We hear the term ‘co-dependency’ frequently, but there is a lot of misunderstanding about its meaning. Co-dependency interferes with one’s ability to have healthy, boundaried relationships. It involves an excessive reliance on another person for one’s emotional stability and well-being. It is also related to a fear of abandonment.
While connection is a basic human need, when there is an excessive emotional or psychological dependency on another person, it can mimic an addiction. In fact, many people who become sober find themselves transferring their addiction to a relationship, where co-dependency results.
A co-dependent person has difficulties staying focused on their own needs. They tend to focus their emotional investment and attention on particular people in their lives, feeling overly responsible for them. The person who is co-dependent usually suffers from low self-esteem, difficulties with assertiveness, is prone to depression and anxiety, has difficulties being alone (or not having someone else to focus on), and becomes extremely anxious when they fear someone dislikes them. They usually come from dysfunctional families and have often been victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. They have difficulty making decisions, have trouble taking from others, feel inadequate, minimize or deny the existence of problems, engage in compulsive behaviors, and look for happiness externally. They also tend to have difficulties with communication, trust and intimacy. They often view themselves as the victim of others’ “endless needs”, but do not recognize their need to play a central role in rescuing.
The origins of co-dependency are in childhood, where the needs of the parent dominated and it was hard for the child to get affirmed, loved and nurtured. These childhoods generally included chaos, uncertainty, manipulation, guilt and shame, including ridigity, excessive punishment, and denial of the existence of any problems. The need for focus on the stability of the parent(s) required that the child put their own needs aside for the purposes of safety. Because love for one’s parents is often closely connected with pain, in adulthood, one believes that pain and anxiety are a necessary feature of love, which makes it hard to recognize abuse and mistreatment when it occurs.
Recovering from co-dependency requires recognition of the problem, motivation for change, and the ability to tolerate the anxiety that comes with psychological and emotional separation from one’s role as the rescuer and caretaker. It requires the ability to set boundaries in one’s relationships and to say no; to fight the impulse to become immersed in others’ crises and problems, and to refocus one’s attention on one’s own interests, needs, friends and family. Ultimately, processing and resolving one’s childhood history will facilitate the understanding of these patterns and development of the necessary skills for self-care, boundaries and overall well-being.