No one in this world is truly independent – a fact many of us would love to deny. Intentionally or not, we all form relationships with people for a variety of reasons, ranging from friendship, love, and support, to professional purposes. In fact, some of us are blessed to have several fulfilling relationships – romantic, platonic, and familial – which we depend on at some point of time in our lives. Is this reliance on others to fulfill certain needs a bad thing? Let’s dig deeper.
You might have heard of the term ‘codependency’ – often used with a disregard for its actual definition. Much to the despair of relationship therapists, the widespread incorrect usage of this term has resulted in a plethora of misconceptions. This has, in turn, skewed our perception of what independence means and what a healthy relationship – with others and our own emotions – looks like, making it vital to clarify what codependency actually is.
Let us begin by establishing what codependency is not. This affliction is far from being equivalent to being clingy or simply depending on someone; codependency is not a blanket term for a person’s reliance on another for help or support. Any relationship has a certain level of dependency. In a healthy one, it comes from comfort and understanding; for a codependent, it stems from a dysfunctional mindset. Codependency is also not synonymous with merely having emotional needs. All human beings have emotional needs. To reject or be in denial of those parts of ourselves and others is to deny ourselves of true compassion and intimate bonds.
A codependent relationship is one that is dysfunctional, where one or both partners rely on the other to meet all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. They are painful and destructive bonds that are marked by a lack of self-sufficiency, self-worth, identity, and autonomy.
The roots of this affliction are sometimes traced back to childhood, particularly for those who were emotionally abused or neglected by their parents. They are taught to go out of their way to please a difficult parent in order to obtain affection, establishing a pattern of trying to obtain love and care from a difficult person in a similar fashion. Codependency can also arise when children are forced to assume the role of a caretaker or enabler owing to an unreliable parent, having to focus on their parent’s needs and never their own.
A classic model of a codependent relationship is that of the alcoholic and their enabling spouse; the enabler encourages dysfunctional habits in order to feel needed and becomes emotionally exhausted, and the other is encouraged to maintain their destructive behavior, impeding the growth of both individuals.
Codependency is identified by the following symptoms:
- Low self-esteem: feeling unlovable or inadequate, along with shame, guilt, and often perfectionism. The codependent’s self-esteem arises from sacrificing themselves for their partner, who may be just fine with receiving this “special” treatment.
- Mixing pity and love: needing to ‘save’ others, fix situations on their loved one’s behalf or protect them from all harm.
- People-pleasing: having a hard time saying no to anyone, going out of their way to sacrifice their own needs and emotions to accommodate others. A codependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship and avoid the feeling of abandonment.
- Poor boundaries: feeling responsible for other people’s feelings or blaming their own on others. Some codependents enmesh their self-image with their partner’s, not knowing where their identity ends and their partner’s begins.
- Defensiveness: feeling threatened by disagreements and reacting to people’s statements and opinions as personal attacks.
- Control: feeling safe when they can control the actions of those close to them. Codependents find comfort in other people behaving in a certain manner; a lack of this may cause anxiety and/or depression.
- Anxiety: suffering from constant anxiety about their relationships.
- Obsessions: fed by dependency, anxieties, and fears. A codependent may lapse into a fantasy about how they would like things to be or the one they love so they can be in denial of the pain of the present.
- Dependency: fearing rejection or abandonment. Codependents need people to need them in order to feel okay. Some may need to constantly be in a relationship, making it hard for them to end things even if they are with someone abusive.
As one can imagine, the impact of codependency is severe – for both parties of the relationship. A codependent suffers from emotional exhaustion and may even neglect their other relationships for one person. Deep down, many codependents feel they deserve the mistreatment they get in their relationships and hardly assert their own needs and desires. For the partner of the codependent, this relationship promotes their own dysfunctions and prevents them from learning common life lessons as they come to rely on the codependent’s sacrifices and neediness. Unless told otherwise, they may never learn how to be in a stable, two-sided relationship.
The good news is that one need not suffer from codependency lifelong. There are several ways in which this behavior can be reversed, starting with seeking professional help. By getting in touch with one’s deep-rooted hurt, loss, and anger, one can reconstruct appropriate relationship dynamics. It is also important to learn to set boundaries with the people one interacts with, and learn to find happiness as an individual. Most importantly, the road to recovery from this affliction lies in open communication.
The urgency to understand what codependency looks like stems from a deeper call to understand the psychology of relationships. The bonds we have with people in our lives – regardless of their nature – have a great impact on our emotional well-being. Our close circles are comprised of individuals who have different life experiences, baggage, and perspectives – all of which permeate into our interactions and relationships. Despite this, many of us either fail to understand or ignore the psychological aspect of relationships – either out of a fear of becoming vulnerable or merely ignorance. This leaves us in denial about the dynamics of our bonds with people, resulting in trauma for everyone involved.
For this reason, no matter what emotional baggage we may carry from our past, we must work towards having a healthy understanding of our own emotional needs and boundaries, and be able to assert the same while acknowledging those of others. Doing so is paramount for having a balanced, two-sided relationship – a treasured asset for us all.
Image credits: Gracia Lam