Co-dependency is a massive topic, so I’ll be writing more on it down the line. For this blog post, I want to look at what it actually is, and how it could be showing up in your life.
This is a complex issue and is often misunderstood or only considered when in relation to addiction. Through my own recovery process I’ve come to see that co-dependency can turn up whenever there are relationships involved – not just romantic, but friendship, business and even with animals – so it’s scope goes way beyond that of the world of addicts and their caretakers.
In my understanding and experience of co-dependency, it’s not an all or nothing kind of issue to have, which is why it can be difficult to get your head around.
There is a good side to co-dependency, and when you have it under control, isn’t damaging at all. Think of everyone in a caring, nurturing role – if it weren’t for some level of co-dependent behaviours, they wouldn’t be good at what they were doing.
There are also degrees to this issue – you can be in the depths of co-dependency on one end of the spectrum or you can be just a little bit co-dependent. There are also times where you may be more co-dependent than others, like when you have a child, a sick partner or are caring for elderly parents.
It’s not like an addiction where you either are or you aren’t, there is no clear-cut line here, however I do want to stress that being on the extreme end of co-dependency can be as destructive and harming as any addiction, to yourself and to those around you.
Note: bear with me through the following section, definitions can be boring, but I wanted to just share what is out there.
What is Co-dependency?
Defining co-dependency is part of the problem, there are so many definitions and everyone has an opinion. I also feel that co-dependency is the name given to a collection of behaviours which inherently aren’t negative, but when used excessively can become damaging.
I’m going to take a look at three definitions from people who have done extensive research and written books on the topic.
Melody Beattie defines it as; “A situation where one person (the co-dependent) has let another person’s behaviour effect them, and who is obsessed with controlling that persons behaviour.”
This definition would resonate with you if you are in an abusive relationship or with a partner who is a narcissist or in active addiction.
Robert Subby, in his book ‘Co-dependency: An emerging issue’ defines it as; “An emotional, psychological and behavioural condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. Rules which prevent the open expression of feeling as well as the direct discussion of personal as well as interpersonal problems.”
This definition would resonate if you grew up in a family where one of your siblings had special needs, or where a parent was struggling with depression. In my case, I grew up in a family where gender roles were heavily enforced, which is why this definition speaks to me.
Ross Rosenberg, who wrote ‘The Human Magnet Syndrome’ – defines it as; “Co-dependency is a psychological condition that is manifested in a relationships. Co-dependents give a great deal more love, care and respect (LRC) from others than they expect, request and ultimately receive. Even though co-dependents are resentful and angry about the LRC inequality, they do not terminate the relationship. In the event that they or their partner do end the relationship, co-dependents perpetually find themselves on the giving end of a new relationship.”
What stands out in all of these definitions is that co-dependency revolves around relationships – personally I’ve experienced co-dependency not only in almost all of my romantic relationships, but in my friendship relationships too (and probably where most of my heartache happened). I’ve also had it effect me in business and some people have expressed similar feelings with pets – so it’s far reaching and has really destructive effects if not seen to.
Enough with the definitions, let’s look at how co-dependency shows up and the consequences it can have.
In my own life, one of the ways co-dependency has shown up has been with excessive responsibility towards maintaining relationships. As I mentioned earlier, my co-dependency with friends has caused me more heartache than any of my other relationships. I’d spend years pouring myself into a friendship, only to have it end abruptly, over a very small, insignificant event or issue. I’d then obsess over what I’d done to cause the breakdown. It was only through support groups and a better understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like, that I was able to start seeing the role I played, what wasn’t mine at all, and what to look for in healthier relationships moving forward.
The Universe also blessed me with the challenge of being married to an addict for a time. This is where my co-dependency took to new levels, mainly around trying to control my feelings by controlling my partner and putting my own needs last (or not even considering them at all) in order to make sure that he stayed clean.
Co-dependency even showed up in my career! I had my own business for 8 years, which I was totally co-dependent with. It came first in everything and caused a lot of stress, anxiety and had a large impact on me financially too.
You will also see co-dependence in the mother of a child struggling with addiction – where she gives him money to get the drugs he needs because she can’t stand to see him suffering. You will also find it in the wife who continues to cook and clean for her husband, despite getting very little from him in terms of love and respect, or in the mother who still does her adult child’s laundry, just to feel needed.
Most of these are extreme cases, and many of us engage in co-dependent behaviours from time to time depending on the circumstances. In its most severe form, co-dependence can have devastating effects on your self-esteem, self-worth, financial stability, emotional stability and connection with others and most importantly, the connection with yourself!
You may not relate to any of these examples, what really helped me understand co-dependency better, was to look at the characteristics and behaviour patterns around this issue. I’ve listed them below:
I have difficulty identifying what I’m feeling
I minimize, alter or deny how I truly feel
I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others.
I label others with my negative traits
I get resentful when people don’t take my advice
I can take care of myself without any help from those around me
I mask my pain in various ways such as anger, humour or isolation
I express negativity or aggression in indirect and passive ways
I do not recognise the unavailability of those people to whom I’m attracted.
Low Self-Esteem Patterns
I have difficulty making decisions
I judge what I think, say or do harshly, as never good enough.
I am embarrassed to receive recognition, praise or gifts
I value others approval of my thinking, feelings and behaviour over my own
I do not perceive myself as a lovable or worthwhile person
I constantly seek recognition that I think I deserve
I have difficulty admitting that I made a mistake
I need to appear to be right in the eyes of others and will even lie to look good.
I am unable to ask others to meet my needs or desires
I perceive myself as superior to others
I look to others to provide my sense of safety
I have difficulty getting started, meeting deadlines and completing projects
I have trouble setting healthy priorities.
I am extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long
I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger
I put aside my own interests in order to do what others want
I am hyper vigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings
I am afraid to express my beliefs, opinions and feelings when they differ from those around me.
I accept sexual attention when I want love.
Did any of these resonate with you? This may or may not make you co-dependent, but may shed some light on destructive patterns in your own life. And to mention once again, a lot of these characteristics have a good side like loyalty, offering support and empathy – the issues start when these are over-used or done in a way that puts you at risk or where your needs are never met.
Some questions to ask yourself
- Where in your life are you consistently putting the needs of others, before your own?
- What is the payoff for you?
- What is the cost?
Shew, I think that’s enough for now. If you are feeling stuck in some way which relates to co-dependency, then get in touch. We can look at opportunities for you to move beyond behaviours which may be causing you harm or hurt and into a more fulfilled, balanced experience.