“Codependency.” Heard of it? The buzzword is often used casually online and throughout the mental health community to describe unhealthy relationships. But what does a codependent relationship actually look like? Here’s what you need to know:
What is a codependent relationship?
Codependency is a type of relationship where one person feels they must care for the other at all costs in order to be worthy of their love and attention. In some situations, the relationship can turn manipulative, where the codependent person feels they must control the other’s life in order to keep them safe.
Ultimately, however, a codependent relationship is not healthy. The codependent person will struggle to understand their own identity apart from caring for the addicted person, and their efforts can actually impede the addicted person’s ability to get better.
Surprisingly, “codependency” is not an actual medical term, but rather a set of behaviors that can occur in someone who is close to a person with an addiction or other mental health problem. It’s not a mental illness itself, but in many ways, a developed response to dealing with someone with mental illness. For this reason, when seeking a therapist, it’s important to find a compassionate one who is able to understand codependency in the context of the wider relationship.
Signs of Codependency
Below is a list of common signs of codependency. However, every situation is different, it’s important to note that exhibiting these behaviors does not necessarily mean you are in a codependent relationship. A therapist will be able to help you make that distinction.
1) Covering for the other person’s shortcomings
A person in a codependent relationship might feel responsible for the other person’s behavior, leading them to make excuses to the person’s boss or school, or loan money to them to keep them from stealing.
2) Often being worried that the other person will leave
A person exhibiting codependent behavior might experience a deep-seated fear of their loved one leaving them. Because of this, they’ll do just about anything they believe will help keep the relationship alive, even if the relationship is damaging.
3) Focusing on the other person’s emotions
A hallmark of codependent behavior is having difficulty identifying your own emotions and separating them from the other person’s. You might get wrapped up in the emotional life of the addict, riding their rollercoaster and trying to keep them stable so you can feel stable yourself.
4) Putting the other person’s needs before your own
Sometimes, putting the other person first is simply part of a loving relationship. But in a codependent relationship, the individual will place far more importance on the other person’s well-being than their own. They place their self-worth in being able to care for the other person. And when those efforts don’t work, the codependent person can get depressed.
5) Letting go of personal values for the other person’s
A codependent person will stay extremely loyal to someone, even if that person doesn’t deserve their loyalty. They might lay strong boundaries at first, but they’ll ultimately do what they have to in order to avoid the other person’s anger and rejection. For example, they might crave love,but settle for sexual attention. They may lose their own interests and be wrapped up in what the addict likes to do.
6) Keeping track of the other person
It’s one thing to make sure your loved one is safe. But in a codependent relationship, that behavior can become obsessive. They’re worried about the person, and they feel that they have to keep tabs on him or her. A codependent person might spend a lot of time worrying about what their loved one is doing or wondering where they are, and ask them often about their plans.
7) Attempting to convince others of the right way to do things
As the codependent person tries to maintain as much stability at home as possible, they may try to control the people around them. They’ll often put themselves in situations where others are dependent on them, and will offer advice even when it’s not asked for. They think they can “fix” the addict and help them get better.
8) Avoiding conflict
The codependent person may act very passively around the addicted individual. They’ll use indirect communication, and avoid showing any feelings that might incite the other person’s anger, harsh words, or violence.
9) Self harm
When outward control doesn’t work, the codependent person might direct that control inward. For example, studies show a correlation between codependent relationships and developing eating disorders. Trying to control one’s body can also take the form of cutting and other self-harm behaviors.
Every codependent relationship is different
Codependency used to be defined as the behavior pattern found in an addicted person’s spouse. Today, though, the same patterns can be recognized in parent-child relationships, or even an entire family. It will also manifest in different ways depending on the situation.
For example, a parent of young children might try to compensate for the other parent’s addiction by focusing intensely on the kids’ comfort. If a child has an addicted parent, especially if the parent is single, the child will often be forced to take on an adult role very early in life. Even aging parents with addicted adult children may act codependently, caring for them far beyond the normal “launching phase” when children learn how to be self-sufficient.
It’s a challenge for the codependent person to move past their relationship because they’re often so wrapped up in the other person’s life that they can’t distinguish what they want for themselves. But outside of codependency is another type of relationship commonly referred to as “interdependency.”
An interdependent relationship is healthy. While the two people are “dependent” on one another, it comes from a place of love and trust. The two people have a strong sense of self and are able to choose to rely on the other person and work together toward a shared future, instead of feeling the need to.
A person in a codependent relationship might not even understand that relationships can operate differently from what they’re experiencing right now. But an interdependent relationship type is more fulfilling, healthier, and attainable.
Don’t wait to get professional support
If you are in a codependent relationship with someone struggling with an addiction, the best thing you can do for your loved one is help them get into addiction treatment while seeking help for yourself. At The Recovery Village, we understand that addiction affects the whole family. Treatment requires a holistic approach that addresses addiction in the context of the individual’s entire life. Talk to one of our representatives at 844-505-5212 to get any questions answered and learn how we can help.
Stafford, LL. “Is codependency a meaningful concept?” PubMed.gov. National Center for Biotechnology Information, Apr 2011. Web. 8 June 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11885212>.
Meyer, Dinah F. “Codependency as a mediator between stressful events and eating disorders.” Journal of Clinical Psychology. Wiley Online Library, 6 Dec 1998. Web. 8 June 2016. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/%28SICI%291097-4679%28199702%2953:2%3C107::AID-JCLP3%3E3.0.CO;2-Q/abstract;jsessionid=C914E27A6D88B87203E652614EF0E224.f04t01?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false>.
“Impact of Substance Abuse on Families.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 8 June 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64258/>.
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