Imagine this scenario: you’re thirty-five and your mom still does your laundry. You live with her, and she prepares all your food. You don’t work because you have a chronic illness, but most people with your illness have jobs and function on their own. Are you blessed with an attentive and sacrificial parent, or is this dysfunctional?You would probably identify this situation as dysfunctional. You know that barring physical or mental health conditions that would render a person legitimately unable to function at normal capacity, adults should be responsible for the bulk of their own needs. We may divide domestic and/or financial responsibilities with a spouse, but it’s generally accepted that adults don’t need a caretaker, especially a parent, for most of their everyday needs.
Now, if you introduced an alcohol addiction into this equation, most of us would be able to identify a pattern of codependency, but you don’t have to have a substance addiction to have a problem with codependency.
Codependency is a relational pattern that involves two people, both of whom are overly dependent on the other in different ways. One is usually struggling with an illness, addiction, or a harmful behavior pattern, while the other fills the role of “caregiver” and/or “rescuer,” but they end up enabling the other person’s harmful, negative, or immature behavior.
Let’s look at the meaning of codependency and how it presents in relationships. Then, we’ll discuss the root issues that lead to codependent relationships.
What is Codependency?
The dictionary definition of codependency is: “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness or addiction.” Meanwhile, Wikipedia defines it like this: “In sociology, codependency is a concept that attempts to characterize imbalanced relationships where one person enables another person’s self-destructive tendencies and/or undermines the other person’s relationship.”
In the beginning, codependency was used to describe relationships between addicts and their caregivers, but experts now realize that codependency can characterize many different types of relationships. In summary, codependency is a relationship addiction where one person is extremely dependent on the other, and the caregiver is also preoccupied with that relationship.
The word codependency is not a diagnosis in the DSM-V, which is the gold standard for mental health care, but a lot of the traits of codependency overlap with Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). Whereas a person with DPD has a general overdependence, codependency is usually limited to one specific relationship.
Like in our story, above, the dependent adult may function well when the parent or caretaker is out of town for some reason, but when the parent returns, the dependent behaviors resume.
Verywell Mind quotes psychologist Renee Exelbert on the topic of codependent relationships:
“Codependency is a circular relationship in which one person needs the other person, who in turn, needs to be needed. The codependent person, known as ‘the giver,’ feels worthless unless they are needed by — and making sacrifices for — the enabler, otherwise known as ‘the taker.’”
The person who is the “giver” in the relationship is as much a part of the codependent pattern as the person who is the “taker.” Generally, the “giver” is the one who can change the pattern, when they stop enabling the “taker’s” harmful or self-destructive behavior – but breaking this pattern is incredibly difficult.
Counseling for codependency can help identify the root causes and provide help, compassion, and accountability for taking action towards healthier behavior. Finding support and accountability is crucial when breaking entrenched and destructive behavioral patterns.
Here are some of the root causes of codependency that may lead to dysfunctional relationships.
What Causes Codependency?
Let’s start with some concerns that are often correlated with codependency, though they may not be direct causes of it. Positive Psychology lists these common co-occurring factors:
- Low self-esteem
- Low levels of narcissism
- Familial dysfunction
- Low emotional expressivity
Someone with the above characteristics or past may be much more likely to develop codependent patterns in future relationships. Many risk factors for codependency stem from early childhood. Sometimes, there are co-occurring mental health or personality disorders with codependency.
According to Sun Behavioral Health, here are some of the most common causes of codependency:
Having overprotective or under protective parents. Overprotective parents can instill a sense of helplessness, leading to an adult lacking basic life skills or being unable to manage life on their own. Under protective parents, on the other hand, can be emotionally neglectful, fail to provide adequate support, and lead a child to believe they must take on an adult role in life far too soon.
A parent with substance use problems. A child whose parent has a substance addiction is far more likely to be emotionally neglected and lack support.
Parentification. Children who are emotionally neglected often step into a caregiving role for their parent(s) and/or sibling(s). This leads to them normalizing the caregiver role and trying to maintain a sense of peace or stability, which is a completely developmentally inappropriate burden for a child or adolescent to carry. Parentification can lead to a child having an inordinate sense of responsibility for others as they mature into adulthood.
Enmeshment. This characteristic often overlaps with one or more of the situations just listed. Enmeshment refers to a lack of healthy boundaries among family members, children not being allowed to develop their own identities, and children not thinking about their own needs or identity, because they’re used to meeting their parents’ emotional needs.
Some causes of codependency for adults can be:
A lack of good interpersonal boundaries. You may not know how to maintain healthy relationships that have good boundaries – looking after your own needs and protecting your time and energy while investing in your relationships.
Counseling can be incredibly helpful to learn how to set boundaries with kindness to yourself and others. Sometimes, the Bible is used to make us feel a sense of guilt for caring for ourselves, but in truth, we are called to steward our own lives as well as being kind and compassionate to those around us.
Feeling a sense of guilt or that you don’t deserve to be happy. This often stems from some of the childhood issues listed above.
Having difficulty trusting others. It can be hard to let go of managing someone else’s feelings and perceptions for them, or of sticking with your codependent relationship because you’re scared of investing in other relationships, especially if you’ve been hurt in the past.
Wanting to control people or situations so that you feel safe and okay. A caregiver in a codependent relationship may resist seeing themselves as controlling, believing that they are “helping” the “taker” in the relationship, but in truth, a codependent caregiver is often trying to control situations because their emotional stability and peace is dependent on the other person’s happiness.
Being extremely self-critical. It can be difficult to acknowledge the truth about codependency because it feels like you already criticize yourself constantly. But there doesn’t need to be shame involved with identifying and correcting a codependent relationship. At Seattle Christian Counseling, we want to help you find a counselor who will walk alongside you with grace and compassion as you unlearn harmful patterns and experience the Lord’s grace, kindness, and love.
Signs of Codependency
Have you recognized yourself in some of the descriptions of codependency in this article? Here is a checklist from Verywell Mind that can help you identify some common signs of codependency if you’re asking yourself whether you are in a codependent relationship.
- “Walking on eggshells” to avoid conflict.
- Having trouble having any time to yourself.
- Trying to change or rescue the other person, even though their problems are probably beyond your capacity to change.
- Checking in with the other person even to do normal daily tasks.
- Apologizing a lot, even when you haven’t done something wrong.
- Having a sense of pity for the other person even when they act in harmful or destructive ways.
- Desperately wanting and needing to be liked and affirmed to feel okay.
Recognizing that you may have signs of codependency but wanting to heal and change is the first step. Contact our office today at [phone #] or browse our online counselor directory [link] to find a counselor who’s right for you. You can break free from this pattern and live a fulfilling life.
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