What is Codependency?

"A codependent person is one who has let another person's behaviour affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behaviour."

What is it?

I have been studying codependence for over 8 years now and until two years ago I myself found it difficult to define codependence accurately. In Australia this term is used most commonly in regard to romantic relationships and I think when people refer to a romantic relationship as being codependent what people are often saying is that one person is over reliant on the other person for support, affection or help or simply to feel secure and perhaps vice versa, however after studying the condition for several years now I can see now that this is only the most basic definition of codependence.

Several definitions that have helped me over the years have been:

Codependence is simply an "addiction to control."

Another one goes like this:

"Codependence is the pain in adulthood caused by the wounding in childhood that results in chemical addictions and relational problems."

There are several authorities on codependence in the industry who have spent many years helping others recover from codependence and defining how to treat it.  One of these professionals is Melody Beattie.

In Beattie's self-help text "Codependent No More" Beattie describes her best definition of codependence in this way:

"The basic thought then, and in 1979 when the word codependency emerged, was codependents (co-alcoholics or para-alcoholics) were people whose lives have become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with an alcoholic."

Beattie states that

"A codependent person is one who has let another person's behaviour affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behaviour."

"But the heart of codependency and recovery lies not in the other person – no matter how much we believe it does. It lies in ourselves in the ways we have let others people's behaviour affect us and in the ways we try to affect them - the obsessing, the controlling, the obsessive helping, caretaking, low self-worth, bordering on self-hatred, self oppression abundance of anger and guilt, peculiar dependency on peculiar people, attraction to intolerance for the bizarre, of the other centredness that results in abandonment of self, communication problems intimacy problems and an ongoing whirlwind trip through the five stage grief process.."

"Is codependency an illness? Some professionals say codependency isn't a disease; they say it's a normal reaction to abnormal people." Other professionals say codependency is a disease, it's a chronic, progressive illness. They suggest codependents want and need to fix people around them to be happy in an unhealthy way. They say, for instance the wife of an alcoholic needed to marry an alcoholic and chose him because she unconsciously thought he was in alcoholic. Furthermore she need drinking and socking it to her for her to feel fulfilled."

Beattie then goes on to say:

Ever since people first existed they have been doing all the things we label "codependent." They have worried themselves sick about other people, they have tried to help in ways that didn't help. They have said "yes" when they meant no.They have tried to make other people see things their way. They have bent over backwards to avoid hurting people's feelings and in so doing have hurt themselves. They have been afraid to trust their feelings. They have believed lies and then felt betrayed. They have wanted to get even and punish others. They were so angry they wanted to kill. They have struggled for their rights while other people said they didn't have any. They have worn sack cloth when they didn't believe they deserved to silk."

Codependents have undoubtedly done good deeds and by their nature, codependents are benevolent – concerned about and responsive to the needs of the world. As Thomas Wright writes in an article from the book "Codependency - An Emerging Issue," I suspect codependents have historically attacked social injustice and fought for the rights of the underdog. Codependents want to help. I suspect they have helped. But they probably died thinking they didn't do enough and were feeling guilty."

It is natural to want to protect and help the people we care about. It is also natural to be affected by and react to the problems of people around us. As a problem becomes more serious and remains unresolved we become more effective and react more intensely to it.

The word react is important here. However you approach codependency however you do find it, and from whatever frame or reference you choose to diagnose and treat codependency - it is primarily a reactionary process. Codependents are reactionaries. They overreact. They under react. But rarely do they act. They react to the problems, pains, lives and behaviours of others. They react to their own problems pains and behaviours. Many codependent reactions are reactions to stress and uncertainty of living all growing up without the alcoholism and other problems. It is normal to react to stress. It is not necessarily abnormal, but it is heroic and lifesaving to learn how to not react and to act in more healthy ways. Most of us however need help to learn to do that.

Perhaps one reason some professionals call codependency a disease is because many codependence are reacting to an illness, such as alcoholism.

Another reason codependency is called a disease is because it is progressive. As the people around us become sick, we may begin to react more intensely. What began as a little concern may trigger isolation and depression, emotional or physical illness or suicidal fantasies. One thing leads to another and things get worse codependency may not be an illness but it can make you sick and it can help the people around you stay sick.

Another reason codependency is called a disease is because codependent behaviour is – like many self-destructive behaviours – habitual. We repeat habits without thinking. The habits take on a life of their own. Whatever problem the other person has, codependency involves a habitual system of thinking, feeling and behaving towards ourselves and others that cause us pain.

Codependent behaviours or habits are self-destructive. We frequently react to people who are destroying themselves; we react by learning to destroy ourselves. These habits can lead us into, or keep us in, destructive relationships, relationships that don't work. These behaviours can sabotage relationships that may otherwise have worked. These behaviours can prevent us from finding peace and happiness with the most important person in our lives – ourselves. These behaviours belong to the only person each of us can control – the only person we can change – ourselves. (Codependent No More - Melodie Beattie, 1986.)

In summary - What is codependency?

Codependency is a specific pattern of personality traits, characterised by loss of self identity & an over involvement with others as a means of establishing identity and excessive caretaking behaviour that results in a lack of self-care and these things may manifest as:

  • Feeling responsible for other people's feelings thoughts and actions, choices, needs - ones well-being, lack of well-being and ultimately their destiny.
  • Feeling self pity and guilt when other people have a problem.
  • Feeling compelled to help the other person solve their problem.
  • May give rapid series of suggestions to fix another person or the problem.
  • Feeling angry when their help isn't affective.
  • Anticipating other people's needs.
  • Wonder why other people don't do the same for them.
  • Find themselves saying yes when they mean no or doing things they don't really want to do or more than their fair share of work.
  • Trying to please others instead of themselves.
  • Feel safest only when giving.
  • Feeling insecure and guilty when someone gives to them.
  • Find themselves attracted to needy people and needy people attracted to them.
  • Feel bored empty or worthless if they don't have a crisis in their lives, a problem to solve, or someone to help.
  • Abandon his or her routine to respond to helping someone else.
  • Feel hurried or pressured.
  • Blame others for their difficulties.