Signs of a Codependent Relationship
Unhealthy dependencies and repressed anger could be just a few red flags that you are codependent.
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
She knows it’s not right. Once again, Carol (not her real name) has lent money to her son — this time to get his car fixed. This son is 35 and still living in the family room, where he’s coasted since high school. Carol feels guilty giving him money, but what can she do? He needs to get his car fixed. He needs to look for work.
It’s a common scenario in today’s world. It’s also an example of a codependent relationship.
Family secrets. Guilt. Shame. Repressed anger. Low self-esteem. Compromising your own values to avoid another person’s rejection or anger. Those are just a few red flags of codependence.
Indeed, codependence is a term once linked only to alcoholism or drug addiction. “Codependent meant the person who enabled the alcoholic,” says Avrum Geurin Weiss, PhD, director the Pine River Psychotherapy Training Institute in Atlanta. “The classic situation is the husband gets drunk, can’t go in to work, so the wife calls the boss and says he won’t be in today.”
Today’s psychologists have a broader definition. “It really is about unhealthy emotional dependencies,” says Carol Cannon, MA, a counselor and program director at The Bridge to Recovery in Bowling Green, Ky.
In some sense, all relationships are codependent, Cannon tells WebMD. “Many people have what I call a ‘low-grade infection.’ It’s always there, but they’ve been able to adapt to it, work around it. Others have the more aggressive form — they get more and more depressed, develop addictions and relationship problems. They become self-destructive or unduly self-sacrificing. They end up anxious, depressed, and suicidal.”
People often get addicted to hope: The hope that the person will change, adds Jeanne McKeon, EdD, a psychologist at the Center for Addictive Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Before anything can change, you first have to deal with that addiction to hope. You have to start setting limits. You have to figure out a plan to change things; one that makes sense. Then move through those steps — not allowing any backpedaling.”
Origins in Childhood
Childhood is the breeding ground for a vulnerability to codependency. It is typically triggered by an underlying problem in the family — a parent with an addiction to alcohol or drugs, or the “clean addictions” like work, food, religion, gambling, computer games, Cannon explains.
“Even misery can be an addiction,” she adds. “People get hooked on their own unhappiness, the victim mentality. They learn to get attention by getting people to feel sorry for them.”
“You learn not to trust other people or yourself. You look for fulfillment in pleasing other people, but that never really works — because you don’t feel you deserve the approval,” he explains.
As an adult, a codependent person has no sense of self, Weiss tells WebMD. “Their whole life is spent in wildly swinging arcs to meet others’ expectations. If you’re nice to me, I’m a good person. If you look at me funny, I’m a bad person. I don’t know who I am. I am incredibly dependent on other people to tell me who I am.”
It’s a case of arrested development — a combination of immature thinking, dealing, and behaving that generates self-loathing, Cannon says. “That self-loathing is acted out through self-destructive or unduly self-sacrificial behavior in adult years.”
To anesthetize the emotional pain, codependent adults try whatever makes them feel better — alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling. They become addicted to relationships and will do anything to hold onto them, fearing the emotional abandonment that happened during childhood. They put aside what they want to please the other person, remaining in harmful situations far too long.
In choosing a partner, they gravitate toward what is most familiar — a dysfunctional mate. “We all seek the relationship pattern that we’re familiar with, however unhappy it might make us,” Cannon explains. “That’s why women who leave an abusive relationship gets into a few more, or why someone who was abused as a child gets into an abusive relationship.”
Typically, the label of codependent is applied to women — often unfairly, Weiss notes. “Women are inherently relationship-oriented,” he tells WebMD. “They want to keep things going smoothly for everybody. And in our society, they are put in the caretaking role, whether they want it or not.”
The selfless caretaker — if she was raised in a dysfunctional family — is indeed vulnerable to becoming codependent, despite her good intentions. “It’s great to be kind, considerate, empathic, humanitarian, to be of service,” says McKee. “What’s bad is having to please in order to feel whole as a person. When you have low self-esteem, you think it’s not right to take care of yourself — or to be assertive. Finding your identity in being a rescuer or martyr is not healthy.”
A selfless stay-at-home mom is not codependent, Weiss adds. “But if she’s in a relationship where things always go his way, and there’s the subtle message that his view of the world is more dominant, that’s a problem. If his needs are being tended to and hers are not, it’s not healthy.”
Indeed, a power imbalance in any relationship makes codependency likely, McKee notes.
“Luckily times are changing, and women have more opportunities. But there are still the lingering dynamics that cause power imbalances at home and in the workplace. There will be one person who is vulnerable to abuse — commonly emotional or physical abuse. And they put up with it because they don’t feel they deserve any better.”