In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is codependency.
We hear about codependency often, particularly in relation to addiction. What does it actually mean, though? GoodTherapy’s website says: “Codependency involves sacrificing one’s personal needs to try to meet the needs of others. Someone who is codependent has an extreme focus outside themselves. Their thoughts and actions revolve around other people”. It adds that people who are codependent tend to have high levels of shame and low self-esteem. They have a tendency to try to save others from themselves, and may use it as a way to cope with emotional abuse. Adults who had enmeshed interactions with parents in childhood may become codependent.
Al-Anon, the support organization for families of alcoholics, was founded in 1951, and Wikipedia identifies it as one of the earliest recognitions of codependency. The idea of codependency became much more widely known in the 1980s with the publication of several widely read books on the subject by authors including Melody Beattie. It is not recognized as a diagnosable mental disorder, although it had been proposed for inclusion in the DSM-III-R.
Mental Health America says that codependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction”, adding that it’s a behaviour that may be learned within dysfunctional families and passed down from one generation to another. While it comes with good intentions, repeated rescue attempts actually promote the other person’s continued destructive behaviours. The MHA website offers a codependency questionnaire on its website to identify if you have signs of codependency.
According to Psych Central, “Codependency is characterized by a person belonging to a dysfunctional, one-sided relationship where one person relies on the other for meeting nearly all of their emotional and self-esteem needs. It also describes a relationship that enables another person to maintain their irresponsible, addictive, or underachieving behaviour.” Several symptoms of codependency are given: low self-esteem, people-pleasing, poor boundaries, reactivity, caretaking, control, dysfunctional communication, obsessions, dependency, denial, problems with intimacy, and painful emotions.
For me where all of this gets a bit messy is separating out codependent vs. healthy helping behaviour. My last boyfriend struggled with addiction, and I tried very hard to support him in overcoming that addiction. It caused a lot of distress for me, and eventually I ended the romantic relationship because I couldn’t continue to cope with the consequences of the substance use. However, we remained friends until he died of a fentanyl overdose. Looking back probably some of my behaviour could be considered codependent. I guess where I make the biggest differentiation is that my self-esteem never depended on anything to do with attempts at rescuing him. I was probably looser with boundaries than I should have been, but I didn’t see my primary role in the relationship as rescuer.
Is codependency something you’re struggled with or questioned yourself on?
- GoodTherapy. (2018). Codependency.
- Lancer, D. (2018). Symptoms of Codependency. Psych Central.
- Mental Health America. (2018). Co-dependency.
- Wikipedia. (2018). Codependency.
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.