“Co-dependency is using a relationship to fill a bottomless void due to not feeling whole and loved as an individual. It’s not the need to be loved that’s the issue; it’s the inability to love one’s self that causes the dysfunction.” —Graham White
Co-dependence is a popular but frequently misunderstood term, comparable to the word love in its universally overused nature. Simply defined, co-dependence is a learned set of behaviors. Although the origins of co-dependent behavior can sometimes be traced back to purely self-created tendencies, the majority are developed through modeling in important relationships. For example, children who grew up around parents who displayed difficulty setting appropriate boundaries, or unable to say “no,” even when doing so was vital, will most likely exhibit some of these dysfunctional behaviors. The same can be said for children who grew up with emotionally unavailable parents, or in homes with constant domestic strife, where toxic patterns such as passive-aggressive or other forms of indirect communication were considered the norm.
A defining characteristic of co-dependent behavior is its subconscious or unconscious nature. Many co-dependent people are not even aware that they rely upon a deeply entrenched set of toxic behaviors, or it may exist on the periphery of awareness and elude self-detection. Unfortunately, this becomes highly problematic since establishing appropriate boundaries is critical to healthy, autonomous functioning. Those who lack either the self-love or tools necessary to establish appropriate boundaries frequently attract emotionally, sexually, or physically abusive relationships and “unavailable” partners. To them, this behavioral dysfunction is considered normal and tolerated by default since they have never (or seldom) experienced healthy, functional behaviors and relationship dynamics.
Too often, those suffering from co-dependent behaviors carry a heavy burden of shame and suffer deeply as a result of their dysfunction. Many do not even know how to objectively identify signs of co-dependence, or conversely, may have been taught erroneous information by well-intentioned family or friends. For purposes of clarification, the following are classic indicators of co-dependent behavior:
- Feeling responsible or “at fault” for the behaviors and actions of others
- Deeply fearing isolation or abandonment
- Needing constant approval or recognition from others in order to feel a sense of self-worth
- Taking on more than necessary to ensure peace and harmony in a relationship
- Inability to trust others—even when trust is warranted
- Feeling single-handedly responsible for your partner’s happiness and/or success
- Loving others or desiring to help based upon a sense of pity and a compulsive need to rescue
- Displaying extreme resistance to change
- Allowing moods to be controlled by those around you
- Habitually attracting and tolerating sexually, emotionally, or physically abusive relationships
Although co-dependent behaviors are common in the general population, they are ubiquitous in those struggling with addiction. Addiction thrives on the same dysfunctional behaviors and tormented emotions that encourage co-dependence—but to an exaggerated degree. In addition to damaging the body and sabotaging psychological health, addiction impairs sound judgment and critical thinking, both of which are necessary in order to establish appropriate boundaries and enjoy healthy relationships. Many people struggling with addiction fear that healthy relationships are exclusively for those who have achieved long-term sobriety, or not even possible given their low self-image. Fortunately, neither is true.
Healing from co-dependent behavior does not require luck, magic, or exceptional intelligence. In fact, it is possible for anyone willing to put in the time and effort. The following guidelines provide an excellent foundation, especially for those struggling with active addiction:
- Eliminate negative thinking—to many people, even those who have never struggled with the chronic, relapsing disease of addiction, negative thinking is their predominant mindset. By learning to be positive and hopeful, you can gradually develop higher expectations and release accumulated suffering. As Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) routinely suggests, developing a spiritual program and belief in a higher power are critical when it comes to confronting negativity and maintaining a brighter outlook.
- Quit taking everything personally—many co-dependent people are unable to accept others as they are—which leads to a troubling pattern of taking everything personally. Breaking this pattern requires greater selflessness, attainable only by seeing and accepting others exactly as they are (flaws and all) without trying to change them.
- Develop honest communication with yourself and your partner—co-dependence cannot thrive with honest, direct communication. Therefore, practice saying what you mean, doing what you say you are going to do, and asking for clarification whenever you are having doubts or confusion.
- Enroll in therapy—particularly if co-dependence is sabotaging a close personal relationship, seeking an objective, unbiased third party to offer constructive feedback is an excellent idea. Many experienced therapists can help you and your partner to develop healthy communication skills while respecting free-will and encouraging self-determination.
- Practice establishing boundaries and space—despite what you may have been taught, it is perfectly normal and healthy to take occasional breaks from a relationship and clearly establish certain boundaries. In fact, doing so encourages self-respect and allows the relationship to grow within a positive, functional context.
- Seek sober peer support—a sober social support network or 12-step inspired group like Co-Dependents Anonymous are excellent resources. Both can help reinforce a new identify based upon self-respect and clear, direct communication.