The first time I heard the word “codependency” was in therapy. I was assigned the book “Codependent No More” for homework. With practically every page I turned, I thought to myself, “This is me. I do this.”
Once I had my emotional, thought, and behavioral patterns explained to me in words on paper, I could see that how I had been operating in certain relationships was unhealthy, why it was unhealthy, and how I could grow. It wasn’t easy and it’s something I’m still working on, but addressing my codependency has reduced the stress in my life.
So What Exactly Is Codependency?
Codependency is hard to give a precise medical or psychological definition for. Professionals disagree on whether it’s an illness or a behavior pattern — it has characteristics of both.
Codependency was first identified as a learned coping mechanism that people develop when in a relationship or a family situation where the spouse or the parent is an alcoholic. But it can also be learned in any situation where a spouse or family member needs to overcompensate for someone else’s long-term lack of responsibility (which can be caused by drugs, depression, lengthy illness, abandonment, deployment, gambling, compulsive behaviors, mental illness, sexual issues, etc.). These situations are usually oppressive and prevent people from expressing their thoughts and feelings.
“Codependency is a way of getting needs met that doesn’t get needs met.”
For example, my codependent habits were developed during my early teen years when my dad was deployed, and my mom had cancer and then depression, all within the same couple of years. As the oldest child, I became the caretaker of my younger siblings. Through no fault of their own, my parents were unable to meet my needs and the needs of the family, so I “had” to fill in the gap.
Melody Beattie, the author of Codependent No More, writes, “Codependency is primarily a reactionary process. Codependents are reactionaries. They overreact. They underreact. But rarely do they act...We frequently react to people who are destroying themselves; we react by learning to destroy ourselves.”
Some Characteristics of Codependency
Just like the definition of codependency is difficult to nail down, the “symptoms” of codependency don’t fit into a neat little box either. The list below is neither complete nor exhaustive. (See the book for a more thorough list.)
But these traits can illustrate the kinds of behavior a codependent person uses. Each codependent person will have their own collection of behaviors they use to cope with their difficult circumstances and relationships. But the end result of being reactionary and feeling miserable is the same.
Caretaking: Codependents think, feel, and act responsible for other people’s thoughts, feelings, actions, needs, desires, well-being, and destiny. They feel compelled to help others solve their problems. They say yes when they want to say no or do things they don’t really want to do. They do more than their fair share of the work and often what other people should be doing for themselves. They’re attracted to needy people or needy people are attracted to them. They feel bored or empty without a crisis to solve.
Obsession: Codependents feel anxiety over other people and their problems, to the point of losing sleep or dropping their normal routines. They check in on people or try to catch people misbehaving.
Controlling: Codependents are afraid to let others be their true selves, and they’re afraid to let events develop naturally. They try to control others through helplessness, guilt, manipulation, threat, advice, or intimidation. They’re usually unaware of their fear of losing control.
EXAMPLE: Sarah suddenly realizes it’s after 3 p.m., and her husband didn’t call her on his lunch break like he usually does. She also realizes that it’s payday, and in the past, payday was when he would go off and get drunk. He’s only been sober a few months. So Sarah is worried that he’s gone off drinking or is planning to go off drinking. She calls his phone — no answer.
Her anxiety is now rising, and her stomach feels twisted and sick. She starts calling his colleagues, and if they don’t know where he is, she’ll start calling the bars he used to frequent. If no one has seen him, she’ll get in the car and go looking for him. Sarah can’t focus on anything else until this crisis has been resolved.
Codependents think, feel, and act responsible for other people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Low Self-Worth: Codependents pick on themselves or blame themselves. They can’t accept compliments or praise. They feel guilty about taking care of themselves or doing something nice or fun for themselves. They expect themselves to be perfect and feel guilty for past failures. They try to prove they’re good enough for others and then settle for just “being needed.”
Dependency: Codependents look for happiness from others and from relationships, so they latch onto and desperately hold onto people they think will give them happiness. But they don’t love themselves, and they often can’t believe others can love them, but they also don’t believe they can take care of themselves, so they tolerate bad relationships. Many come to equate love with pain.
EXAMPLE: Emily is a nurse who works nights and takes care of her four children during the day. She also runs the household, including the family finances and taking care of the cars. She wants to leave her abusive husband, but she’s afraid to. She’s afraid that she won’t be able to take care of herself — all by herself. She’s afraid she won’t be able to live without her husband. She’s afraid to leave him because he is a buffer from the pain of loneliness and feeling unloved.
Codependents don’t believe they can take care of themselves, so they tolerate bad relationships.
Poor Communication: Codependents often don’t mean what they say or say what they mean. They might not even know what they think or what they mean. They communicate indirectly or passive-aggressively. They can’t say no. They say what they think will make other people do what they want them to do. They have a hard time talking about their thoughts and feelings or asserting their needs. They lie to protect themselves or those they love.
Repression: They repress their thoughts and feelings. They’re afraid to let themselves be who they really are. They come across as stiff and controlled.
Anger: Codependents repress their anger. They’re often afraid of anger — in other people and in themselves. They’re afraid others will leave them if they show anger. Some codependents feel angry all the time. They might use anger to distract them from their pain. They’re often ashamed of their anger.
Denial: Codependents ignore the problems in their life. They distract themselves with busyness, working, eating, shopping, etc. They tend to get depressed or sick “for no reason.” They pretend those other issues aren’t happening either, and then wonder why they feel like they’re going crazy.
EXAMPLE: It’s Hannah’s senior year of high school, and her mom was just diagnosed with a serious case of breast cancer. So instead of getting to enjoy her senior year and participate in all of the special events, Hannah worries about her mom and takes care of her three younger siblings. Hannah takes them to school and to sports practice. She buys the family groceries and cleans the house. She babysits her siblings so her dad can be at the hospital.
Hannah is stressed, sad, and worried, but she can’t complain — she doesn’t have cancer and her family has always had a “no whining” policy. So she just sucks it up and tries to ignore her feelings. Soon, she is getting headaches for no reason, and she’s struggling to control her temper. She screams at her six-year-old brother for spilling his milk, and then feels guilty for getting so angry. So she tries even harder to just stop feeling.
Codependents often don’t mean what they say or say what they mean.
Why Codependency Is Unhealthy for Everyone Involved
Sometimes codependency is a necessary evil. It might be the only way the child of an alcoholic parent survives. But when that child grows up and carries those behaviors into their adult relationships, serious problems can arise.
Codependents are not bad people. They usually think that they’re doing something good for their unhealthy partner or family member. They’re naturally benevolent people who are concerned about the other person and are doing what they can to ameliorate the pain and chaos caused by them.
But codependency is essentially enabling. While you may not be providing a drug addict with more meth, you’re giving the other person permission and freedom to continue to make harmful choices and to continue to escape the consequences of their choices. This results in both people continuing to get hurt.
Codependents are naturally benevolent and caring people.
Additionally, codependent relationships are often centered on control — the codependent person strives to maintain control over the unhealthy person, over their situation, over their life, etc. But the unhealthy person is usually the one who is really in control — they cause the problems and manipulate the codependent person to stay. They are the actors, and the codependents are the reactors. Struggling for control over someone who is out of control — and using that chaos to control you — creates a dynamic you can never resolve on your own.
How Is Codependency Different from Just Being a Good Person?
This question inevitably comes up whenever I talk about codependency: What’s the difference between being a nice, helpful, loving person and being a codependent person? It seems like the line between the two is pretty fuzzy.
I think it’s a matter of degree. There’s being nice, and then there’s being a doormat. There’s doing a good deed, and then there’s being scrupulous. There’s serving your spouse, and then there’s being your spouse’s servant. There’s biting back an angry comment, and then there’s ignoring your feelings to the point where you don’t feel anything. There’s keeping family problems out of the public eye, and then there’s denying that the problems even exist. There’s checking in with your spouse, and then there’s tracking his every move. Codependency exists at the extreme, and that’s what makes it unhealthy.
There’s being nice, and then there’s being a doormat.
A healthy relationship functions in a way that BOTH people have the space and the freedom to act for themselves, to assert their needs, to express their feelings, and to ask for and receive help from the other. There needs to be respect and responsibility on both sides. Not one spouse giving 150% and the other giving -20%.
How To Stop Being Codependent
One simple step (I said simple, not easy), is to allow other people to do what they can and should do for themselves. Don’t step in and do it all for them. That’s just enabling. That’s allowing the other person to escape the consequences of their actions and perpetuate their behavior. Let the other person live their life — even if they’re making less than great decisions — because it’s THEIR life. You’re not responsible for their every thought, word, or action, and you’re not responsible for mitigating their consequences — so stop acting like you are.
Don’t do for other people what they could and should do for themselves.
Instead, start living your life. Act, don’t just react. Set boundaries and maintain them. Start saying no. Stop controlling everything and everyone around you. Learn to take care of yourself and your needs. Learn to assert yourself and to express your thoughts and feelings in a healthy way. Allow yourself to feel your feelings and take responsibility for them. Rediscover your interests, passions, and dreams, then spend time working towards them.
If you're not sure how to do these things, or you’re currently in an abusive/alcoholic relationship, I recommend that you seek professional help from a counselor or therapist. An outside perspective can be extremely helpful in helping you see where your thoughts and feelings are causing you to make poor decisions, and what actions you can take to get healthy. Join a support group, like Al-Anon. You’re not alone.
Because codependency does exist on a spectrum, from less harmful to more debilitating behaviors, I encourage you to read Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie, if you think you might be struggling with codependency. It can change your life for good.