Sometimes relationships can be messy. Living in a post-Genesis 3 world, it’s natural to expect that every aspect of our lives, including our relationships, will be affected by imperfection and unhealthy ways of relating to one another. A codependent relationship is one of those ways.
But what exactly is codependency, and how do you know if you’re in a codependent relationship? And, if you find that you are in a codependent relationship, what can you do about it?
“Codependency” – What’s that?There is a saying – “no one is an island.” This saying implies that human beings are relational, and we can’t exist in isolation from others. There is a very basic sense in which we all need one another. This type of dependence is mutual, in that both parties support one another and find value in the relationship.
“Codependency,” however, is a term that’s usually used to describe relationships in which a person is needy or dependent upon someone else. This neediness is extreme – the codependent person will go as far as reorienting their life and planning around pleasing the other person.
They need the other person – the enabler – and this enabler also needs to be needed; this is what is called the cycle of codependency. The neediness of the codependent person is so deep that their sense of self-worth and esteem is tied to pleasing and making sacrifices for the other person, and the enabler facilitates and welcomes it. The codependent person’s identity is tied to the relationship and they feel worthless unless they make sacrifices for and feel valuable to the enabler.
So, “codependency” describes a dysfunctional and one-sided relationship where one person is deeply reliant on someone else to meet their needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain addictive or irresponsible behavior.
The problem with a codependent relationship is thus on both sides – the codependent person, and the enabler. The codependent person orients themselves around the enabler, and the enabler allows this; instead of creating room for the codependent person to be their own person and to derive their sense of self and value apart from the enabler, the enabler facilitates this unequal and one-sided relationship.
What are the symptoms of codependency?
Codependent relationships can be between family members, friends or romantic partners. How can you tell if a person is codependent? A codependent person will usually:
- Experience constant anxiety because of their desire to make the other person happy.
- Employ their time and energy to make sure they give their enabler what they want.
- Deny that there is a problem
- Have low self-esteem
- Ignore their own moral compass or their conscience to comply with what the enabler wants
- Exhibit poor boundaries, and often feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own issues on someone else
- Pay little attention to the expense (mental, emotional, financial) to themselves to please the other person
- Display reluctance to express their desires or needs, and feel guilty for doing so.
- Remain in the relationship regardless of the hurt they’re subjected to by the other person.
- Carry a sense of guilt, shame, and feelings of not being good enough
- Find it hard to say “No” when the other person makes demands on their time and energy. Codependents are often people pleasers who feel they don’t have a choice, going out of their way to please others.
How does a codependent relationship develop?
Abusive relationships Abuse, whether it’s emotional, verbal, sexual or physical can have devastating effects that last for years and require treatment to be overcome. When a young child is abused, their defensive response to the situation may be to repress their feelings to shut the pain out.
When that child becomes an adult, some of this learned behavior of repressing their feelings may result in them not recognizing or acknowledging their needs and feelings, and only being concerned for the feelings of others. As an adult, this codependent behavior may place the person in other, more abusive relationships.
Caring for an ill family member
Living with and caring for a person or family member who is chronically ill, whether physically or mentally, is a huge undertaking. This is especially so for a young person. Many people who have gone through these situations do not necessarily develop codependency.
However, taking on the role of caring for an adult can result in that young person learning to set aside their needs to focus on the needs of the adult, particularly if that adult displays dysfunctional enabling behavior. Codependency develops in those situations of dysfunction where one learns to focus only on the needs of others, and they start to value themselves in terms of being needed by someone else without getting anything in return.
Unhealthy parental relationships
Sometimes parental figures are unavailable or unreliable for a variety of reasons. These may include people with addictions to alcohol and drugs, who end up making their needs a priority while neglecting their children. Other situations with immature, selfish or needy parents who put their own needs ahead of their children are similarly problematic.
This can teach the child to ignore their own needs while centering those of the adult, leading them to take on the role of caretaker for the adults. A child in this situation learns to put their own needs last, or to disregard them entirely. When they become an adult, they are likely to repeat that same dynamic in their relationships.
Treatment for codependency
You don’t have to feel compelled to stay in an unhealthy, codependent relationship. The road to recovery from codependency may be long, but it is possible to move on from unhealthy and dysfunctional types of relationships toward healthier, life-giving connections. If you think you may be in a codependent relationship, the first step to take is to seek guidance and support.
Codependency stems from learned behavior that is difficult to identify and change by yourself. Individual or group therapy is useful for people in codependent relationships. A trained counselor can help you explore your behavior and feelings and place you on the path to positive and balanced relationships.
Treatment for codependency may involve exploring early childhood and teasing out the link with present codependent behavior. Recovery from codependent behavior takes time, but you’re making progress when you begin:
- acknowledging, nurturing and expressing your feelings and needs
- recognizing past hurts and feeling your own needs and emotions.
- being more assertive and unafraid to say, “No” to people
- finding joy and fulfillment outside of the relationship, from a hobby or other activity you enjoy
- locating your self-worth and self-esteem outside of the ‘needing-to-be-needed’ codependent dynamic. We are valuable in ourselves because we are made in the image of God
- acknowledging and stopping caretaking and enabling behavior.
With married couples, they may have to consider therapy where the codependent and the enabler get the help they need to recognize specific patterns of behavior and begin moving toward a positive, balanced relationship.
Finding a Christian counselor
There is help and hope for treatment, recovery, and change for codependent people. A Christian counselor can help you to not only assess whether you’re in a codependent relationship but also take you through the process of talking through your childhood to understand the possible roots of the codependent behavior.
A Christian counselor can talk you through biblical principles to help you understand your self-worth and point you to healthy patterns of relationship. They will also apply their expertise to give you tools to recognize codependent behavior in yourself, and how to start building positive and healthy patterns of behavior.
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