Codependent relationships are a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. People with a predisposition to be a codependent enabler often find themselves in relationships where their primary role is that of rescuer, supporter, and confidante. These helper types are often dependent on the other person's poor functioning to satisfy their own emotional needs. Codependency often involves placing a lower priority on one's own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including family, work, friendship, and also romantic, peer or community relationships. Codependency may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance, or control patterns.
Development and scope of concept
According to disability studies specialist Lennard J. Davis, historically, the concept of codependence "comes directly out of Alcoholics Anonymous, part of a dawning realization that the problem was not solely the addict, but also the family and friends who constitute a network for the alcoholic." It was subsequently broadened to cover the way "that the codependent person is fixated on another person for approval, sustenance, and so on." As such, the concept overlaps with, but developed in the main independently from, the older psychoanalytic concept of the 'passive dependent personality' ... attaching himself to a stronger personality." Some would retain the stricter, narrower dictionary definition of codependency, which requires one person to be physically or psychologically addicted, such as to heroin, and the second person to be psychologically dependent on that behavior.
Patterns and characteristics
Codependency describes behaviors, thoughts and feelings that go beyond normal kinds of self-sacrifice or caretaking. For example, parenting is a role that requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice and giving a child's needs a high priority, although a parent could, nevertheless, still be codependent towards his/her own children if the caretaking or parental sacrifice reached unhealthy or destructive levels. Generally, a parent who takes care of his/her own needs (emotional and physical) in a healthy way will be a better caretaker, whereas a codependent parent may be less effective, or may even do harm to a child. Another way to look at it is that the needs of an infant are necessary but temporary, whereas the needs of the codependent are constant.
People who are codependent often take on the role of mother hen; they constantly put others' needs before their own and in doing so forget to take care of themselves. This creates a sense that they are "needed"; they cannot stand the thought of being alone with no one needing them. Codependent people are constantly in search of acceptance. When it comes to arguments, codependent people also tend to set themselves up as the "victim". When they do stand up for themselves, they feel guilty.
Codependency does not refer to all caring behavior or feelings, but only those that are excessive to an unhealthy degree. Indeed, from the standpoint of Attachment theory or Object relations theory, "to risk becoming dependent" may be for the compulsively self-reliant a psychological advance, and "depending on a source outside oneself ... successful, or tolerable, dependence"  may be valorized accordingly.
Narcissists, with their ability to "get others to buy into their vision and help them make it a reality," are natural magnets for the "'co-dependent' ... [with] the tendency to put others' need before their own". Sam Vaknin considered that codependents, as "the Watsons of this world, 'provide the narcissist with an obsequious, unthreatening audience ... the perfect backdrop.'" Among the reciprocally locking interactions of the pair, are the way "the narcissist has an overpowering need to feel important and special, and the co-dependent has a strong need to help others feel that way. ... The narcissist overdoes self-caring and demands it from others, while the co-dependent underdoes or may even do almost no self-caring."
In psychoanalytic terms, according to the great Robert Victor, the narcissist "who manifests such 'omnipotent' behaviour and who seems to be especially 'independent' exerts an especially fascinating effect on all ... dependent persons ... [who] struggle to participate in the 'omnipotent' narcissist's power": narcissist and codependent "participate together in a form of an ego-defense system called projective identification."
Alan Rappoport identifies codependents of narcissists as "co-narcissists." According to Richard Rappaport, "the codependent narcissist gives up his or her own needs to feed and fuel the needs of the other."
Sam Vaknin—"a self-help author who openly discusses his experiences as a person with narcissistic personality disorder"—has identified a special sub-class of such codependents as "inverted narcissists."
Inverted or "covert" narcissists are people who are "intensely attuned to others' needs, but only in so far as it relates to [their] own need to perform the requisite sacrifice"—an "inverted narcissist, who ensures that with compulsive care-giving, supplies of gratitude, love and attention will always be readily available ... [pseudo-]saintly." Vaknin considered that "the inverted narcissist is a person who grew up enthralled by the narcissistic parent ... the child becomes a masterful provider of narcissistic supply, a perfect match to the parent's personality."
In everyday life, the inverted narcissist "demands anonymity ... uncomfortable with any attention being paid to him ... [with] praise that cannot be deflected." Recovery means the ability to recognize the self-destructive elements in one's character structure, and to "develop strategies to minimize the harm to yourself."
There are various recovery paths for individuals who struggle with codependency.
For example, some may choose behavioral psychotherapy, sometimes accompanied by chemical therapy for accompanying depression.
There also exist support groups for codependency, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), Al-Anon/Alateen, Nar-Anon, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), which are based on the twelve-step program model of Alcoholics Anonymous and also Celebrate Recovery a Christian, Bible-based group. Although the term codependency originated outside of twelve-step groups, it is now a common concept in many of them.
Often an important result of a Family Intervention is to highlight codependent behaviors of various family members. This is sometimes a great help in encouraging the codependent person to accept help.
Many self-help guides have been written on the subject of codependency. One of the first was Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, published in 1987. Beattie has since written several other books on the subject. Other authors include Pia Mellody (Facing Co-dependence) and Shirley Smith (Set Yourself Free).
Harmful effects of unaddressed codependency
Unresolved patterns of codependency can lead to more serious problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, sex addiction, and other self-destructive or self-defeating behaviors. People with codependency are also more likely to attract further abuse from aggressive individuals, more likely to stay in stressful jobs or relationships, less likely to seek medical attention when needed and are also less likely to get promotions and tend to earn less money than those without codependency patterns.
For some, the social insecurity caused by codependency can progress into full-blown social anxiety disorders like social phobia, avoidant personality disorder or painful shyness. Other stress-related disorders like panic disorder, depression or PTSD may also be present.
- Going from one extreme to the other. Sometimes an individual can, in attempts to recover from codependency, go from being overly passive or overly giving to being overly aggressive or excessively selfish. Many therapists maintain that finding a balance through healthy assertiveness (which leaves room for being a caring person and also engaging in healthy caring behavior) is true recovery from codependency and that becoming extremely selfish, a bully, or an otherwise conflict-addicted person is not.
- Victim mentality. According to this perspective, developing a permanent stance of being a victim (having a "victim mentality") would also not constitute true recovery from codependency and could be another example of going from one extreme to another. A victim mentality could also be seen as a part of one's original state of codependency (lack of empowerment causing one to feel like the "subject" of events rather than being an empowered actor). Someone truly recovered from codependency would feel empowered and like an author of their life and actions rather than being at the mercy of outside forces. A victim mentality may also occur in combination with passive–aggressive control issues. From the perspective of moving beyond victim-hood, the capacity to forgive and let go (with exception of cases of very severe abuse) could also be signs of real recovery from codependency, but the willingness to endure further abuse would not.
- Caring for an individual with a physical addiction is not necessarily synonymous with pathology. To name the caregiver as a co-alcoholic responsible for the endurance of their partner's alcoholism for example, pathologizes caring behavior. The caregiver may only require assertiveness skills and the ability to place responsibility for the addiction on the other.
- Not all mental health professionals agree about codependence or its standard methods of treatment. It is not listed in the DSM-IV-TR. Stan Katz & Liu, in "The Codependency Conspiracy: How to Break the Recovery Habit and Take Charge of Your Life," feel that codependence is over-diagnosed, and that many people who could be helped with shorter-term treatments instead become dependent on long-term self-help programs.
- Some believe that codependency is not a negative trait, and does not need to be treated, as it is more likely a healthy personality trait taken to excess. Codependency in nonclinical populations has some links with favorable characteristics of family functioning.
- The language of, symptoms of, and treatment for codependence derive from the medical model suggesting a disease process underlies the behavior. There is no evidence that codependence is caused by a disease process, communicable or otherwise.
- Some frequent users of the codependency concept use the word as an alternative to using the concept of dysfunctional families, without statements that classify it as a disease.
- Codependency was proposed for inclusion in DSM III (APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and rejected because there are so many symptoms almost anyone could be diagnosed with codependency.
- Alcoholism in family systems
- Compliance (psychology)
- Covert incest
- Dependent personality disorder
- Dysfunctional family
- Fantasy bond
- Folie à deux
- Karpman drama triangle
- Misplaced loyalty
- Narcissistic defence sequences
- Narcissistic supply
- Personal boundaries
- Schizoid personality disorder
- Stockholm syndrome
- Toxic leader
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