Codependency is a term that the majority of the population doesn’t like and one that few people understand. We often hear the word codependent thrown around when discussing unhealthy relationships, overbearing partners, friends or family members, and people that seemingly need a lot of attention. However, while codependency may be relevant in these situations, they do not define it. In this article I aim to share a better understanding of the term and to destigmatize the phenomena that many of us are affected by.

According to Melody Beattie, the author of the book “Codependent No More” a codependent person is “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Codependent traits can be developed as a child or over time as an adult. Typically, codependent traits are developed when in close relationship with someone struggling with addiction or other mental health disorders.

When someone close to us is struggling with addiction or other dependent disorders we are often asked to keep secrets, lie to bosses, friends, family members, etc. Over time we often attempt to control the addict by hiding drugs or alcohol, making impossible agreements with them to stop using, making threats to attempt to manipulate them to stop using, saying things like “If you really loved me you wouldn’t drink,” etc. We often feel that the other person’s addiction is controlling our lives, however, we are choosing to collude with the addiction and our own codependence and are willingly giving away our power. “We rescue people from their responsibilities. We take care of people’s responsibilities for them. Later we get mad at them for what we’ve done. Then we feel used and sorry for ourselves. That is the pattern, the triangle.” Codependency comes from a good place which is why it can be so difficult to see that we are doing something wrong. When engaging in codependent behaviors we are often doing it out of love. We care about someone and love them so much that we want to make their lives easier. We want to protect them and keep them safe but in reality, we are simultaneously pushing them away and becoming resentful of them for their problem controlling our life. In her book Melody Beattie writes, “the pain that comes from loving someone who’s in trouble can be profound.”

When engaging with codependent patterns we may start think “how did I get here? I don’t know who I am anymore.” the important thing to remember is that you likely got to this place or came to love people in this way because at one point in your life you were a true victim. You may have been a victim of abuse, neglect, abandonment, addiction, physical or sexual trauma, domestic violence, etc. In these situations, we learn to attune to or connect with the most dangerous thing in a room because if we connect with the most dangerous thing then we can protect ourselves from it. However, if we do not attune to that thing, then we may not see it coming when we are hurt by it, and we will not be able protect ourselves. This may have been true at one point in our lives. However, if you are safe now or you can get yourself to safety, it is no longer true. Instead, you are in safer situations but still attuning to the most dangerous or chaotic part of a situation and attempting to control it to keep yourself safe.

For Example, let’s picture a young girl with an alcoholic father. Perhaps her father is kind, attentive, loving, supportive and a lot of fun when he is sober. However, when he starts drinking, he becomes violently abusive. In this case, the young daughter attunes closely to her father, she pays close attention to her father’s moods, always notices if he smells like alcohol or sounds like he’s been drinking and does her best to keep a calm and stress-free environment so that her father doesn’t feel the need to drink. However, the father is an alcoholic and continues to drink regardless of the environment that the daughter attempts to control. The daughter then learns that if she smells alcohol on her father’s breath or he is slurring her words that she should lock herself in her room until he passes out. Now this is a really smart thing for the daughter to do! She is using all of her senses to understand when there is danger and how to keep herself safe from abuse. Now, the daughter is older and in college and no longer lives in her father’s house. One day she goes to a party and immediately has a really strong connection with a guy at the party. He is kind, funny, seemingly supportive and caring and there are total fireworks. She noticed other potential romantic partners at the party, but they all seemed relatively boring. Remember, as a young girl she kept herself safe by connecting with the most dangerous or chaotic part of the room to keep herself safe. This was reinforced each time she successfully kept herself safe from being abused by her father when he was drunk and when she got love and support from her father when he was sober. Knowing this, it’s likely that she feels specifically strongly about this boy at the party because she connects to the most chaotic part of the room subconsciously to keep herself safe. A few months pass and she starts dating the guy and quickly realizes that he abuses alcohol, but she knows how to handle it, she’s never felt love like this and he’s nowhere near as bad as her father was. Time goes on and she starts only inviting her partner to events where there are no drugs or alcohol and because of this she stops seeing her close college friends as well. She begins declining invitations to gatherings with friends because she fears that if she leaves the house her partner will find the alcohol, she hides from him in the laundry room. Overtime she becomes resentful of her partner because she can’t do anything without him and now his addiction is controlling her life. Let’s stop there. Is his addiction controlling her life or is her attempt at controlling the addiction controlling her life? Can she leave her partner? Can she choose to continue seeing her friends even if she decides to stay with her partner? Can she really control the disease of addiction? If so, we need to give this girl a Nobel prize and introduce her to Bill W. because we have yet to meet someone who can single handedly control an addiction that is outside of themself. In her Book “Codependent No more” Melody Beattie writes, ““Many codependents, at some time in their lives, were true victims—of someone’s abuse, neglect, abandonment, alcoholism, or any number of situations that can victimize people. We were, at some time, truly helpless to protect ourselves or solve our problems. Something came our way, something we didn’t ask for, and it hurt us terribly. That is sad, truly sad. But an even sadder fact is that many of us codependents began to see ourselves as victims. Our painful history repeats itself. As caretakers, we allow people to victimize us, and we participate in our victimization by perpetually rescuing people. Rescuing or caretaking is not an act of love.”

This is one example of how codependency might arrive in someone’s life. What are other traits that we can look out for?

  • You feel responsible for someone else’s needs, feelings, thoughts, addiction, or wellbeing.
  • You feel that you must help others because they cannot help themselves or you are better at it, and it is your duty to show them because it would have been nice to have someone to show you.
  • You say yes to doing things you don’t really want to do.
  • You try to please others and make them happy because it makes you feel better. Quelling their concerns quells your anxiety.
  • You are unsure of what you want or need.
  • You feel safest and most loved when you are giving or taking care of others.
  • You blame others for your feelings or struggles. “You were late for our date, and it made me anxious and angry.” “If you didn’t drink excessively then I could see my friends and I wouldn’t feel lonely.”
  • You feel overwhelmed with guilt and shame when you eventually act out because your needs aren’t being met. Even though becoming upset and angry is a natural emotion to your needs not being met. The question is, who is not meeting your need? Your partner or you?
  • You worry excessively over small things.
  • You struggle with identifying, setting and maintaining healthy boundaries
  • You try to control people or events with advice giving manipulation, guilt, coercion, or threats.
  • You have difficulty falling or staying asleep because you are worried about other people’s problems or behaviors.
  • You feel that if you are rejected or if someone is no longer around that you have no reason to live, you are unlovable, or no one will ever love you again.

“We don’t have to take rejection as a reflection of our self-worth. If somebody who is important (or even someone unimportant) to you rejects you or your choices, you are still real, and you are still worth every bit as much as you would be if you had not been rejected. Feel any feelings that go with rejection; talk about your thoughts; but don’t forfeit your self-esteem to another’s disapproval or rejection of who you are or what you have done.”- Melody Beattie, Codependent No More.

How to move forward and start to heal form codependent behavior: Detach.

To Detach means to release yourself from another person or another person’s problems. It is consciously, out of love, physically disengaging ourselves from a problem or unhealthy entanglements with a person or situation that we have no control over. We can’t solve problems that aren’t ours to solve. It doesn’t mean we cut ties with the person altogether, though this may be necessary in situations involving abuse, it simply means noticing and naming when we are putting someone else’s needs before our own and setting boundaries to ensure we have the time and space to meet our own needs.

Melody Beattie gives these steps for detachment:

  • Recognize when you are reacting and giving away your control.
  • Step away and do something to restore your peace.
  • Assess the situation honestly and factually.
  • Establish how to act now. Only do this once who have restored your peace. How can you act to move forward? Remember, this is NOT reacting to a triggering or stressful situation.

“Detaching does not mean we don’t care. It means we learn to love, care, and be involved without going crazy.”

– Melody Beattie

If codependency is a life lived dependent on another person, then first and most important we must learn to live for ourselves.

“We don’t have to take things so personally. We take things to heart that we have no business taking to heart. For instance, saying “If you loved me you wouldn’t drink” to an alcoholic makes as much sense as saying “If you loved me, you wouldn’t cough” to someone who has pneumonia.

For more information on Codependency and breaking the cycle read “Codependent No More” by Melody Beattie.

Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent no more: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Hazelden Publishing.