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What is codependency? Signs of a codependent relationship

Codependent relationships are built around an imbalance of power that favor the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving.

“Codependent” is one of those oft-used buzzwords that implies various levels of neediness in a relationship, or attachments tinged with a hint of desperation. But, actually, the term stems from something a little more specific to addiction and recovery.

“Codependence is an imbalanced relationship pattern where one partner assumes a high-cost ‘giver-rescuer’ role and the other the ‘taker-victim’ role,” explains Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., author of “Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide for Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Helping,” and professor of psychology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Rob Weiss, Ph.D. MSW, CEO of Seeking Integrity, an online community that addresses behavioral health issues, and author of “Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency” says codependence “implies that the loved ones of addicts, due to their underlying, often unconscious childhood issues tend to, as adults, give too much and love too much. Thus, they attract, enable and enmesh with addicted partners.”

Those assuming these roles, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate the taker’s addiction-driven (mis)behavior. “The codependent taker is usually some combination of needy, under-functioning, immature, addicted, entitled or troubled. They rely on the giver to take care of them, assume or soften the negative consequences for their actions, and to compensate for their under-functioning,” Burn explains. “Meanwhile, the codependent giver is usually an empathic, forgiving, competent and altruistic person. They play the role of extreme caregiver, rescuer, supporter or confidante. They show love and caring by making sacrifices for the taker that usually enable rather than empower them.”

Codependent relationships are built around an imbalance of power that favor the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving.

This other buzzword “enabler” means, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “one that enables another to achieve an end; especiallyone who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (such as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.”

In codependent relationships, the balance of 'give and take' is off kilter

Healthy relationships, over time, have an equal balance of give and take in terms of fulfilling needs, rather than favoring the needs of one partner. Codependent relationships are built around an imbalance of power that favor the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving. “Codependent relationships violate some of the essential features of healthy close relationships, because they are enmeshed rather than interdependent, and imbalanced rather than equitable,” Burn says.

Weiss says, when people are labeled as codependent, they are told that they are trying to either enable or control the addict’s behaviors. ”They put too much focus on someone else’s behavior and not enough on their own,” he says.

Why codependent relationships form

What causes us to seek out these types of relationships? “As far as givers go, available research suggests that emotional abuse and neglect put us at risk for codependence,” says Burn. “If you learned that the only way to connect with a difficult parent was to subordinate your own needs and cater to theirs, then you may be set up for similar relationships throughout your life.”

Weiss says the term codependence stems from something called “trauma theory,” which implies a traumatic event, sometimes occurring during formative years, possibly caused by violence or some other form of violation.

According to Burn, you may also have beliefs or personality traits that make it easier to fall into a codependent relationship. “You can over-internalize religious or cultural values that prescribe self-sacrifice for others. Being the giver in a codependent relationship can also satisfy needs such as the need to matter to someone, the need to feel competent, the need to feel close to someone,” she says. “As far as takers go, they are sometimes selfish and manipulative, irresponsible and entitled. But some are just troubled or addicted or lacking in life skills.”

According to an older study in the Journal of Substance Abuse, both men and women in codependent relationships tend to be loyal to their partners despite the thankless stress. But, interestingly enough, codependent women showed five of the characteristics expected in codependency: Control, Exaggerated Responsibility, Worth Dependency, Rescue Orientation and Change Orientation, while codependent men only showed two: Control and Exaggerated Responsibility. Their sense of self-worth wasn’t as linked to their partners as women.

Regardless of your gender, if you feel you might be in a codependent relationship, it’s worth it to try and break the cycle. A Mexican study from Science and Collective Health says codependent relationships don’t only affect the health of the giver and taker, but also affects the health of their families. They tend to suffer from more stress (and health issues from stress), their kids have a higher chance of becoming addicts themselves, and have a “poorer quality of life in the psychological and physical domains” than the general population.

Signs You May Be in a Codependent Relationship

According to Burn, you might be in a codependent relationship if:

  • You’re in a caretaking and (or) rescuing relationship with a person who uses you to avoid age-appropriate responsibilities, or the hard work of personal change.
  • You’re in an imbalanced relationship with well-intentioned, but ultimately unproductive supportive behaviors, such as enabling your partner, overlooking violated agreements and accepting bogus explanations.
  • Your efforts to fix a troubled, addicted or under-functioning person have fostered dependence on you, rather than on their life progress.
  • Takers engage in the flip side of the above behaviors, using or imposing upon their relationships (or using them as an excuse) to avoid responsibility, avoid their life progress and personal change.

If you feel you might be in a legitimate codependent situation, Burn says you first have to identify the behaviors you need to change, and realize what codependence costs you, your partner and your relationships.

“Counseling and self-help materials can help you understand the roots of your behavior, because different change strategies may be relevant depending on the cause,” says Burn, who also says learning to set boundaries might be the best thing you can do for yourself. “There are lots of things that make setting boundaries difficult, such as the other person’s resistance and your guilt, and your commitment, which may be significant if you have devoted much time, energy and resources to the relationship,” explains Burn.

If you're concerned about your relationship, reach out to a licensed therapist for help. For lower-cost or free services, look for these resources.


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