The impact, symptoms, and what you should do about it.
Psychology Today defines codependency as “a relationship in which, by being caring, highly-functional, and helpful, one is said to support, perpetuate, or enable a loved one’s irresponsible or destructive behavior.”1This enabled behavior may also be abusive. Codependency originally was a title given to relationships involving substance abuse2. However, it is now widely applicable and widespread.
There are several codependency symptoms, including not having the ability to set boundaries or identify needs in a relationship, justifying the poor behavior of the other, and taking responsibility for others’ well-being before their own. Importantly, there is a deep need to have self-worth validated in the relationship 3.
How Did I Become This Way, You Ask?
We formed our individual attachment style from early interaction with caregivers. Attachment theory describes how we form intimate and emotional bonds 4. If your parents or caregivers were absent, dismissed your feelings, or required you to act in a certain way to receive love, this may cause codependency in relationships 5. While stable is the desired bond, many who experience codependency have the following attachment styles.
- Dismissive Avoidant – Isolated from others to hide your feelings and avoid rejection.
- Anxious Preoccupied – Feels insecure in relationships, fears being alone.
- Anxious Avoidant – Desires closeness with others, withdraws as things become serious or intimate.
Families that produce codependents let fear, anger, and shame go unacknowledged. A child learns to repress emotions and ignore their own needs 5. Codependency rooted in this attachment trauma may lead one to question their worthiness of love. A person suffering from codependency puts their own needs aside and becomes obsessive about meeting the needs of ‘other.’ This creates a one-sided relationship, destructive and dysfunctional for both parties 1.
Even if you are aware of this tendency (though most are not), you may unintentionally find yourself unconsciously acting out these patterns learned early in life.
What Does It Look Like?
Even carrying the knowledge of the following signs and symptoms, many may not be aware of how codependency is impacting their lives. A codependent person may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms.
Codependents may not be able to adequately describe their feelings and may minimize or misreport information regarding their feelings1. Often, codependents confuse love and pity6. Efforts to “fix” the other person have caused them to become dependent7.
Low self-esteem is a factor leading to codependency. Signs include difficulty making decisions or asking for what is needed in relationships, a higher value of others’ approval than their own, and not perceiving themselves as lovable.
Persons in codependent relationships may compromise their values to avoid their partner’s anger, stay in harmful situations too long, have a fear of expressing differing viewpoints, and take on the other’s emotions.
Some codependents may have to feel needed to be in a relationship. They may believe that people aren’t able to take care of themselves, become upset when their help is declined, give gifts to influence others to their point of view, and use sex as a weapon. Codependents may avoid intimacy altogether (physical and emotional) and believe displaying emotions (or even experiencing them) are signs of weakness. Others may fixate on mistakes, their own or their partner’s6. While others may accept false explanations and excuses justifying their partner’s behavior7.
Shame may also accompany a codependent relationship. There may be a belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with the codependent3. Feelings of worthlessness and failure accompany the situation as well.
It’s important to note that codependency functions on a scale and is not considered all or none consideration. Nevertheless, the result of a codependent relationship is a feeling of one-sidedness and isolation.
What YOU Can Do!
The most difficult part of codependency is learning to escape it. The behaviors driving codependency generally don’t come from a place of malice or harm, yet a desire for love. Perhaps this is why it is so often not recognized for the potential damage it may cause in our lives. The twelve steps of CODA (Codpenedent’s Anonymous) can be view here.
Simply exiting a codependent relationship will not heal the root cause, however. Counseling or therapy is a recommended tool to use before getting into another relationship. Often codependency is coupled with anxiety or depression. It is important to address these fundamental concerns to protect your future relationships.
Take an honest inventory of the relationship in question. A healthy relationship should have a good balance of partners able to trust each other and themselves, feel secure with themselves, and have the ability to compromise9. If there is something outside of these parameters, this suggests the need for a deeper investigation.
Taking a break from the relationship or establishing boundaries may be necessary. The change can be stressful and may require support from your friends and family network.
Explore the possibility of attachment trauma. Ask the following questions:
- As a child, did a caretaker leave you hanging?
- Did it impact the way you saw yourself or others?
- What stories do you tell yourself about love?
- Should love need to be earned? Is it a reward for acceptable behavior?
- Are you worthy of it at all times, or only sometimes?
The significance of our early childhood experiences (the ones you can’t even remember) cannot be understated in the importance of forming adult relationships. New research suggests we don’t yet understand the depth of this early experience.
In order to effectively end codependent relationship patterns, we must build self-esteem, heal shame, assert proper boundaries and strive for emotional independence3. The tools required for this transition will vary per individual. Also, we often recognizing its existence is the first hurdle.
If someone you love or care about is in a codependent relationship, understand that they will use denial as a shield. However, continue to provide concrete examples of the behaviors that are demonstrating codependency and attempt to reveal the possibilities life may hold beyond this boundary.
What are your experiences with codependency?