The term “codependency” was derived around the 1970’s from studying the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships of families with an alcoholic member.
Codependency is a learned behavior that interferes with the individual achieving a healthy two-sided relationship. What might an alcoholic’s relationship look like with another individual? Answering this question will reveal many of the codependent traits an individual can develop by the interacting with the alcoholic.
Alcoholics can be very destructive, needy, and provoke a lot of conflict among relationships. As a person who interacts with this alcoholic they may start displaying enabling behaviors to suit the alcoholic.
They may avoid confrontation and go to certain lengths to avoid anything to upset the individual, such as removing the word “no” from their vocabulary. A person in this dynamic surrenders their needs to focus on the alcoholic’s needs.
Though codependency was originally a term that focused on individuals in families of addicts, it has broadened to include any form of dysfunction or mental illness. Codependency does not discriminate. It affects females and males of all ages and ethnicities.
In a dysfunctional family, from early on the codependent individual learns to sacrifice their own needs for others. They may become the caretaker or the “parentified child,” meaning they take the role of the parent due to the absence of their own parents.
Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge or discuss their dysfunction. Therefore, the emotions and needs of the child are repressed. This role the child has played continues to be the role they play as adults.
Codependent individuals feel responsible for the feelings and actions of others as if they are capable of preventing the individual’s actions from occurring. This creates an unhealthy cycle of enabling the dysfunctional member. They learn this role well and become dependent on the caretaker role. Their caretaker role becomes their identity. They know nothing other than sacrificing their own needs to please and fix others.
Codependency is a learned behavior that is observed and repeated in dysfunctional families. Because of this fact, as children grow up into teenagers and young adults, their dysfunctional role they have played continues to follow them.
How Does Codependency Affect Adults?
As a child, parent figures often were neglectful or passive, leaving the child to find their own way. As adults, because of this experience it is difficult for these individuals to trust others even in close relationships.
Communication is not a part of the codependent’s relationship; this individual never experienced a healthy or a calm discussion of their emotions in the past with their dysfunctional family, so they have no example or belief system that it would be any different.
As a child, due to the lack of support and love shown from their parents, they are desperate for attention and their insecurities lead them to continually question their partner’s behavior. Individuals who are codependent have poor self care and are not even aware of what they need emotionally. Instead they continually pour into others to feel desired, which leaves them stressed and dissatisfied.
This dynamic as the enabler and caretaker who puts others above themselves begins to play the victim in adult relationships. Codependents also are attracted to others who are stuck in this victim role and mirror the same type of behavior.
The codependent becomes addicted to the role they are playing and they love the reward of being needed. They are often involved in abusive, destructive relationships. They continue to stay in the relationship even though they know the relationship is not good.
Often times codependent individuals believe it is their duty to fix their partner’s issues. They will put themselves in horribly sticky situations for their partner. The word “no” from a codependent individual is not something you will often hear.
Because of the codependent’s past, they have a strong need to feel loved and appreciated and never to feel abandoned. This feeling guides them to continue the unhealthy cycle of staying in negative relationships.
If they get out of one relationship, it is not long before they find themselves in another. Codependent individuals do not like to be single. They seek their fulfillment and worth through their relationship with others.
Signs of Codependency
Signs of codependency may include:
- Your sense of purpose revolves around others’ needs and sacrificing yourself to meet theirs
- You have trouble saying “no”
- You have low self-esteem
- You often avoid confrontation
- A need to control others
- Fear of being abandoned or alone
- Issues with creating healthy boundaries
- Holding onto relationships no matter how unhealthy
- Poor and dysfunctional communication
- An extreme need for approval
- A tendency to do more than their share all of the time
Signs of Codependency: A Case Study
Let’s take a look into a story about an individual, Jessica, who was born into a dysfunctional home. Jessica was the oldest of five siblings. At a young age, she realized her mother was not reliable. She knew her mother was a drug user.
Her father left shortly after she was born. This led her to always crave attention — negative or positive — from the opposite sex. Her mother would often disappear for days, leaving Jessica and her siblings alone.
At age six, Jessica became the parentified child. She had to find solutions to problems that a six-year-old should never have to solve. She played the role of the caretaker since her mother was absent from her and her siblings’ lives.
As a child and teen, Jessica never was able to be a kid. She was always looking after her siblings and making sure they were loved, safe, and cared for. Jessica was the provider and although not biologically the mother, she had become a mother to her siblings.
Jessica struggled with feelings of abandonment by her mother, and insecurities developed that she could never be loved. This greatly affected all of her future relationships.
At age 18, Jessica married a man named John who was a few years older. She wanted to escape her family of origin and begin a new life. What she did not realize was that she was attracted to the same dynamic she grew up in.
Jessica noticed that John had anger issues and a difficult past, but she wanted to help him get through his hurt — after all that is the only role Jessica knew. Jessica extended her caretaker role into her marriage and eventually she was in a one-sided relationship.
John became more and more angry and lashed out verbally. John’s anger caused many issues not only in his marital relationship but also among friendships and his career. Eventually John got fired from his job due to his anger and negative behavior.
Instead of having a healthy conversation about getting John some help for his anger and discussing how it had ruined their marriage, Jessica took on two jobs and continually invested in fixing issues that would arise. Instead of dealing with confrontation, Jessica had a solution for his problem.
Jessica was not happy with the way she was being treated but was so addicted to being there for her husband. She thrived on feeling needed and knew her husband could not do it without her.
Jessica soon after found out she was pregnant. When her son was born, her husband detached more and more from the family. Jessica did not approach her husband about her needs or his recent negative behaviors. She was fearful of confrontation and swept things under the rug — or at least those things that involved her own emotions.
Jessica continued to work two jobs and play the role of caretaker not only to her son but also to her husband. She felt as if she was drowning. Amongst the weight of her husband’s issues she had been carrying she did not create boundaries or stand up for herself.
Jessica eventually realized that she could not hold her family together any longer but she also was saddened by the idea of not being the hero, the one who was always needed. Jessica felt without this component she was unworthy and unlovable, yet was conflicted with the shame of allowing her husband to treat her the way he had for many years.
Jessica realized she wanted to begin a new role. She knew she needed change but she was not sure how to create it. She knew her current role was slowly killing her. She had taken on everyone’s issues but her own.
Jessica was afraid to look at what was going on inside her heart. Her fear of change was heavy but the weight of her pain was heavier. She knew if she did not do something different she would not be able to help anyone anymore. She decided to seek professional help.
Recovering from Codependency
If you find yourself staying in a relationship that you know is unhealthy, you are unhappy, or you continually go back to the same destructive relationship, you may want to examine what is causing you to behave this way.
As a spouse or friend of a codependent individual, it is important to be able to see the factors and experiences that have led the individual to become the person they are today. As a spouse it is important that you are educated just as much as the codependent spouse is.
Even if you as the spouse are not the cause of the unhealthy dynamic it is only when you as a partner are educated that you and your spouse can work together to break the unhealthy dynamic that the codependent partner may also be trying to mirror in the marital relationship. It takes both partners examining themselves for the codependent individual to be able to break these unhealthy behaviors.
How does one break these patterns and start living a role that is healthy to the individual and his or her relationship? First off, it is very difficult to break this cycle alone. For some, it has been as far back as they can remember that the role of fixing others has been a part of their beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. This role has been played their whole lives and nothing else seems normal.
Breaking this pattern of behavior can be challenging. Individuals who struggle with codependency already are experiencing low self-worth, shame, and insecurities. They most likely are already feeling unworthy of love and are ashamed of their past.
It is important to be mindful that this is a sensitive matter. At times it feels uncomfortable and vulnerability is called to the surface. It is important to find a therapist who is able to help you identify these unhealthy patterns and transform them into healthy ones. A codependent has to be educated on the dynamic of their relationships. They have to be educated on how behaviors have affected their relationships with others.
The codependent must think more about their feelings and needs and begin to advocate for themselves. When the codependent is able to focus on themselves they are able to find what is important to them, and they start learning more of who they are and want to become. Often looking into the individual’s childhood can bring awareness as to how the individual adopted this role and how it continues to negatively impact their present relationships, occupation, and life.
“I used to spend so much time reacting and responding to everyone else that my life had no direction. Other people’s lives, problems, and wants set the course for my life. Once I realized it was okay for me to think about and identify what I wanted, remarkable things began to take place in my life.” – Sye Wells
If you find that codependency is interfering with your life and you cannot break the pattern of sacrificing your needs to fulfill others, please take time to seek help. You are important. Your needs, thoughts, and emotions are worthy.
It is time that you start thinking about you and begin to heal from the hurt you have been exposed to. You deserve something greater than what you are experiencing now. Take time for you, YOU ARE VALUABLE.