While it’s easy to understand codependency when it comes to substance abuse, it’s sometimes much harder to recognize codependency when it occurs in our relationships.
Say you’ve just gotten clean and now you’ve met someone else in recovery who has your world spinning to a new rhythm. The love feels so intense that you wonder how you ever lived without that person, but slowly the love becomes so powerful that you begin to worry about being alone. You tell yourself that this is normal because this type of love is what you know to be normal. What others would see as warning signs, you see as undoubted expressions of true love. But then what if that person takes up drinking again? As a person in recovery, you believe you have the power to save them.
Suddenly, you find yourself worried when your lover doesn’t answer a phone call. You make excuses why their wrongdoings aren’t their fault. You make it your mission to help them. Meanwhile, you ditch your own self-care. The progress you’ve been making begins to backslide. Daily life becomes about the other person and making sure they are okay.
Nothing wrong with that, right?
The truth is, it feels good to feel needed. But for those of us in recovery, trading substances for another’s needs leads to a new pathway of self-destruction.
Part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that we require connection as a psychological need on our path to self-actualization. So, it makes sense that helping others is vital to our own growth. But when helping goes too far it becomes detrimental to both parties and leads to codependency.
Codependency is defined as an excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction. Codependency is also known as “relationship addiction” because it inhibits a person from sustaining a healthy, long-term relationship.
A 2013 article published in Psychology Today, notes that in the past, codependency was often thought of as a relationship between a person who struggles with substance abuse and his or her enabler. However, codependency is viewed much more broadly today as an emotional dependency that most likely originates from childhood.
Children are extremely impressionable. They need love and devotion in order to create a secure foundation for adulthood. When there is a lack or disruption in their sense of security or emotional maturation, the child may seek other people in order to compensate for a low self-esteem.
The lack of physical and psychological needs being met most often occurs in dysfunctional settings where a child might experience:
- Chaos and unpredictability
- Monetizing love
- Unrealistic expectations
- Emotional or physical neglect
- Overly harsh or abusive
- Unwillingness of parents to admit there is a problem and refuse to seek outside help
In the situation of a dysfunctional family, children often assume they are responsible for the disharmony.
In some cases, children grow up taking on inappropriate identities such as being a caretaker, a term called “parentification” where the role between child and parent is reversed.
According to a 1999 article, published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, parentification is even more pronounced in homes where one or both parents suffers from substance abuse or mental illness. In this situation, children often assume the responsibilities of making sure the house doesn’t burn down or that younger siblings are fed.
In addition, the study found that feelings of low self-worth and toxic shame are characteristics of a codependent person. In cases of parentification, the reversal of child and parent roles, the child adapts to an unhealthy valuing of his or her “true self.”
Children from dysfunctional households will attain the need to keep those around them happy. They will be the ones who give and give, who never speak up, and who seek emotional fulfillment out of another’s satisfaction.
Unfortunately, codependency often follows a child into adulthood. Some of the ways this dysfunction plays out in adulthood are:
- You conflate love with pain. You’ve learned through childhood that people who say they love you often hurt you, lie to you, betray you. This becomes a familiar dynamic that replays in adulthood.
- You do not know how to set healthy boundaries. Either you have fragile boundaries where you give in too easily or you completely shut people out.
- You constantly feel guilty. You find yourself feeling guilty that you can’t fix problems at home. Knowing the disruption at home makes you feel guilty when good things happen to you. You feel that you don’t deserve to be happy.
- You don’t trust people. Because of chronic let downs and feelings of betrayal by family, you are weary of people and suspect there is always something being hidden from you.
- You become overly concerned with responsibility or control. As a child, you had to assume responsibilities that surpassed your age. So, when life begins to feel chaotic, you clench onto your ability to control people or situations.
- You feel alone. Because you never felt a trustworthy connection with the adults in your life, you grow up feeling alone in the world.
- You are hyper critical of yourself. You feel you are essentially flawed and lack self-esteem which makes you feel like you unworthy of happiness.
The problem with childhood is that you’re more than likely stuck in your circumstances. But as an adult, you don’t have to continue a legacy of codependent relationships.
It is even more vital for a person in recovery to recognize codependent tendencies and the impact it can have on building meaningful relationships. Sacrificing your needs for others will only open your heart to vulnerability. Do not get discouraged; with help you can learn how to set healthy boundaries and develop long-term and meaningful relationships.