What is Codependency?
Whether or not you identify yourself as codependent, you are likely familiar with its definition in one way or another. Codependent relationships are quite common. A lot of us have at least one or several traits that relate to acting codependently. But to understand it fully, let’s look at where the term originally came from.
The word “codependent” first started being used for the friends and family of individuals who were part of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Before Alcoholism was understood as a mental health disorder, or even before it was labeled an uncontrollable disease, it was thought of as merely moral weakness or “bad character” in the 1930s. Once AA became a regular program that was widely accepted, its founders began offering help to the families and spouses of those who attended AA groups. As family became an active part in the alcoholics’ treatment and support groups, the term “co-alcoholic” was coined which then changed to “co-chemically dependent”, later shortening to the term “codependent.” And here we are today.
A person who is codependent often serves a large (often what they perceive as “helpful”) role in an alcoholic or an addict’s life. Most codependent relationships revolve around some form of substance abuse. However, codependency can be learned through upbringing as well, and not involve any chemically-addicted person in a relationship.
Who is a Codependent?
A codependent person often presents themselves as a people-pleaser. Although there are several types of codependent patterns, most codependent people, as well as codependent relationships, show signs of interpersonal imbalance. For example– one person gives too much to the other, while the other person gives far too little in comparison. While every relationship has its moments of uneven giving and receiving, a codependent often gives so much of themselves to the point of total burnout, while their significant other, friend, parent, or other person involved seems to never get enough.
Anyone can be codependent: women, men, teens, older generations, and even some children. Someone who is codependent relies on the approval or acceptance of others outside of themselves for feeling loved, valuable, and important. If that love or validation stops being shown, usually a codependent person will react negatively, feel guilty, or try to be over-controlling as a means to get what they feel they need to be loveable.
Are Codependent Characteristics Genetic or Learned?
Traits of codependency vary from person to person and are often experienced in all kinds of relationships at different degrees. Codependency isn’t necessarily a genetic physical or emotional trait. However, it can be passed down through learned behavior, often times subconsciously within family groups and generations. The best producers or codependent habits are dysfunctional families. What is a dysfunctional family? Any family that ignores real issues (“the elephant in the room”), suppresses each others’ feelings or fails to encourage honest open communication and healthy relational understanding between one another.
“Learned” codependency can be seen in a family with one struggling alcoholic parent and one highly anxious, codependent parent. The parent with alcoholism might do little for the family, while the codependent feel the need to do everything to protect the kids, the reputation of the family, as well as him or herself. Because the alcoholic parent is regularly under the influence of alcohol, they may likely fail to provide what their family needs him or her to provide. Therefore, the other parent (codependent) picks up the slack in order to not step on their anyone’s toes and instead try to maintain the peace.
Then let’s assume there’s at least one child of these parents. The child sees the codependent parent and learns to avoid conflict, try to control bad or uncomfortable situations, and take care of other people as a means to feel secure and predictable. This child may carry these patterns with him or her into adulthood. Maybe they find themselves in a relationship with an alcoholic, just like their parent, and they feel committed to them anyway, as a means to “take care” of them by showing the alcoholic unconditional love.
Main Types of Codependency
Although codependency can express itself in similar ways in all codependents, there are several specific patterns that each person can experience at varying levels. These patterns are a general list of signs that are a common part of codependents’ lives.
Avoidant codependents avoid conflict at all costs. Some may avoid intimacy as well. Usually, they appear to have a wall up and have a hard time expressing vulnerability. Distractions are often tools they use to avoid personal confrontation, as well, such as important life responsibilities, chores, or expressing gratitude and appreciation.
Since avoidants fear conflict, they can often shut down when people around them are angry or upset. Another common trait of avoidant codependents is that they try desperately to get close to someone, only to then pull away with fear when a true bond begins to form. They avoid getting hurt more than anything.
Controlling codependents need to be needed. They believe other people cannot take care of themselves, and therefore, need to be in charge of taking care of everyone else. Controlling codependents tend to give advice without being asked, blame or shame loved ones for not being right, and feel resentful when others don’t think or behave in a way they expect them to. Manipulation can be a huge sign of controlling codependents. Some, especially women, can use charm or flirtation to get approval they want from others.
Compliant codependency shows itself through almost always saying “yes,” staying in unhealthy relationships, and silencing one’s own interests or desires to comply with someone else. They could be constantly worried about living up to a partner, friend, or parent’s expectations. Compliant codependents avoid change, hence they tend to be “too loyal”– even so far as remaining in dangerous living situations when they know it’s not good for them. They tend to be extremely empathetic, meaning they sense and relate to the moods and feelings of others. A lot of times, they can take on others’ feelings as their own. There is an underlying fear of rejection, and many live terrified of being “unworthy.”
Compliant codependency is possibly the most common pattern in all codependents. They feel a need to ask permission before making decisions, and always worry if what they’re saying is right. They never want to let others down, and often act too hard on themselves if they make mistakes. One major downside of this is that they tend to confuse love with pity. Many fall in love and commit to “broken” people they feel sorry for and see a need to fix. You might notice they feel overwhelmed in trying to do everything and place other people’s obligations above their own.
Because codependents usually find a sense of meaning outside of themselves, they can be extremely insecure. Indecisiveness, overthinking, and poor communication skills are common. They look to others for approval and security. It takes a lot for them to feel comfortable admitting if they’re wrong. Personal boundaries are low, and they constantly question their words, actions, and appearance.
Everyone has low self-esteem at times, but insecure codependents have it rough. Valuing other people’s opinions above their own is a battle they live with daily. They can struggle to feel an overall sense of peace, and tend to harshly criticize themselves and others.
Codependents in denial are similar to avoidants. They can have more “projecting” behaviors as compared to taking everything inwards, like low self-esteem or compliant individuals. Denial codependent behaviors quite literally deny the reality of situations at hand. They pretend everything is ok. If things aren’t ok, they may explode in blaming others for their own actions. Refusing help and saving the face of “I can do everything on my own” is their forte. A passive-aggressive response to relationship conflict is often their go-to. They usually ignore or dumb down their true feelings– “everything is fine.”
It’s important to remember that codependents are normal people– their struggles and behaviors can fluctuate with time, situation, and personal relationships. If a codependent is unaware of their behavior, they can stay stuck in a loop of unhealthy patterns until they finally realize how much their co-dependency affects their lives. The main underlying root of codependency is this:
Codependent-prone individuals either find themselves playing the victim or victimizing others.
Signs of a Codependent Relationship
Now that we know some of the common patterns of codependent individuals, what does a codependent relationship look like? Well, every relationship can look different. Some of the signs above will be part of a codependent relationship so it’s important to know what codependency looks like.
A majority of codependent relationships involve an addictive partner, but not always. Bottom line is basically that there is an unequal balance within the relationship. Dysfunctional communication and, sadly, abusive behavior can come along with codependent relationships as well.
Top signs of a Codependent Relationship
General signs, along with the above patterns of codependent behaviors, can be seen among codependent relationships. Keep in mind, a codependent relationship can be with a lover, friend, spouse, family member, or even a coworker. The signs include:
- You feel you are the person in the relationship who silences themselves to avoid conflicts.
- You may feel trapped, alone, or totally misunderstood in your relationship.
- It’s difficult to say “No”. You agree to the demands or wants of others, as a means to please them, even if it means exhausting yourself by doing something you don’t want to do.
- Your sense of purpose or overall fulfillment revolve around satisfying the other person’s needs.
- You make excuses for the other person’s problems, including drug abuse, alcoholism, destructive actions, or illegal activity.
- There’s a constant sense of worry or fear that you’re disappointing others. You highly care what people think of you.
- When making life decisions, you often go by what the other person wants, instead of taking into account what it is you really want.
- Anxiety, depression, people-pleasing, indecision, insecurity, fear of being alone, and intense feelings of unworthiness are common among yourself.
- You find yourself thinking, “Why doesn’t anyone love me?” or “What about me?”, yet don’t feel confident enough to verbalize your concerns.
- You’re a survivor of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in some way, and haven’t managed how to heal through trauma quite yet. You’re noticing how much it’s affecting your relationships.
What does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?
In a healthy relationship, each person is comfortable enough in themselves to express their honest opinions, needs, and concerns. Both people in the relationship are mature enough to take responsibility for themselves, own up to their mistakes, and try to put the effort into solving a problem. On the other hand, in codependent relationships, there’s a cycle of blame and guilt-tripping that happens between both individuals. Also, one person feels slightly dependent on the other, while the other person feels so needed that they avoid leaving the relationship at all costs.
A healthy relationship, although definitely not perfect, will carry out these relational foundations:
- Each person in the relationship feels fulfilled and at peace with themselves. If not, they know what to do to find personal fulfillment and can grow to accept themselves in a healthy way.
- Both individuals own up to their mistakes and shortcomings.
- There is no obsession over trying to become validated by other people.
- You can politely say, “No” to people, situations, and demands that you don’t feel comfortable with.
- Your life does not focus on trying to control others. You can be understanding of your friends, family members, and partner(s) without feelings terrified of their life decisions having a major impact on your personal well-being.
- There is a sense of capability within you to face and overcome personal challenges. Instead of feeling permanently stuck or victimized, you know you can figure out a solution in order to move on in life.
- You are able to recognize damaging behavior and feel confident to stand up for yourself when someone continually treats you poorly.
- You’re willing to leave a toxic relationship if it puts you or your family in any harm.
- Communication remains open, objective, and equally welcoming of each person’s input and perspective.
- You are able to forgive each other and remain honest about personal life matters.
If you have codependent relationships and tendencies, it’s possible to become aware of them and overcome old patterns. We suggest finding help or joining a support group so you don’t feel as lone! Recovery is possible, even for codependent relationships, if you’re willing to be honest and make improvements to your personal life and move forward.
If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 949-625-4019.