The term co-dependency has been around for about the last forty years. I remember hearing it for the first time back in the 1970’s when it was used to describe a certain set of issues and behaviors manifested by partners of alcoholics. But after four decades of research, there’s been a broadening of what it means to be co-dependent.
First, I'd like to make some clarifications between co-dependency, which is mal-adaptive and inter-dependency, which is healthy and necessary in relationships. In healthy adult relationships, individuals rely on each other for support, mutual love, and understanding. They enjoy each other and thrive in the company of the other, but each individual maintains a strong sense of autonomy that allows them to work independently. There may be times when the needs of one partner overshadows the relationship, but the balance between partners returns when those needs are met. With the co-dependent relationship, this autonomy is replaced with either one or both partners needing to be needed by the other to find their own sense of value and identity. When the need to be needed is not fulfilled, the co-dependent individual feels as if they’re not enough. They feel unworthy and insecure. For the co-dependent, the need to be needed looks a lot like love.
The co-dependent pattern is traced to dysfunctional childhood experiences. This can include abuse, having an addict as a parent, having a needy parent, or having a family member suffering from a long-term physical or mental illness.
These situations often set up a child to be a parental caregiver, the keeper of parental secrets, or in some instances the fixer of the family. By being placed in these roles, children learn their needs aren’t as important as the needs of their parent(s). When a child tries to assert their own needs, they’re often punished by a withdrawal of parental attention, parental anger, or being told they’re selfish. Since children need stability in their homes and they need a functional parent, they will often go to great lengths to make sure their parent(s) are “okay,” even at the terrible price of their own needs, development, and boundaries. Children aren’t aware that they’re making these sacrifices. They’re doing what they need in order to survive, but they end up taking these mal-adaptive behaviors into their adult relationships.
Below, I've listed behaviors that can be markers of co-dependency. I've used the romantic relationship as the touchstone in this list, but co-dependency can happn in any relationship, including family members or friends.
1.) Consistently dropping everything when the significant other calls or needs something. Having a partner that requires this.
2.) Subverting your own needs for the needs and desires of others.
4.) Silencing yourself and your opinions to avoid an argument or because you don’t want to cause stress to the significant other or the relationship.
5.) Fear of abandonment and/ or doing anything to stay in a relationship.
6.) The need to control others.
7.) Working harder than the significant other in your current relationship.
8.) Struggling to understand and implement boundaries.
Co-dependency is a complex issue. But there is a way out. If you’ve identified with four or more on the above list, or you feel as if the scales in your relationships tip in favor of you rescuing or fixing others, then it might be a good time to consider seeking help. A trained therapist or counselor can help you learn how to recognize these mal-adaptive patterns and help you do the hard work of learning the difference between being needed and being loved.