I had my fair share of unhealthy relationships. I’ve been in both positions during breakups: The one who did everything in their power to keep the relationship going, and the one who pushed the other person away out of fear. I have allowed my insecurities to get the best of me, and I have hurt a lot of people in the process. I was convinced for a long time that being in a relationship was the only way for me to feel good about myself, but that is ultimately a very harmful thought process.
I centered my life around my partner time after time, and started to lose a sense of who I was and what I really wanted. I wanted a partner I could depend on to make me feel loved, but this grew into an obsession with “making things work.” I was looking for anything else to fix besides what was wrong with myself. No one wants to be abandoned. I thought loving someone so much couldn’t possibly be a bad thing.
Everyone has heard of “codependency” at some point in their lives, but the term has a lot of complicated baggage attached to it that can make it difficult to parse. The word can be used in many different contexts. It originally was applied to a codependency on substance abuse. Researchers used the term in that context for years, but now they believe it to be more relevant when used to describe a dependence on certain intense relationships in a person’s life. Relationship codependency may lead affected individuals to feel as though they are responsible for the feelings and actions of their loved ones, allowing their personal wants and needs to be subsumed in the process.
What causes codependency?
It is often rooted in childhood, when a child’s emotions are ignored or even punished. Feeling emotionally neglected can give a child low self-esteem, and leave them feeling unwanted into adulthood. When a child has a parent who is absent and not fulfilling their role as guardian, it may cause that child to perform tasks that are beyond their developmental ability. Since children are not fully grown, they have to fill the role of “adult” and spend their time keeping the household running, while ignoring their own needs. This conditions them to always be anticipating and prioritizing other people’s needs ahead of their own.
Codependency can be characterized as a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies heavily on other people for approval and a sense of identity. Codependency has two different roles: The enabled and the enabler. The enabler encourages the enabled’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, or lack of responsibility, by passively allowing or actively encouraging the enabled to give up their own autonomy, and just do whatever the enabler wants them to do. These types of relationships can be very emotionally destructive and toxic. Codependent behavior is a learned behavior that can even be passed down from one generation to another.
What does codependency look like?
Here are some of the common characteristics of codependent people:
- Low self-esteem. You tend to feel like you’re not good enough or you’re constantly comparing yourself to others. Guilt and perfectionism often correlate with low self-esteem. You try to help other people live their lives rather than your own, and you base how you view yourself on your perceived usefulness to others.
- Depression. Feeling sad and dejected. It can affect how you feel, think, and act on a daily basis. You may feel suicidal and uninterested in things you used to love doing. You tend to be pessimistic about the world around you.
- Having poor boundaries. You feel responsible for other people’s feelings. You might oscillate between having weak boundaries and having boundaries that are far too strict. You bounce back and forth between these two poles. You allow others to hurt you and keep letting them hurt you. You may complain and try to blame others instead of taking responsibility for your own actions.
- A need for control. You like having control to help you feel safe and secure. You want to control those close to you. You tell people what they should and shouldn’t do. You try to control events and people through helplessness, guilt, and coercion.
- Fear of abandonment. This can stem from childhood, and could be related to a loss of a parent. It can also stem from not getting enough physical and emotional care. If a parent is incapable of empathizing with their child, the child will feel misunderstood, alone, or rejected. These experiences can lead to a fear of being abandoned by others later on in life.
- Obsessive personality. You spend all your time thinking about other people or relationships. This stems from having deep insecurity about how you feel about yourself. You may find yourself anxious and focused on other people and their problems. You might find yourself fantasizing how things should be, as opposed to thinking about how they really are.
- Problems with intimacy. Being afraid of being judged, rejected, or abandoned in an intimate relationship. You may also find yourself distancing yourself from your partner because you are afraid of being open with someone. Or it can even be the opposite where you have sex when you would rather be nurtured and feel loved.
- Trouble communicating. Codependents have trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings. Individuals may also be afraid to own up to their own problems, or not want to upset anyone. You may try to say what you think will please people.
- Anxiety. Having intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear. Anxiety can interfere with daily activities and can become difficult to control. When you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. You become defensive and disagreeable.
If any of characteristics apply to you, use this a reference point to seek help. There can be some disastrous consequences if someone who is codependent is not being treated for it.
What are the consequences of codependency?
Codependents might not even realize what they’re doing and how dire the consequences of their behavior can be. Codependency can actually lead to more destructive addictive behaviors like drugs, alcoholism, sex, and eating disorders as coping mechanisms for trauma. They are less likely to seek medical care for their addictions, and can fall prey to stressful situations which can develop into depression. There may also some physical consequences as well, such as ulcers, respiratory issues, and heart problems. Codependency can be classified as a disease, since it can progress into something worse as a response to trauma. Many codependents may feel immense shame, which can lead to a vicious cycle of compulsive behaviors, abuse, and depression.
What to do about it?
Luckily, codependency is a learned behavior, which means it can be fixed! Here are some healthy steps to start to heal yourself from codependency:
- Start by being honest with yourself and with your loved ones. Begin by letting your true feelings be known. Be honest about your needs and desires.
- Stop thinking negatively. This can be very difficult, but try to catch yourself when putting yourself down. Have higher expectations of yourself, but don’t berate yourself when you don’t meet them.
- There is nothing wrong with taking breaks from your partner and having a life outside of them. Spend time with friends and remind yourself who you really are.
- Set boundaries. Codependents often have trouble with boundaries. Learning what they are and communicating them really does help you and your partner know what is and isn’t okay. Talk with your partner about your needs.
- There is always counseling and peer groups available. Treatment can involve exploring early childhood issues and relationships at the heart of your current destructive behavior patterns. Therapy can help co-dependents identify self-defeating behavior and focus on getting in touch with their feelings. There are also codependent anonymous groups, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, that help people break free of their harmful habits.
Most important of all: a healthy relationship involves both people having fully formed identities outside their time together. Take time to address your own mental health issues and get the help you need.