What Is Codependency?


Codependency is a pathological condition in which someone puts his or her own needs a distant second to the needs of someone else, usually to keep the relationship alive.

In practical terms, a codependent person is harmed by a relationship but cannot bring him- or herself to end it.

Codependency and Addiction

An addiction is driven by the substance or behavior associated with it. Addicts make this one of the primary justifications (sometimes the only one) for what they do. The cycle of craving and release, seeking and obtaining, and concerns about themselves and their addiction become the sun around which their whole life revolves. Anyone partnered with an addict has to come second.

Someone who accepts this secondary role, even when the relationship is harmful to him or her, is said to be codependent. The addict is dependent on the addiction, and the significant other plays a supporting role. In a very real sense, the addict is hooked, but the codependent person is hooked as well – addicted to the addict.

It can also refer to a broader network of friends and coworkers who sometimes support the addict in his or her harmful behavior by overlooking problems or by covering for the addict. A manager who knows an employee is having problems with alcohol but allows extra days off or conceals information from HR (like not reporting an arrest or absenteeism) is aiding and abetting the alcoholic. The relationship that this manager is hoping to preserve is employee/employer, and it’s a codependency on that basis. In this article, we’ll focus on more intimate, interpersonal relationships instead.

Signs and Symptoms of Codependency

When codependency rises to the level of psychopathology, there are clear indications. Primarily, the codependent person values the relationship more than the problems that come along with it, even when those problems become severe or even abusive.

Some of the common signs of codependency are:

  • Low self-esteem. This is the hallmark of classic codependency. Dependent people are unable to value themselves and their needs above those expressed by the addicts they love. Feelings of inadequacy and an inability to “make it on my own” are common. Along with this is a lack of self-direction and control. They want the structure and direction that being under the thumb of another provides.
  • Obsession and denial arise as the codependent person simultaneously pays very close attention to the relationship (this person doesn't want to make a misstep and risk losing it) while losing the ability to see the problems. Even when he or she accepts that there are difficulties, a codependent person will minimize the impact. For example, if you point out how much the addiction is straining financial resources, this person will admit it but quickly follow up with, “It’s not so bad, we are getting by.”
  • Poor communication and lack of intimacy. Because they fear that speaking their minds puts undue stress on the relationship they want to preserve, codependent people are unlikely to express their true feelings. One consequence is an inability to be intimate since honest communication is required for true intimacy to exist.
  • Fear of rejection and painful emotions. Because the codependent person defines him- or herself based on the relationship, this person is constantly worried about where he or she stands. This in turn leads to anxiety and guilt. At some level, codependent people understand what’s going on and can feel shamed by their own lack of willpower. Fear of failure and the stress that comes from constant worry about abandonment arise.

The Outcomes

Surprisingly, a codependent relationship can be stable. At least, it can last until the addict or the codependent partner crashes.

In a very real sense, each partner is getting what he or she wants. The addict is getting support in service of an addiction, and the codependent person is getting a sense of place or the illusion of love. By bonding themselves to the relationships and getting whatever self-worth they can from them, codependent people get what they think they need. But the caring is all one way – toward the addicts.

It isn’t easy to treat or overcome codependency. Even when the addict is removed or the relationship fails, the codependent person may attach him- or herself to someone else and repeat the scenario. Outlooks can change, and with therapy, codependent personalities can work their way toward a healthier outlook and higher self-esteem, but it takes time and effort. Along with this, the associated problems (depression, anxiety) may also need to be addressed.

Just as with addiction, the first step is usually to remove the source of the pain. In this case, the addict. From there, techniques for self-actualization are introduced and the patient works toward self-sufficiency and adopting new behaviors.


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