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What is Codependency?

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Codependency refers to a relationship that is dysfunctional and more or less one-sided. In the most simplistic terms, one person is the giver in the relationship and one person is the taker.  However, codependency is not that simple, and understanding what real codependency is, what the possible causes are, and how to overcome it are essential to establishing healthy, interdependent relationships. 

Codependency is a term that was first introduced in the 1940s. The term was used to describe the partners of individuals with alcohol or substance use disorders. Most often, back in the 1940s, these people who were described as codependent were the wives of alcoholics and those addicted to drugs. 

Codependency and Addiction

However, codependency can exist in any type of relationship. Codependency can exist between spouses, partners, work partners, parents and children, and friends. When this label first emerged the following were signs of codependency in addiction: 

  • Making excuses for someone’s behavior
  • Putting up with bad and abusive behavior
  • Continuing to provide living essentials to someone who is not contributing
  • Hiding the individual’s alcohol or drugs 
  • Protecting them from the negative consequences of their behavior
  • Trying to control or direct another person’s behavior

For example, a parent of someone who is addicted to heroin may continue to let them live in their house, give them money for things, pick them up from the streets, bail them out of jail, and more. In this case, the parent is said to be codependent and enabling the person with the addiction to continue using drugs. 

Another example is when a spouse continually bails out their husband or wife when they are drunk and embarrassing themselves. Covering for them, making excuses to their coworkers and employers time and time again are examples of codependency and codependent behaviors. This ‘enables’ the individual to continue their behaviors and alcohol or drug use because they never truly experience the consequences. 

These types of codependent behaviors were the premise of the formation of Alanon. Alanon is a support group that offers help to those individuals who have a family member or loved one who has an alcohol use disorder (AUD) or substance use disorder SUD). Al Anon helps those individuals who have a family member or loved one with an addiction to learn to set healthy boundaries and curb their own codependent behaviors. 

It’s important to note that codependency is not a clinical diagnosis, it’s not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), and there is controversy over the term itself. 

Signs of Codependency 

Since the 1940s, the use of this term and how it’s defined have grown and changed. Today, it’s understood that people can be codependent in relationships that don’t involve alcohol or drug addiction. However, in many cases of codependency, there are mental health issues present. 

According to research in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, there are four themes found in codependency. These are as follows:

  • Need to control
  • Self-sacrificing 
  • Inability or difficulty in expressing and recognizing emotions
  • Focusing on others 

While sacrificing for loved ones and focusing on their needs is part of healthy relationships, with codependency these are exhibited to the extreme. What’s more, some of these themes can even show up in a person’s relationship to themselves. 

As mentioned, there is no clinical diagnosis of codependency but experts agree on a number of signs of codependent people. In addition to the ones listed above the following are seen in the person who is the giver or caretaker in codependent relationships:

  • Having an extreme fear of being rejected or abandoned
  • Showing an excessive need to please others or be liked by others
  • Exhibiting low self-esteem or self-worth that is dependent on others
  • Finding it hard to say no even to others
  • Apologizing or taking the blame when it’s not their fault
  • Ignoring one’s own needs on an ongoing basis
  • Avoiding conflict at all costs
  • Being obsessively concerned about a loved one and what they’re doing
  • Trying to manage loved one’s lives
  • Doing things to make others happy even when they don’t want to do them
  • Putting loved ones on a pedestal

When it comes to relationships, some of these behaviors are normal and considered healthy, however, when these behaviors go to the extreme and are ongoing, it’s a sign of codependency. Sometimes when there is a crisis these behaviors listed above are normal and healthy, however, when individuals engage in these types of behaviors with others normally, it’s a sign they may be codependent. 

What Causes Codependency? 

Many times people want to know what causes codependency in themselves or others. Codependency has been linked to growing up in dysfunctional families or home environments. Often, the person who becomes codependent had a parent with substance abuse issues or mental health issues. Sometimes, an individual with codependent behaviors had one or both parents who were either very controlling or neglectful. 

Vicki Botnik, a marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, CA, states the following in regards to codependency and upbringing, 

“Most contributing factors to this condition begin with parents who, for one reason or another, have poor boundaries,” Botnick explained. “And when your needs continually go unmet, you become unable to assert yourself or even know what you should ask for,” she continued. 

In addition to mental health and substance abuse issues, childhood trauma can also contribute to the causes of codependency. Here are some key issues that can lead someone to become codependent: 

  • Experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Having neglectful parents or caregivers
  • Having a caregiver or parent with a  personality disorder like narcissism, borderline personality disorder, etc. 
  • Controlling and overprotective caregivers or parents
  • Experiencing abandonment by one or both parents
  • Having caregivers or parents go between being caring and loving to distant and unavailable
  • Having parents or caregivers who are overly critical  and judgemental 

Being raised in these types of environments can lead individuals to ignore their own needs and wants. This is in part to keep loved ones from leaving and also to keep the peace, avoid conflict, and keep others happy. 

How to Overcome Codependency and Heal

Being codependent can leave you feeling alone, empty, burned out, and hopeless. However, it’s vital to understand that you can recover from being codependent. Therapy for codependency is a great place to start the healing process. Additionally, engaging in self-care is vital to break the cycle of codependency. 

Therapy can help individuals focus on not only recognizing their own codependent behaviors but also teach them how to set healthy boundaries, how to learn to take care of themselves, ways to overcome people-pleasing tendencies, and how to address any underlying mental health issues. 

As mentioned, along with therapy, learning how to take good care of one’s self is vital in overcoming codependency. This can include taking time to recognize and acknowledge one’s emotions and feelings, reflecting on these feelings, learning to spend time doing things you find enjoyable, recharging your own batteries in healthy ways, and taking time to develop your own hobbies and interests. 

Being codependent can be lonely and exhausting. After all, it can seem like all you do is give and all your loved ones do is take. And, in truly codependent relationships, this is not far from the truth. However, recognizing that you may be codependent is the first step to healing. There are many therapists and programs that can help with overcoming codependency. If you have a loved one who has an addiction to alcohol or drugs, Alanon is a great place to start. This support group is free, anonymous, and has years upon years of experience helping others to overcome codependency. 

Futures Recovery Healthcare supports all those who are ready to begin healing from alcohol and substance abuse. In addition, Futures programming involves the families of those with addiction issues so they too can heal and reclaim their lives without alcohol, drugs, or codependency. To learn more about our programs explore online or call us at 866-804-2098

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