There’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.
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.