that the codependent creates in their mind without agreement from the other party. They might think, “If I offer to help him move, he will want to spend time with me, or treat me better.”
When the codependent does not see the outcome of their imagination, they can become resentful toward the individual for not holding up their perceived “part of the bargain.” The sudden and uncommunicated resentment can be mystifying to the other party.
Lack of personal identity
Because codependency traits cause an individual to focus on their partner, they often haven’t taken the time to develop their own identity. Furthermore, their identity relies on being a partner to someone else, anticipating their needs, sharing their interests and making them happy. So in a sense, their identity is actually associating with someone else’s identity.
This phenomenon may show itself when you ask said individual, to describe themselves, their personal interests or hobbies, or dislikes. The answers provided will most likely revolve around what their partner likes or does, and how they join in on that interest.
It might be fair to say that codependency makes it difficult for people to enjoy or find value in their own identity or interests, which explains why they haven’t put the time or effort forward in that department.
After a codependent relationship ends, an individual will undoubtedly find themselves feeling lost, as their identity left when the relationship ended. This cycle only sets the person up for an abrupt rebound relationship to fight off feelings of loneliness or isolation.
The inability to make decisions or feel strongly about decisions is often a characteristic of codependency. Having the discernment to know which choice is good for ourselves requires us to be able to identify our own needs, and value them among other things.
It is common to hear someone with codependency say things such as “I don’t care either way” or “whatever works for you” or “you just decide.” The truth is, the codependent person isn’t going to be happy or feel at peace with a decision unless it makes their partner happy first. That is the deciding factor in decision making for that individual.
To make an independent choice for the relationship or for themselves would be too risky, as they may choose something that upsets or doesn’t work for the other person, thus dooming them to unhappiness by default. So in reality, having the other person make the decisions skips right to the central goal: make the other person happy, and be happy in response.
Christian Counseling for Codependency
Codependency can be a very challenging disorder to live with and overcome. Having a knowledge base and understanding about codependency traits is the first step in making positive and healthy changes.
In addition, speaking to an experienced counselor on how to overcome codependency traits can jumpstart the healing and recovery process. If you are struggling with codependency, please consider reaching out to make an appointment with a therapist in your area.
“Dependence”, Courtesy of Milan Popovic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reaching Out”, Courtesy of Toa Heftiba, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hurt”, Courtesy of Eric Ward, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Inside Out”, Courtesy of Joshua Rawson-Harris, Unsplash.com, CC0 License