You have probably not only heard of the term ‘codependency’ by now, but you’ve likely even used it offhandedly at some point. “I’m just in a bad mood, stop being so codependent”. “I am so codependent on coffee I can’t live without my morning cup”.
But how many of us know what the term really means? What is the real definition of codependency?
Well the truth is, its meaning has actually changed.
The original use of the word codependency rose out of Alcoholics Anonymous as a way to describe the partners of alcohol abusers. It was noticed that the partners themselves, despite not having a drinking problem, were in a way ‘hooked’ too, in that they were ‘addicted to the addict’. They often had a pattern of being involved with alcoholics, and/or grew up with a parent who was an addict of some sort, whether that was drink, drugs, gambling or a sexual addiction.
The term became popularised and began to grow in meaning to refer to ‘people addiction’ and relationships where one person sacrificed their wellbeing to manipulate the attentions of another. This change in meaning was connected to the release and wildfire success of several books, including Women Who Love to Much by Robin Norwood and Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. Interestingly, Melody Beattie’s book was originally rejected by twenty publishers who felt there weren’t enough codependents out there to make publishing the book worthwhile!
Little did they know that codependency would become such an overused term its meaning even began to morph and grow as society itself changed and saw new challenges. Nowadays the term is used colloquially to refer to any sort of dependency on the needs of another. “I can’t stand it when he gets upset with me, I’m so codependent!”
But we are all at some point a bit needy. Does that mean we are all essentially codependent? Making the term useless? The great codependency hoax, anyone?
Well, yes and no.
It is true that the word was made up by therapists to describe a certain group of people’s behaviours, and isn’t some historical or genetic condition.
And it’s also true that we will all experience times in our life when we act codependently. We all go through a phase when we are growing up of trying too hard to please someone else. Perhaps it was an older sibling, or a teacher, or our school crush that we fixated on impressing. But eventually, if our personal development was healthy, we realised that we just have to be ourselves regardless of what other people think.
Of course occasionally even the healthiest adult will fall into still being a ‘pleaser’, such as when you start a new job and want your boss to like you. And every now and then we all fail at saying no and put other’s needs first due to our society’s focus on being ‘polite’ and ‘nice’. Or we’ll be controlling, another sign of codependency, giving someone a long sermon about their behaviour that is frustrating us.
But in therapeutic terms, these are just instances of ‘codependent behaviour’, not of being a full-blown codependent. And it’s important to note what codependency is not.
What is codependency not?
It’s not caring about and giving our all to people we love and wanting them to be happy. It’s not feeling briefly like a victim when someone totally betrays our trust, or wanting to control others’ behaviours when we see them acting destructively or putting themselves in harm’s way. These are all normal reactions and not signs of a codependent relationship.
Codependency is also not exhibiting control to the level of cruelty. That falls more under Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Sociopathy. Codependency is also not wanting to control your environment, which is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And it’s not about just wanting your own way all the time, which is just basic selfishness. Nor does it apply to every person whose partner drinks too much.
What IS codependency, then?
Codependency is about an obsessive, all-consuming need to please and win another’s attentions, to the point you will control and manipulate them to do so as well as sacrifice your own wellbeing if that is what it takes. In a codependent relationship you lose sight of your real needs because you are consumed by the pattern.
Perhaps one of the main ways to determine codependency is to stop looking at the ‘what’ (neediness, clinginess, control) and look at the ‘why’. Why are you doing these behaviours?
If you are over-giving because you are generous or enjoy what you are giving, it’s different then over-giving because you desperately want someone to like you. Are you worrying and thinking about someone because there is reason for concern? Or are you worrying and thinking about someone because you really can’t stop yourself and it makes you feel important? The latter examples, the ones with ‘ulterior motives’, are, of course, the ones that are codependent.
Am I codependent?
The signs you are a codependent:
- you put others’ needs before yours always
- you sabotage your own methods of survival to put the other person first, i.e., your health or career suffers
- you allow yourself to be abused if that means you keep the other’s attention, and that can mean emotional or spiritual abuse as well as physical
- you resort to extreme manipulation to keep the other person interested
- you are so caught up in the game of being wanted you actually have no idea what your real feelings are anymore
- exhibit low self care/ self neglect and low self-esteem
- suffer extreme feelings of guilt
- never set any boundaries with other people
- indulge in obsessive behaviour- think about your partner non-stop, spying on him, constantly checking in on him
- tend to victimise yourself, believing you are powerless to change your situation and things are being done ‘to’ you instead of chosen by you
Well ok, I admit I have been that obsessed with someone at some point. But at other times I’m the exact opposite. How is that possible?
This is the other issue about codependency that has some people saying it’s a ‘hoax’. The very person who is extremely codependent can often flip into being the exact opposite, the person pushing someone away, called by therapists ‘counterdependency’. And often, within a codependent relationship, the two partners take turns being codependent and counterdependent!
Confused? Let’s look at this dynamic.
What is counterdependency?
Counterdependency is a label for people who refuse emotional attachment. They do this, refusing to need other people, by denying they have any needs in the first place and avoiding intimate situations as often as possible.
The signs you are counterdependent:
- you suffer anxiety in close intimate relationships
- rarely ask others for help
- hide your insecurities from others
- show little awareness for the needs and wants of others
- tend to sexualise any affectionate touch
- like to always look good and be ‘right’
- often exhibit perfectionist behaviours, afraid to appear weak
- cut off from your feelings
Codependent people inevitably choose counterdependents to love, forming two sides of an unhealthy pattern. Then, when the codependent finally gathers the strength to try and walk away from the emotionally aloof counterdependent they are destroying themselves to try and win love from, what happens? The pattern sometimes totally switches! The once counterdependent panics and gets clingy, trying to hold on to the formerly codependent person who now might become cold and shut down, in other words, counterdependent.
It seems like so many modern relationships are like this, with one person blowing hot and the other cold. Isn’t that normal and just ‘passion’? Is there really an alternative?
No, it’s not normal, it’s an unhealthy pattern that is sadly too common. And yes, there is a much better option. It’s called ‘interdependency’.
Interdependency involves dependency, which might sound scary.
You’re telling me I need to be dependent? Isn’t that totally unhealthy? Shouldn’t only babies be dependent on others?
Not at all. What with our ‘cult of the individual’ in recent decades, dependency has received a bad rap. But dependency is actually healthy in the right setting.
The truth is that as humans, we all need others. We are by our very nature social animals, who used to live in tribes. Intimacy, as in deep, connected relationships of all kinds, is important to our moods, ambitions, and even our will to exist at all. And intimacy requires a sort of dependence. It means we fully trust someone else with all that we are, and trust them to be there for us.
The secret, and what makes it ‘interdependency’ instead of ‘dependency’, involves two key ingredients.
The key ingredients of an interdependent relationship
1) You come from a place of self-respect and self trust. In other words, before you depend on the one you love, you also know that if push came to shove you can depend on you to take care of you. So it’s not about needing the other person to survive, which is dependency, it’s about being able to survive by yourself but allowing the other person to help you to not just survive but to thrive.
2)You depend on each other in a completely equal way. They depend on your for some things, too. It’s an equal game of give and take.
So interdependence is when two people are both equally dependent on each other as well as dependent on themselves.
Codependency has grown in meaning to keep up with the challenges of a changing society and it can be a misunderstood, overused and also wrongly used term. While in some ways we have all shown codependent behaviours, to suffer from full codependency is different and is a real emotional and sometimes lifelong struggle that often requires therapy to overcome. It’s important that we don’t allow the flippancy with which people now use the word codependency to diminish the real pain and suffering those who are truly codependent suffer.
Codependency is above all a mistaken seeking for love by those who have only ever been shown control when growing up and have therefore mistaken control for love. And can any of us honestly judge anyone on wanting to be cared for and loved?
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