What is Codependency?

by Melissa Karnaze

iStock_000004123233XSmallThere’s probably a codependency section at your local bookstore.

And there are several websites devoted to this topic.

But with all the print and web pages written about this “disease,” how can you work with a straightforward definition that does not try to convince you that codependency is a sickness?

You can turn to what Charles L. Whitfield wrote in Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition:

“Co-dependence is the most common of all addictions: the addiction to looking elsewhere. We believe that something outside of ourselves—that is, outside of our True Self—can give us happiness and fulfillment. The ‘elsewhere’ may be people, places, things, or behaviors or experiences. Whatever it is, we may neglect our own selves for it (4).”

So codependency is when you make yourself dependent on other people to be happy.

But what is happiness? You can read books on that too…

Let’s turn to what A. C. Ping wrote in Be:

“To be happy we have to feel that we are free to pursue the things we wish to pursue in life (57).”

So then, codependency is depending on other people to give you the freedom to pursue the things that you wish to pursue in life.

But wait a minute, that’s not possible!

Exactly. When you are codependent you believe the illusion that others hold the key to your happiness — when it always has been and only can be yourself who holds that key.

What does codependency look like?

Codependency comes in many forms:

    • The young girl who believes she needs a knight in shining armor to save her from a life of single hood is codependent.
    • The young boy who believes he cannot express his feelings because he will not be accepted by society is codependent.
    • The mother who defines herself by her children’s successes or failures is codependent. The father who always has to be strong and good to hold up the family is codependent.
    • The person who constantly takes care of other people without their consent is codependent.
    • The person who compulsively tries to control others, even if it’s in the name of their best interests, is codependent.
    • The person who cannot leave an abusive relationship is codependent.
    • The person who cannot set healthy boundaries is codependent.
    • The person who cannot leave a relationship whereby the other person is mentally, emotionally, or physically unavailable is codependent.

Why are people codependent?

How could someone in an abusive relationship really believe that their abuser (or victim) holds the key to their happiness?

Wouldn’t they see that they are in fact causing more pain than good? That being with them has nothing to do with being happy — with being free to pursue what they want to pursue in life?

The reason that two people stay in a codependent relationship is because each of them have it deeply ingrained in the subconscious that they have to have that other person in their life in order to have a chance to be happy.

For them, being alone is the worst possible scenario, even if objectively, it is the healthier one. Being alone means that there is no chance to be happy, because they truly believe at a subconscious level that they need another person to feel good about themselves.

Additionally, they have not had a healthy relationship modeled to them, and so they haven’t learned how to develop a healthy relationship with themself.

Why do people stay in codependent relationships?

The reason that someone stays in a codependent relationship is because they have been programmed with dysfunctional beliefs about relationships.

These beliefs probably originate in childhood, in the family system, where the parents were probably codependent as well. Codependent beliefs are the opposite of the beliefs that make interdependent, functional, and healthy relationships possible.

What is an interdependent relationship?

In an interdependent relationship, two people are on equal ground.

They both express their feelings honestly, they both communicate clearly, they both assert their needs and negotiate relationship agreements, they both maintain healthy boundaries, and they are both committed to each others’ personal growth and well-being.

In essence, they both have a healthy sense of who they are, what their limitations are, what their goals and values are, and what their core relationship needs are.

And either of them can end the relationship without their identity, sense of life, or happiness being compromised.

What is a codependent relationship?

In a codependent relationship, however, two people are not on equal ground and there are imbalances of power in different aspects of the relationship.

They withhold their true feelings from fear of rejection, they have communication problems, they harbor hidden expectations in the relationship and then resort to resentment and passive aggressiveness when their (unexpressed) needs are not met, they have an unhealthy sense of boundaries, and they think it is more important for them to not be alone than for the other person to have the freedom to follow their life path.

In essence, neither of them have a healthy sense of who they are, what their limitations are, what their goals and values are, or what their core relationship needs are.

And neither of them can end the relationship without their identity, sense of life, or happiness being compromised.

How do you go from codependency to interdependency?

Recovery from codependency is a process, because it requires that you rewire your dysfunctional beliefs that allowed for you to behave in one or more of the codependent ways listed above.

This rewiring requires that you first recognize that the dysfunctional beliefs exist.

And this recognition sometimes requires that you first let yourself express all of your emotional reactions to life events—no matter how irrational, negative, or destructive they may seem.

You need to express them because they can be traced back to the unhealthy beliefs—which you need to change in order to move from codependency to interdependency in your relationships.

Once you identify your dysfunctional beliefs, then you need to replace them with healthier ones, and this requires that you learn about what you need in order to be healthy and happy.

Learn more about personal boundaries

A good place to start is by learning about your boundaries — that is, how much energy you allow yourself to expend on other people, places, or things.

Boundaries form the core of all relationships, and the more mindful you are of your boundaries, the more satisfying your relationships can be.

You can recover from codependency

Recovery from codependency is a challenge, pushing you to continually look inward into your deepest beliefs, and staying in touch with all of your feelings.

It is also a challenge because you might find yourself immersed in cultures which are also codependent systems.

But the challenge is yours to take, if you want to have a healthier relationship with yourself, and healthier relationships with others.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura Lewis-Barr March 24, 2009 at 11:37 am

Hi Melissa,
We are really on the same wavelength! (Thanks for the trackback btw–I’m still learning about such things!) This is SUCH an important issue. I’ve been examining it from a workplace standpoint. Codependency is so standard in our culture that we don’t even see it most of the time. It is the water we swim in. Thanks for this important article. If you’re curious about mine, it is on the article page on my website…..

Melissa Karnaze March 24, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Laura, great to see you again (Sure thing – I’m still learning too :p). You’re right, we are *immersed* in a culture of codependency. Have you read any of Anne Wilson Schaef’s books? She writes about society being codependent, even down to the institutions of mental health and psychotherapy. She is pretty radical with her stance, but hits on some undeniable points about our ways of relating.

I really enjoyed your article, especially this quote:

“…allowing another person to be responsible for themselves (even if that means occasional failure) is a very compassionate act.”

What a profound lesson you learned from your students… and how great that it was a win-win when you let go of having to be responsible for them. Thanks for sharing!

Monkey Magic October 30, 2009 at 10:07 am

It has been deeply etched in our social norms to be codependent. Starting from the fairy tales when we were little, codependency has run deep in our blood… The happily ever after image always includes a prince and a princess getting married.

Then take all the drama showing on TV. Most of them always show that you have to go all out for love, even if it’s unhealthy love, without it you will suffer in silence.

This article is truly a breeze of fresh air, showing interdependence relationship which every one basically has to pursue. The happier and content we are with ourselves, the easier it will be to get people with the same wavelength together.

Just found your site, and the content is just awesome… Thanks for sharing Melissa :)

Melissa Karnaze October 30, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Thank you. :) Interesting thoughts about unifying wavelengths… I think ultimately doing that at an interdependent level leads to much better teamwork, productivity, and shared goal-reaching. Great things to reach for!

R Dougla August 11, 2010 at 11:02 am

Hi, I know I’ve had a problem with being co-dependent for some time. I was not nurtured as a child. I have yet to be in a truely healthy relationship, I am 41 right now. I am divorced with three-children. I have two boys, 16, 10 and a girl 14. I do not (I repeat do not want my kids growing up to be co-dependent). I am choosing today, -tearfully, to make a stand for myself. I do not want to feel and/or be dependent on others in relation to: I can smile more if he calls. I will be a little said if he doesn’t. I don’t want to and haven’t wanted to live like this. It is very scary and unsettling(sadly), because I feel inferior or small because of this problem. But, hey, good for the desire for change.
I want to live to be a healthier person.

pali December 11, 2010 at 3:07 am

love this… fantastic way of expressing a gifted hand .
here’s one … Do mormons stuggle with addiction ?

Melissa Karnaze December 11, 2010 at 4:17 pm

pali, I’m not sure how to answer your question, did you mean to ask something more specific?

Robin August 1, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Codependency recovery is almost impossible. I’ve started my second year with Codependents Anonymous, and the ‘healthy’ ways of interrelating are almost universally rejected by most people in our culture. We’re taught to invalidate others’ experiences, negate feelings, and fall into relationships too easily. Everyone is encouraged to try to make everyone happy, instead of simply being with people wherever they might emotionally be. It is a mixed blessing to be healthy, when healthy is considered ‘sick’ by most people.

Chene January 3, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Robin,

I’m going on 3 yrs in my CODA recovery and while I will definitely say I am not fully recovered or “there,” I think I can safely say that I’ve made a LOT of progress in changing my life to a more peaceful or sensible one. (Compared to the insanity I was facing prior to joining Codependents Anonymous) As practiced in the program, it’s always about “practice, not perfection”… because perfectionism doesn’t exist in this world! If it did, we would be playing God… and as far as I know, nothing is really perfect is it? Our computers aren’t even perfect all the time.

I don’t know how far along you are in your recovery, but I can almost guarantee you that the further you go in your Step work, you will see that 99% of the interactions that happen out there with people (whether that’s family, friends or strangers) is out of “reactionary” mode to you… versus for who you actually ARE in person or what you are DOING.

I think that’s the gift we get in recovery that unfortunately, most others don’t… (well, people -can- get distinctions or certain tools from other programs and such, there isn’t exactly a right way to everything).. is that -I get the concept that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I take care of myself first. I’m not responsible for helping making others happy, although it’s often difficult to not try to “fix,” but that’s part of the process in practicing my program. I sometimes hate using the same CODA verbage, but it’s true when you think about it…

And yes, you are right when you say, “healthy is considered ‘sick’ by most people.” I used to have major hang-up’s with the word “selfish” because my Dad said I used to be one.. when he was the most selfish one of all. No, we are selfish because we love our Higher Power and ourselves first, then we can help be of service to others. :) That’s real recovery.

PS. Sorry.. I want to say thank you Melissa for having this site. I was looking for the subject of “No Contact” with former sick people (or co-dependents) and somehow landed on your page, not sure how. Always grateful to people who are here serving the untreated and suffering Co-dependent.

Art Dale December 18, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Melissa,
I am a Lutheran pastor in the process of developing a six month program with the goal of identifying dysfunctional beliefs, replacing them with beliefs formed by the belief in a God who loves everybody and then planning for being a healthy community giving health to those around them. Healing church members of their codependencies will take one on one connections, a 20 hour retreat for a critical mass of a congregation and a three month process of “acting or behaving in a healthy manner.” I thank you for the clarity of the basics. Our national church body has lost one million members in twenty years. I believe our codependencies are one of the main “belief barrier” to a healthy witness to a loving God who wants to create loving communities of faith. I’d be interested in your feelings about my endeavor.
Art Dale

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