What is Codependency?
If you (or someone you know) has been involved with substance abuse, there is a good chance that you have heard of the term “codependency.” Like many other Twelve Step terms and treatment buzzwords, codependency is a term that is often thrown around, yet when asked to define it you’ll get hundreds of different answers. So what is codependency? There is no one universal definition, but the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines codependency as: “A psychological condition or relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as addiction to alcohol or heroin)” And “Broadly: dependence on the needs of or control by another”
What Does Codependency Look Like?
These two definitions give us a basic outline about what codependency is (or at least how it is defined in the medical field), but what does codependency look like in real life? Well, there are several patterns that are often present in codependent relationships or systems. The key aspect of a codependent relationship is that there are helper(s) and then there is the individual suffering from some sort of pathological disorder. The helpers in the relationship often maintain a caretaker role in family that goes above and beyond the normal loving, caring and nurturing.
It is important to understand that loving and caring for a family member who is sick is not codependency. Codependency occurs when this caring and love becomes maladaptive and becomes detrimental to members of the family. Once the relationship of codependency is established, several other things occur.
First, the caretaker in the relationship often assumes a martyr and victim role. They will often make sure that the other individuals needs are taken care of ahead of their own, while at the same time making it known that their needs aren’t being met.
Second, the relationship becomes beneficial for the individuals involved in the relationship. One person has their needs being constantly met by another person, while the other person feels that they are needed in order for that person to be functional. Finally, the dynamic of a “50/50 relationship” becomes skewed, with one member often being far more emotionally invested in the relationship than the other person. This creates a relationship where one individual is constantly giving, while the other is constantly receiving. This may be practical in the initial stages of codependency, but as the relationship progresses, it often causes resentment in either one or all of the individuals in the codependent system.
Misconceptions about Codependency
There are several misconceptions about codependency. The first misconception is that codependency only occurs between two people. Codependency can often be viewed in a family system context, meaning that codependency often involves every member of the family or social system. Individuals in the family or system may contribute to the codependent relationship in different ways, but when it is present in the family everyone is affected.
A second major misconception about codependency is that it only occurs in individuals that are affected by substance abuse. This is false as you often see individuals being “caretakers” in other relationships, especially when a family member or friend is suffering from depression, psychotic disorders, or personality disorders. Finally, codependency is not one sided. The individuals who are often being taken care of in the codependent relationship are either caretakers of others, or have been in the past. This dynamic often allows them to both exploit the others caring (while sick) and foster understanding (when treatment is sought).
Treatment of Codependency
So what is to be done if you or someone you know is currently struggling with codependency? Fortunately there are several options, depending on the severity of the codependent relationship. If you believe the problem is relatively minor and can be worked through without the help of professionals, there are several self-help books such as Codependent No More and Codependence Anonymous which offer both insight and help on how to overcome codependency. Additionally, self-help groups such as Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous (CoDA), and Families Anonymous can introduce you to others who are working through codependency.
If you believe the problem is more severe, therapy with a psychologist or counselor that is trained in family therapy can often be extremely helpful in understanding complex relationships, detangling the codependency, and teaching how create more functional relationships. Due to a greater understanding of codependency over the past decade, many treatment centers are now trained in treating this problem.