What Is Codependency?

  It may seem strange to imagine it, but setting boundaries and loving oneself are skills that must be learned and practiced. Ideally, we pick these skills up as children when our parents instill us with confidence and teach us that our value and self-worth are innate.

 Children who grow up in environments where their emotional needs are ignored, or even punished, learn a different set of lessons, however. They learn that safety is contingent on becoming caretakers for the emotions of those around them; that they must sacrifice and suppress their own needs in pursuit of a delicate peace.

 In today’s article, we’re going to explore the nature of codependency and explore ways to short-circuit the patterns of behavior it creates.

Origins of the Term

 Codependency was first used in the 1950s to describe the relationship dynamic between someone struggling with addiction and the partner who is enabling them to continue their self-destructive behavior.

 Over time, our understanding has evolved to recognize that while codependency and addiction frequently go hand-in-hand, that isn’t always the case. Today, we recognize codependency as a complex pattern of behaviors that sustain abuse and dysfunction in our relationships.

An Identity Crisis

 Fundamentally, codependency is a crisis of self. A lack of clear identity and self-worth in a codependent person drives them to seek validation through others. Codependents never learned to love themselves or connect with their own emotions and needs as children.

 Generally, they gain self-worth by caring for others. When working with clients who aren’t sure whether or not they’re struggling with codependency, I ask them to consider certain questions:

  • Do you have and maintain hobbies and interests of your own?
  • Does it feel uncomfortable for you to express your needs and desires?
  • Is it difficult for you to say no to others?
  • Are you worried about upsetting or offending others?
  • Do you sacrifice your own needs to take care of others?

  Codependents struggle to maintain their own identity separate from their relationships. They may have a tendency to put all of their attention and focus on their partner, causing other friendships and areas of their life to suffer.

couple holding hands with only arms showing in photoSigns of Codependency

 When you care for others at your own expense, it can be a particularly cruel form of neglect. With low self-esteem or self-confidence comes the sense that you don’t deserve to be loved or cared for—a negative belief that feeds on itself. People struggling with codependency often end up under a high amount of stress, juggling anxiety, depression, and loss of self. Some signs of codependent behavior include:

  • Difficulty setting boundaries
  • Low self-esteem
  • Dependency on relationships to feel a sense of self-worth
  • Neglecting friendships and interests
  • Sacrificing one’s own desires and passions to care for another
  • Intense fear of abandonment or being alone

 The Dark Side of Codependency

 It may be tempting to think of someone struggling with codependency as a victim, but the truth is more complicated. In some circumstances, codependents can become addicted to the praise and validation they receive for caretaking and sacrificing for others. When those sacrifices go unnoticed, it gives rise to feelings of resentment and anger. In this way, the codependent can sometimes become an abuser in their own right.

 Codependency follows a pattern of attraction, enabling, neglect, resentment, and crisis—often followed by reconciliation. Partners learn to tolerate these stormy relationships because they’re addicted to the high of reconciliation and period of peace that follows.

Getting Support

 Addressing codependency means addressing old wounds from childhood. As is often the case, the first step is recognizing the problem and acknowledging that it exists. It’s possible to set aside these patterns of behavior and replace them with healthier ones instead.

 Recovering from codependency means learning to grow strong by loving and caring for yourself the way you’d care for others. If you’re interested in learning more, reach out to schedule a free consultation for couples or relationship counseling.