Unhealthy relationships often involve what mental health professionals describe as “codependency” or “being codependent”. This term is difficult to describe, as it can manifest itself in many different ways. Some refer to codependency as “relationship addiction”, while a more clinical definition says codependency is a “set of behaviors developed to deal with an emotionally stressful relationship”.
What Is Codependency?
Codependency can be more accurately described by a set of patterns and behaviors than a textbook definition. In general, codependency occurs due to beliefs we have about ourselves, or deficiencies in self esteem.
People who are codependent may find themselves behaving in any of the following ways, as adapted from the teachings of Codepedency Anonymous, a group devoted to helping codependent people recover from their behaviors and learn to develop normal relationships.
Symptoms of Being Codependent
Some of the symptoms of being codependent include having difficulty deciding exactly how you feel. The truth is that neurotypical people can quite easily define their mood and feelings. Codepenent individuals have developed such a muddy opinion of themselves and those around them that they have trouble deciphering their own emotional responses. In the same vein, people with this problem usually deny or avoid certain feelings as a control mechanism, thinking that if they ignore how they’re feeling or pretend to feel a different way, the problem will solve itself. Too often, it does not.
If you have difficulty making your own decisions on a grand scale (not just picking out a restaurant or choosing what shirt to wear), this can be a warning sign of codependence. You may be depending too much on the opinions or tastes of other people in order to ignore your own feelings or simply because you can’t identify them. Along the same lines, you might feel that your opinions or wishes are just “not good enough”, therefore you don’t expect anyone to respect your feelings or your wishes.
In order to avoid rejection or anger, codependent people compromise their personal values or integrity systems. Because of this constant compromise, these people are extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, so much so that they mirror these feelings and find themselves feeling the same. If you get around a depressed person and find yourself becoming similarly depressed, you may have a personality type that lends itself to codependency.
Other take advantage of this facet of your personality — they see you as extremely loyal, and manipulate you because they know they cna get away with it. This often means that you remain in negative or harmful relationships far too long. It is at this point that most codependent people begin to realize their problem, or have it pointed out to them.
Dangerous Aspects of Codependency
One of the dangerous aspects of codependency is the fact that codependents will often substitute physical love for actual love — in other words, accepting sex as a substitue for true feelings. This can lead to undesirable sexual circumstances, when the desire for sex overcomes a person’s “judgement”, and all of the harmful effects of promiscuous sex begin to appear: STDs, unplanned pregnancy, feelings of rejection, etc. These ‘symptoms’ of codependency can push the codependent even further into their mental instability.
Besides impact on their own lives, codependent people can negatively affect those around them, attempting to ‘control’ various aspects of their friends and loved one’s lives. A common belief among most people unaware of their codependence is that “other people are incapable of taking care of themselves”. This is a simple case of projection, whereby the codependents feelings about themselves are reflected onto their opinion of other people, perhaps so that they feel more normal. This feeling, however, leads to some truly harmful behavior, such as bullying people into thinking the way a codependent thinks they “should” feel. A codependent may constantly offer advice, even when it is unwanted, or give money and gifts to friends to win their approval. The fact is that the codependent feels he or she has to be “needed” in order to have a healthy relationship with another person.
How Do I Stop Being Codependent?
It is obvious that codependence is a destructive and negative set of behaviors and feelings — so how do I stop being codependent?
There is an organization devoted to assisting codependents in their recovery — Codependents Anonymous (also known as CoDA) is a twelve step recovery group very similar to the better known Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. CoDA uses a revised version of AA’s famous “twelve steps” (“We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable”) and a similar system of fellowship and self awareness to make people aware of their codependence. For many people, simple awareness of the problem leads to the beginnings of a solution, but for others it can take a lifetime to develop healthy relationship habits. CoDA offers help from more experience members, often far along in their own recovery programs, as well as literature, meetings, and fellowship to assist a codependent individual through their recovery process.
Mental health experts working outside of the CoDA system tell us that co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood experiences. Professional treatment for codependency usually involves therapeutic explorations back into a person’s early childhood, their issues and their relationships, and relating this to a person’s current destructive behavior patterns. Some people, simply seeing this connection, realize the problem that exists, and begin to take steps to counter their codependency. Treatment also includes education through literature and therapy, therapy in groups where communication exercises occur, and specialized therapy that helps codependents rediscover themselves, thus identifying some negative behavior patterns by isolation and acknowledgement. Recent breakthroughs in treatment also focus on helping patients get in touch with “buried” feelings — in extreme cases using therapeutic drugs — or by reconstructing a family dynamic in a therapy setting. The goal of these treatments is to allow a patient to experience their full range of feelings again, rather than ignore or bury what they see as harmful or negative emotions.
If you or someone you know is codependent, and is in danger of hurting themselves or others, there are many organizations to get in touch with for assistance. You can try Codependents Anonymous by visiting their website or calling their headquarters at (602) 277-7991.
The organization Mental Health America is another great resource — call them toll free at 1-800-273-TALK to discuss options for treatment, or just to learn more.
Codependency is a serious issue, affecting the mental health and well being of everyone around codependent people, not just the individual themselves. Do yourself or your friend a favor, and suggest they get help. Remind them that they are not alone.