Initially, the term “codependency” was used within the context of the Twelve Steps. It described a pattern where family members and friends “enabled” the dysfunctional behavior of the alcoholic because of their enmeshment.
The word “codependency” is now widely used. It mainly describes relational dynamics where people have difficulty being themselves while being in the relationship. Mostly, they confuse interdependency and codependency.
Codependence vs. Interdependence
Interdependency is a normal, healthy, essential part of being human. It is not so for codependency. In codependent relationships, the partners have difficulty finding a balance between being themselves and being in the relationship. Instead of finding the right balance, codependent people are at the extreme. Either they are subsumed into the relationship or assert their independence aggressively and destructively.
Often, codependent people feel that they “should” be independent. It leads to black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking. Either you are independent to the point of being unrelated, or you are codependent!
But you cannot be both in a relationship and independent. The challenge is to be interdependent: recognizing that you need your partner and your partner needs you, but both also need to be individuals.
Being part of the couple vs. being a separate person
In any relationship, people are mutually dependent (that’s the very definition of a relationship). Therefore, people in a relationship will inevitably experience tension between the pull to see yourself as part of the couple and see yourself as a separate person.
Think of it as a slider on an electronic appliance:
– One end of the slider corresponds to the position where the only thing that counts is the couple;
– The slider’s other end corresponds to the situation where the only thing that counts is being a separate person.
Neither of these extreme positions is workable:
– If the only thing that counts is being a couple, you are stifled as a person.
– If the only thing that counts is being separate, then there is not much common ground for being a couple.
So, the slider needs to be someplace in between. This place will vary moment by moment, situation by situation.
This place is what codependent people have trouble with: They have difficulty with the flexibility of moment-by-moment adjustment. They are more likely to be in an all-or-nothing mode – – all accommodating to the other or seeing any demands of their partner’s as pure selfishness.
Conflicts (or lack thereof)
I am pointing out that there is an inherent conflict to being in a relationship. The art of relationships is to manage conflicts, not avoid them as if they were shameful “proof” that you are a dysfunctional couple. In fact, what is dysfunctional in a couple is to avoid conflicts. Growth lies in learning how to manage conflicts effectively.
In a healthy relationship, this can be dealt with openly. As a result, both partners can progressively feel more secure in the relationship. They can be more intimate at the same time as they grow as individuals.
With codependency, these issues are more challenging to deal with. Often, they are swept under the rug. Or they’re dealt with in an atmosphere poisoned by accusations of selfishness. Or one partner finds a way to intimidate the other. As a result, there is a growing backlog of resentment between the spouses.
A symptom of codependency is the extent to which desires and demands are not fully expressed, mostly hinted at. Usually, this is because there is a fear of conflict. If you ask for what you want, you fear that your partner will be hurt or angry, which will be unpleasant for you. On the other hand, you can’t bear to stay silent. So you say something, but in such a covert way that your partner won’t get it. This behavior is a perfect recipe for feeling unheard, frustrated, and resentful.
All too often, what happens is that each partner feels they have an implicit agreement with the other — but the other is not aware of this unspoken agreement at all. Hence the sense, on both parts, that there is something fishy going on, that the other is in bad faith. The antidote to this is to build a safe environment, i.e., to make room for each partner to fully express their needs and wants.
Related to this is the sense of “you owe me.” You do something for your partner that you don’t want to do. You convince yourself to do it by telling yourself that, this way, your partner will owe you a favor. But you don’t say this to your partner at the time you do what your partner wants. You only mention it much later, when you are trying to cash in the favor, and your partner acts surprised and angry, and then you feel betrayed!
Another symptom of codependency is a sense of feeling “hemmed in,” constrained in the relationship. It is in sharp contrast to feeling spontaneous and free. It feels like you cannot do or say what you want because it will either hurt or anger your partner.
Now, of course, expressing what you need and want does not mean that your partner is obligated to give that to you. Part of what makes the relationship safe is that there is no sense of coercion. If your partner expresses what they want, this does not mean that you have to give it to them. The point is not that you have to sacrifice your own needs without any hesitation. The point is that you need to learn to negotiate and to tolerate the inevitable frustrations that are part of the negotiating process.
Until such a time as you can make room for these frustrations, there will be a sense of despair and anger every time there is a conflict. You will tend to see your partner as a source of frustration, as the source of your unhappiness. And vice versa. As a result, there will be a lot of blame and finger-pointing.
Blame is a significant characteristic of codependency: “It’s your fault!”. This not very different from what happens when kids bicker: “But, mom, he started it!”. Bickering kids would very much like to have a grown-up validate their feelings by punishing the other kid. Ideally, grown-ups can go beyond these feelings to resolve their differences between themselves. Resorting to blaming makes it harder to understand each other and find common ground. The blame game seems to turn into an ever-escalating cycle, where it becomes increasingly harder to stop and acknowledge each other.
For codependency to heal, partners must agree to create safety in the relationship. You do so by consciously avoiding blaming, shaming, dismissing each other, or stonewalling as a passive-aggressive response to actual or perceived attacks.
Lack of intimacy
There is a paradox with codependency. On the one hand, you are very connected. On the other hand, there is a genuine difficulty with real intimacy. It is difficult for the two of you to drop your guard to feel relaxed, comfortable, and vulnerable (in a good way) within the safety of the relationship. So you avoid intimacy. You or your partner have too much to do at work or with the kids. You are too tired to make time for special moments. Here, I am not just referring to physical intimacy but emotional closeness as well.
What do you do if you see many of the toxic characteristics of the codependent profile in your relationship?
Life would be easier if your partner would “see the light” and be willing to change. Unfortunately, this is something you have very little power over, if any at all.
A typical codependent reaction is to believe that nothing can be done unless both partners in the relationship work at it. Of course, it’s much better if you both work at it. But, if your partner doesn’t want to, you can still do something very productive, both for yourself and for the relationship. The power you have is over what you can do, from your end, to deal with codependency. So you do your part, regardless of what your partner is doing.