Bending Over Backwards
Are You CoDependent?
CoDependency: Addiction or Disease?
Codependency has been referred to as “relationship addiction” or “love addiction.” The focus on others helps to alleviate pain and inner emptiness, but in diverting attention outward, onto to others, the codependent person ignores themselves. This habit becomes a circular, self-perpetuating system that takes on a life of its own.
In full addiction, codependent thinking can become obsessive, and behavior can be compulsive, despite adverse consequences. Examples might be calling a partner or an ex when one knows it’s a bad idea, putting personal values at risk to accommodate someone else’s needs, or snooping into someone else’s private affairs driven by jealousy or fear. Codependency is referred to as an addiction for these reasons.
However, in the mid-50’s there was a movement to de-stigmatize addiction generally, in an attempt to encourage people to seek help and treatment. Addictions, such as alcoholism and codependence came to be defined as and referred to as diseases. Obesity eventually fell into the same category. The challenge with a disease description is the tendency for dissociation from the root of the problem, the early childhood wounding that tends to underpin codependence. Distancing from personal history can lead to distancing from personal responsibility and ultimately can undermine the empowerment, self-worth, self-esteem and hope that comes with recovering from addiction.
Disease characterizations of codependence tend to perpetuate a victim-state, which is at the core of addiction, to begin with. Codependency actually starts in childhood. Often a child grows up in a home where their emotions are ignored or punished. This emotional neglect can lead to low self-esteem and shame. The child may believe their needs are not worthy of attention. The needs of others are more important. The child might imagine that by prioritizing other’s needs over their own, eventually it will be their turn! But their turn never comes.
From my personal experience and professional perspective, codependency is characterized by symptoms that vary on a continuum similar to those associated with drug and alcohol addiction. They range from mild to severe and include features of dependency, denial, dysfunctional emotional responses, craving and reward (through passive and assertive controlling or manipulative interactions with other people), and an inability (on a spectrum) to control or abstain from the compulsive behaviors of meddling, manipulating and maneuvering, performing, over-giving, over-extending, (saying yes, when no is the truth) etc.
Codependents spend increasing amounts of time thinking about outcomes, imagining ways to influence others, being with, and/or trying to position themselves or manipulate others, just as a drug addict might think about or strategize the how, where and when of their next fix. It’s not a conscious, malevolently driven intention; but rather a series of unconscious thoughts and associated behaviors that produce a specific biochemistry. When the body chemistry returns to a more “normal’ state, the addict needs to set up their next fix. Other social, recreational, or work activities can suffer as a result. Finally, a codependent might continue problematic behavior and/or relationships, despite the persistent or recurring social or interpersonal problems it creates.
Stages of Codependency
Codependency is chronic. There are enduring symptoms that are also progressive, meaning that these symptoms can worsen over time when there is no awareness, intervention or treatment. In my experience, as previously mentioned, codependency begins in childhood due to a dysfunctional family environment. But because children are naturally dependent, it isn’t really perceived as a relational dysfunction or addiction until adulthood, generally manifesting in closer, primary relationships. There are three identifiable stages leading to increasing dependence on a person or relationship and a corresponding loss of self-focus and self-care.
The early stage might look like any romantic relationship with increased attention and dependency on a partner and a desire to please that person. However, with codependency, a person can become preoccupied with their partner, deny or rationalize problematic behavior, doubt their perceptions, fail to maintain healthy boundaries, and give up their own friends and activities. In the absence of a primary partner, or in the case of separation or divorce, codependent need is often satisfied by children.
Gradually, there’s increased effort required to minimize painful aspects of the relationship. Anxiety, guilt and self-blame set in. Over time, self-esteem diminishes as the codependent compromises more of themselves to maintain the relationship. Anger, disappointment, and resentment grow. Meanwhile, the codependent enables or tries to change the partner through compliance, manipulation, nagging, or blaming. They might hide problems and withdraw from family and friends. There may or may not be abuse or violence, but moods worsen, and fixation, dependence, conflict, withdrawal or compliance increase. Codependents might use other addictive behaviors to cope, such as eating, dieting, shopping, working, or abusing substances.
Now the emotional and behavioral symptoms begin to affect the health of the addict. Codependents may experience stress-related disorders, such as digestive and sleep problems, headaches, muscle tension or pain, eating disorders, TMJ, allergies, sciatica, or heart disease. Compulsive behavior along with other secondary addictions increase, lack of self-esteem can spiral into jealousy and paranoia. Deep in addiction, self-care suffers. Feelings of hopelessness, anger, depression, and despair increase.
The good news is that the symptoms are reversible when a codependent becomes aware and seeks help. People don’t generally do so, however, until there’s a crisis or they’re in enough pain to get motivated. Usually, they aren’t aware of their codependency and may also be in denial about their partner’s or child’s abuse and/or addiction.
Coming out of denial combined with education is the beginning of recovery. Reading about codependency is a good beginning, but greater change occurs through therapy and attending Twelve-Step programs, such as Al-Anon, CoDA, Nar-Anon, Gam-Anon, FA or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.
Codependents find hope in recovery as the focus shifts from the other person to themselves. There are early, middle, and late stages of recovery that parallel recovery from other addictions. In the middle stage, the codependent begins to build their own identity, self-esteem, and the ability to assertively express feelings, wants, and needs. They learn self-responsibility, boundaries, and self-care. Psychotherapy often includes healing PTSD and childhood trauma.
In the late stage of recovery, happiness and self-esteem doesn’t depend on others anymore. The recovering addict gains the capacity for both autonomy and intimacy. They experience their own power and self-love. Feeling expansive and creative, they discover the ability to generate and pursue their own goals.
Codependency doesn’t automatically disappear when a person leaves a codependent relationship. Recovery requires ongoing maintenance, and there is no perfect abstinence. After several years of therapeutic tendering and proper mirroring, changes in thinking and behavior become increasingly internalized; learned tools and skills become healthy habits. Still, codependent behavior, like any addiction can be easily triggered under increased stress or if a codependent person enters a dysfunctional relationship. While perfectionism is a classic symptom of codependency, there is no such thing as a perfect recovery. Recurring symptoms become ongoing opportunities for greater awareness and deeper self-acceptance.