The term refers to a pattern of dependence in relationships wherein partners are overtly mentally, physically or emotionally reliant on each other. It is not necessarily limited to romantic relationships, and the dynamic can also be seen within friendships and familial relationships. Ultimately, codependency perpetuates a dysfunctional dynamic between individuals that promotes unhealthy attachment. It is believed to stem from individual’s poor boundaries, or lack of self-awareness resulting in the compelling feeling of needing to care for or compensate for the flaws in others.
Codepency often results in one party assuming all responsibility for meeting the others’ needs, even at the cost of their own. This forms a cyclical pattern, one person is constantly giving, while the other is constantly taking. While it is natural for relationships to come with an element of responsibility for our loved ones, codependency specifically relies on individualism being stripped away and the identity – usually of the ‘giver’ – becomes wrapped up in that of their partner, friend or family member.
So, what does codependency really look like?
Generally, the beginning of a codependent relationship may not necessarily look or feel that bad. The support and care being offered can appear mutually beneficial, because feeling wanted or needed and knowing that you’re able to provide what your partner needs can seem positive. But often, as the pattern progresses and power imbalances worsen, one person may find themselves resentful and angry at the feeling of sacrifice, and the belief that nothing ever seems to be enough. It is important to note that codependency and healthy interdependence are not the same. They are different because codependency is always rooted in the unhealthy belief of one person saving the other, and therefore will always play into an unhealthy power dynamic which affords one person more power and control and say in the relationship than the other.
Types of people in codependency
This person often finds themselves contributing to the pattern of codependency because of the belief that if they just ‘give enough, be enough, do enough’, then their actions will ultimately be able to save the other person from themselves. Control plays a big role in the giver’s actions, sometimes subconsciously. It is frequently seen in relationships where one person is a substance abuser or alcoholic, the giver is staunch in the belief that it is within their control to be able to save them from it. The pattern can also be seen in relationships where one party struggles with mental or physical health problems. Ultimately, the ‘giver’ in a codependent relationship loses sight of their own values, responsibilities and needs in the relationship and may easily lose their sense of self entirely and will often avoid stating their own desires or perspectives on things as a way of avoiding conflict.
The taker forms the other half of the codependency duo and reinforces the cycle by willingly taking whatever the giver has to offer. Often, this person will choose to avoid questioning where or why they are constantly being granted whatever they need without having to offer much in return and may allow the giver to assume control over them and their responsibilities. They will find it difficult to leave the giver because of this, and because of their developed dependence on them, often encouraging the taker to stay despite unhappiness or a feeling of being unfulfilled within the relationship. The taker is usually the person in the relationship struggling with the addiction or mental/physical health problems mentioned above.
Going forward: breaking the co dependency cycle
To truly understand codependency you need to understand it hostilically. Framing codependence, as an isolated issue, as being only the fault of the giver or taker is incredibly dangerous as each person involved contributes to the cycle. Sometimes the contribution is subconscious, people who spent their lives witnessing codependency in others or partook in it at home may be more likely to engage in the same type of dynamic in a romantic relationship and might not necessarily be aware of it. However, the pattern CAN be broken. It may be incredibly difficult to do so and requires work from both sides to rectify pre-existing relationships. But seeking help through therapy and support groups can be incredibly beneficial, even as an individual, to prevent repeating the pattern in future.
CODA is an organization (codependents anonymous) which offers free self-help support groups around the globe. There are in-person meetings as well as online meetings which can be found through their website. (To download the pamphlet click here)
If therapy is within your means, you can look up a directory of therapists who operate in your area to access their details and reach out for help.