Codependent relationships are one-sided, unhealthy relationships where one person is highly or completely dependent on another person to meet their emotional and self-esteem needs. At the same time, they enable the other person in the relationship to maintain self-destructive behaviors, such as alcohol or drug abuse.
Codependency Serves a Need
Codependent behaviors are normal to the extent that it’s natural to want to help people we care about when we see them hurting. This holds true whether our loved one is struggling with addiction, gambling, mental health disorders or other conditions. Codependency is unhealthy because it takes these “helping” behaviors to an extreme. Our need to help gets tangled up with our own unhealthy need to control or “save” others, resulting in dysfunctional codependent relationship patterns. We begin getting our sense of identity from the role we play in our loved one’s life.
According to Melody Beattie, author and thought leader on codependency, there are two primary behaviors that emerge from codependency:
- Trying to control other people’s behaviors — We may try to control a loved one’s actions with incentives or consequences in an effort to get them to change what they’re doing.
- Taking care of people as a result of their behaviors — We may also try to help our loved ones by attempting to minimize the impact or consequences of their destructive behaviors.
These are two of the ways that codependent people meet their needs for self-esteem and self-worth.
Why Codependency Is Harmful
Codependency negatively impacts all the people involved in the relationship(s) because it maintains a detrimental dynamic. The codependent gets their emotional needs met in unhealthy ways while enabling the addicted loved one to continue getting their needs met by misusing substances.
The negative codependency dynamic is further complicated because the codependent is often blinded by their belief that they are loving, helping or saving their loved one. They can’t see how their behaviors are serving their own needs to the detriment of their loved one. Further, the substance user who is functioning within the active disease of addiction will manipulate the codependent in order to satisfy their needs created by their substance use disorder.
Signs of Codependency
In Beattie’s book, The New Codependency, she defines codependency as when a person (codependent person) has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.
People who are codependent often struggle with the following issues:
- Low self-esteem
- Poor boundaries
- Emotional reactivity — intense, uncontrollable emotions
- A need to control others
- Dysfunctional communication — trouble expressing one’s thoughts, needs and feelings, or not expressing needs for fear of “rocking the boat”
- Dependency — needing others to feel good; always needing to be in a relationship; a fear of abandonment
- Denial — denial of one’s own feelings, or denial that one has a problem, i.e., the other person is “the problem”
- Intimacy issues — difficulty having open, honest, close relationships and explaining one’s needs
Ways to Disengage From Codependence
Below are ways you can practice disengaging from codependency and practicing good self-care:
Caretaking vs. Self-Care — Instead of “always being there” for your loved one, focus on yourself by balancing the time and energy you spend on your relationship with time spent on you. This can include engaging in self-care activities like exercise, meditation and therapy, as well as good relationship practices like setting boundaries.
Saving vs. Empowering — Rather than saving or rescuing your loved one, empower them to face the consequences of their actions and solve their own problems. Encouraging them to solve their own problems and take healthy risks forces them to learn new skills that will help them develop self-esteem and independence.
People-Pleasing vs. Building Self-Esteem — People-pleasing is a passive form of manipulation that allows the codependent to get his or her needs for self-worth and self-esteem met. Instead of being a people-pleaser, figure out what makes you feel good and pleased with yourself. This may include helping others as long as it is in balance and only one of many ways you feel good about yourself.
“Yes” Person vs. Honest Communication — Similar to the people-pleaser, the yes person is engaging in passive manipulation. This is partly due to difficulty communicating one’s true, authentic thoughts and feelings and a need to control the other person. Rather than attempting to feed your self-esteem and gain control by being a yes person, work on finding your authentic voice. Honest expression of your truth is vital to breaking free of codependent relationships and helping you and your loved one live happy fulfilling lives, free of addiction.
Other Codependency Resources
- Individual therapy can help you address the underlying reasons behind codependent behavior.
- If your loved one is in treatment for addiction, attending family therapy and family programs can help you learn healthy ways to support them (and yourself) in recovery.
- Support groups such as CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) and Al-Anon (fellowship for loved ones of alcoholics) can provide support from people who share similar struggles.
- There are also several online resources and self-help books on codependency such as Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie (Hazelden, 1986), Facing Codependence, by Pia Mellody (Harper & Row, 2003) and Voices of Caregiving, The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength, by The Healing Project (LaChance, 2008).
By Jack Gilbert, LCSW, Director of Clinical Services at Clarity Way