The term codependency and the concepts behind it have gained momentum in the fields of self-help and psychology over the past couple of decades. And while it is now a pretty steady part of the vernacular, “codependent” still feels a bit ambiguous. When someone says they are “codependent”, what does that actually mean? Of course, there are plenty of different interpretations of what codependency entails, so we can’t be sure what everyone means when they use these terms. This post will hopefully give a little more shape and clarity to the concept of codependency and its impact.
Definition of codependency
There are several definitions out there, but I think the therapist author of Codependent No More, Melody Beattie describes it well. She says that codependency is a state of being deeply affected by another person’s behavior or feelings to a point that you become obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. You become attached in such a way that the other person’s problems become your problems, and the way you react to the other person often becomes extreme.
Some history behind codependency
The label of “codependent” was initially coined for those in committed relationships with an alcoholic. While the concept has broadened to include a much wider scope of characteristics and people, I think that initial definition is helpful even just as an illustration of how and why people may fall in to codependency, as well as what it can look like.
When you are the partner or child of an alcoholic, you often try to learn both how to protect yourself and how to help the family member struggling with alcoholism. Sometimes, you end up having to structure your life in such a way that keeps you safe, often by attempting to control that alcoholic’s behavior. That could mean a variety of things such as hiding the liquor or trying to cut them off after a certain number of drinks, walking on eggshells when you know they have been drinking, avoiding certain topics that you know might make them mad, or making sure chores are done to avoid a blow-up. You try to manage that person’s behavior to protect yourself.
I like knowing this simple history of the term “codependent” because it sheds light on the fact that people who are codependent often (if not always) learned to be that way. In one relationship or another, they found that it was safer for them to be so deeply connected to the other person’s feelings and behaviors because then at least they knew what was coming and could adjust their own feelings and behaviors accordingly. People who are codependent likely became codependent for a good reason. Sometimes it was necessary or helpful. But eventually, living a life of codependency will start to work against you.
Characteristics of codependency
Beattie lists the following as the characteristics of codependency:
Lack of trust
Progressive (in that the intensity of codependency grows/worsens over time)
Not all of these characteristics are applicable for everyone all of the time, but each seems to be a very common struggle for people who struggle with codependency. The good news is, regardless of when these characteristics may have started for you, you are not locked in to being codependent for life! These are learned characteristics. In order to make a change, to shift away from codependency, you can re-learn how to set boundaries in your relationships, how to communicate well, how to care for someone in a healthy way, how to acknowledge and express your own feelings, and how to take back control of your own life.
If the concept of codependency resonates with you, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of our therapists here at Optimum Joy. Living in codependence can be exhausting, and whether you are ready to make changes towards healthier relationships or you just want to learn more about what codependency means/looks like, give us a call- we would love to work with you.
Written by therapist Clair Miller