When I first met Janet, it was to support her through what she described to me on the phone as burnout. I soon discovered that Janet was a stay-at-home mother to a 21 year old and married to an emotionally abusive man who was addicted to gambling. As her story unravelled, I learned that Janet’s daughter and husband were so dependent on her for support that they called her from work multiple times a day, her husband had a history of alcohol and drug addiction, and her daughter was unable to make any decisions without her mother’s approval and constant encouragement. Rather than seeing such dependence as dysfunctional, Janet smiled lovingly as she spoke about how much she was needed and how she was able to forgive her husband once again despite losing thousands of euros to gambling. Deep down, however, Janet felt unappreciated, exhausted and was so busy helping everyone else that she neglected herself both physically and emotionally.
What is co-dependency?
The term co-dependency was originally used to describe a person in relationship with an addict. The most typical example would be a person in relationship with an alcoholic. However, the term has now broadened to include any dysfunctional behaviour pattern in which one person is vulnerable or experiencing some kind of difficulties/problems whilst another person acts as the caregiver or ‘rescuer’, behaving in such a way that he/she enables and reinforces the other person’s vulnerability or problems. Co-dependent relationships involve one person who is under-functioning or struggling in some way and the other person who revolves their life around ‘helping’ or saving this person. The result is a vicious cycle in which both persons develop an unhealthy and dysfunctional dependence on one another.
Although co-dependency is more prevalent in romantic relationships, it can also occur between friends, family members and other close relationships. Co-dependency is so damaging because rather than support a partner to get the professional help they need, he/she would make excuses for the other person, denying to loved ones that a problem exists, giving repeated chances, failing to protect children from harmful behaviour and continuously sweeping in to save the other person. The ‘rescuer’ in this dynamic becomes the enabler, perpetuating a cycle in which the addict becomes dependent on the other person and is not motivated to seek help since he knows his loved one will continue to excuse him and take responsibility for his actions.
Common characteristics of someone who is co-dependent:
Low self-esteem – The co-dependent doesn’t think very highly of himself, causing him to look outside of himself for signs that he’s worthy or important. By ‘saving’ or rescuing others, he receives the approval and validation he craves.
Being drawn to people they can ‘rescue’ – Co-dependents are drawn to people who are vulnerable, weak, or in need of help. They then make it their mission to repeatedly save them from whatever it is they’re going through, resulting in feelings of satisfaction and fulfilment.
Poor boundaries – Co-dependents have an exaggerated sense of responsibility, taking on too much and assuming responsibility for the well-being and happiness of others.
Poor sense of self – People who are co-dependent find it hard to identify their own feelings and needs. This becomes more pronounced as their increased focus on the other person causes them lose sight of themselves.
Denial – Co-dependents are unable or unwilling to see a problem with their behaviour. Doing so would put in question their self-concept, purpose and relationships. Instead, the co-dependent believes that the problems are external or due to someone else’s behaviour.
How does co-dependency develop?
The roots of co-dependency are in childhood and in experiences with caregivers. Co-dependency is a learned behaviour, meaning that the adult co-dependent may have seen a parent behave in such a way. Through parental interactions they learn that in order to be in relationship, they must forget themselves and focus on the other person.
Co-dependency also develops in people who, as children, had caregivers who were neglectful, unavailable or abusive. A child who sees a parent struggle with an illness, addiction, or issues that make him/her unable to take care of the child, may need to step into a caretaking role. They may be forced to take care of themselves, their parent/s or siblings. The technical term for this is the ‘parentified child’, whereby the child cannot be a child but must take on the responsibilities and duties of an adult. For some children, this may be the only way for them to earn their parent’s love and attention – ‘My mummy needs me. I’m important’. If this pattern is then repeated in subsequent relationships, the result is an adult who is so busy taking care of others that they neglect themselves.
Recovery from co-dependency
In order to move away from this dysfunctional manner of relating within relationships, a lot of personal work needs to be done. This would involve the exploration and understanding of how early childhood experiences led to this dysfunctional way of relating as well as working on enhancing one’s self-esteem, identifying one’s needs, learning what healthy relationships look like and practicing setting and adhering to boundaries. As such behaviour patterns are so ingrained by the time the co-dependent reaches adulthood, seeking professional support from a counsellor or psychotherapist is advised as it would provide you with the support and guidance you’ll need throughout the recovery process.