Codependence – what is it and how can we recognize it?

Initially, the term codependent referred to those persons who were in a relationship with a person who was suffering from a certain addiction. The codependent, by their actions, supports the partner's addiction, they encourage their irresponsible behavior. Although the intention behind it seems to be positive (trying to support, to help, to ease the suffering), the effect is often destructive.

When a person does everything possible for their partner (we can refer also to a close person like a son, daughter, friend or parent) not to deal with the consequences of their addiction, they become part of the problem and not part of the solution because this way it makes it harder for them to recognize that they have a problem and to seek specialized help. For example, a wife who buys alcohol to her addicted partner or who justifies this kind of behavior saying that “he’s stressed, he just drinks to relax”, although the situation is much worse than that; a husband who takes responsibility for his wife's mistakes who is a drug addict and who always gets in trouble and needs to be saved; a person who keeps borrowing money to cover their  partner debts who gambles and so on.

In these relationships, the codependent tries to save their partner by taking on themselves the responsibility of their life. Their caretaking is unhealthy because it incapacitates their partner and at the same time it drains their energy and resources. We can say that in this kind of relationship the “savior” or “martyr” feels loved if their partner needs them, if they can take care of them in one way or the other, and the “sufferer” feels loved if the partner attends to all of their needs. For the relationship to please the “savior”, the partner must not evolve, they mustn’t solve their problems or heal, because in that case they won’t be needed it anymore. By not being needed, the “savior” would have to face their biggest fear - a potential abandonment, so in order to avoid it, they will do their best to keep the codependent relationship unchanged. But all these will lead in time to resentment, dissatisfaction and frustrations which inevitably will ruin the relationship.

The term codependent has now expanded its meaning, also referring to those people who show increased dependence on certain close persons in their lives, while at the same time feeling responsible for the way they feel and act. Codependent relationships are dysfunctional because there is no equality or reciprocity, the well-being of the codependent person, their self-esteem and the meeting of their emotional needs entirely depending on their partner. In such relationships we generally find a person more powerful,  more domineering and the other person who clings to their partner,  more passive, who doesn’t have enough autonomy and independence, constantly making sacrifices and compromises without receiving anything in return, who gives up on themselves to meet their partner’s needs, to please them, who often feels trapped in that relationship, but also feels they can’t leave.

Codependence is an emotional, attitudinal and behavioral pattern that significantly affects a person’s ability to have satisfying and healthy relationships. The codependent often chooses to start relationships with unavailable, abusive, problematic persons or with people whom they try to “fix”, to save, disregarding their own needs and desires, ending up doubting their identity.

This pattern starts to form in childhood when the person starts imitating the behaviors of one of their parents who is also codependent or if, for example, the child grows up in a dysfunctional family where a member of this family suffers from a certain form of addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling) or a serious mental or physical illness, where the child is parentified or if the child grows up in a toxic environment where there was physical, emotional or sexual abuse. In such families the child learns to repress his emotions, to deny his needs, practically to distance from himself. His attention is directed to “survival strategies” or to that problematic family member who has to be pleased to avoid problems or abuse.

It’s important to specify that this construct - codependence - doesn’t refer to a certain personality disorder nor is included in the clinical manuals as such, although some of its characteristics are common with those of other disorders - low self-esteem, the need for approval, the fear of rejection and abandonment are found also in dependent personality disorder.

To better understand this construct we will further enumerate the characteristics of codependent persons:

One of the most destructive beliefs they have is that they think they aren’t good enough, they think they don’t deserve to be loved and appreciated; they feel somehow inappropriate, inferior. They constantly doubt themselves, their capacities, they worry about how others see them and they have a low self-esteem. Despite appearances, some people who claim to have a very good opinion of themselves have a low self-esteem. The mask they wear (even being arrogant and infatuated) is a defense mechanism preventing shame or inadequacy feelings to come out. A person who seems to have everything under control, who is in a continuous struggle with themselves and others to demonstrate their abilities, who needs things to take place in a certain order, can reveal a certain perfectionism, perfectionism that means “I need everything to be done perfectly/ to be perfect for me to feel good with myself.” The outward perfection compensates for the internal inadequacy.

They try to please others, they need others’ approval and validation, and for them is more important what others think of them than what they think about themselves. If someone tells them “you’re worthless” they rather believe that even though the reality evidence shows them the opposite. When others’ critical or defamatory voices overlap with your own critical voice it’s quite hard not to believe them. However good or bad people’s intentions are when they tell us certain things, if we don’t believe to a certain extent that they are true, we will not take them into account.

It’s hard for them to set personal limits and boundaries of interaction, to communicate, to express themselves, to let others know their needs, wishes and dissatisfactions. They are the ones who give up on themselves, who sacrifice themselves, who feel guilty if they say “no”, who feel ashamed if they make a mistake or if they aren’t as others want them to be, if they don’t correspond to others. They feel valuable only if others show them appreciation, love or if they show they need them. Anything else throws them back in their turmoil of negative thoughts and self-doubt. More than that, when their help is turned down, they feel rejected, humiliated and insist on helping even if the other person doesn’t need help or refuses that help very clearly.

They avoid confrontations, they fear authority, they find it hard to express their feelings, they are confused about their own identity or the direction in which their lives are heading.

They are extremely afraid of loneliness and are willing to accept a relationship that doesn’t give them anything they want or an abusive relationship in order not to be alone. In this relationship, the boundaries between them and their partner are poor, frequently confusing their partner’s feeling with their own feelings, taking on beliefs or fears, letting themselves be redefined by them. Also because of these poor boundaries they feel responsible for their partner’s emotions and behaviors and at the same time they blame their partner for their own emotions and behaviors.

Their affective spectrum is dominated by painful emotions such as anger, shame, guilt, lack of hope, despair, anxiety, deep sadness. At the same time, they feel the need to control others and the circumstances because this way they feel safe - they need things to be predictable. They need people to be constant because any change can be interpreted as a sign of the fact that they are no longer liked, they are no longer loved, they are no longer wanted. In order to exercise this control, they often use manipulation and emotional blackmail, play the victims, play the “after all that I’ve done for you…” card. Sometimes they can be very intrusive and authoritarian trying to make others do what they want or imposing them what or not to do. Also as a way of controlling, but this time to keep themselves under control, they can develop certain addictions - they frequently drink alcohol to relax (alcohol numb their painful feelings and helps them forget) or they lose themselves into work in order to avoid confronting with themselves.

For these behavioral and relational patterns to change, first it’s necessary that the codependent recognizes they have a problem and confront it, psychotherapy being extremely useful in this case. Initially, this can be very difficult because the codependent is more willing to make efforts in trying to change the other person instead of changing oneself. The other one is to blame, the situation is to blame, the circumstances are to blame. If the relationship ends, the codependent will hurry to start a new relationship because loneliness scares them, makes them sad, demoralizes them. They will behave the same way in this new relationship, they will blame again their partner for all the problems that arise. Assuming that this relationship will end, they will continue to behave according to the same pattern if they continue to deny their needs and desires, if they don’t understand their emotions and what causes them, if they don’t make peace with the past, and if they don’t accept themselves.

The path from codependence to independence implies both a better self-understanding and concrete changes such as stopping any abusive behavior, getting out of toxic relationships, positive self-directed actions that contribute both to increasing self-esteem as well as improving mental and emotional health, observing and conscious changing the inner dialogue, saying “no” despite guilt or anxiety feelings etc.

We aren’t responsible for others’ happiness, nor are others responsible for our happiness. We have to learn to take responsibility for our flaws, to recognize our problems, to become aware of the responsibility we have regarding the way our life and relationships look like. We can’t endlessly try to save others while waiting at the same time to be saved one way or the other. That's not what a healthy couple relationship means, that’s not what love means. We don’t really bring any benefit to someone when we assume their mistakes as ours or when we try to place the responsibility of our own choices and actions on someone else's shoulders.

A healthy relationship is not a pathological game where we enslave our partner either by incapacitating them and making them dependent on us, or by playing a victim role who needs help, who needs ... and needs ... .

A healthy relationship is between two assumed and independent people who aren’t afraid to present themselves as they are to one another, who assume their authenticity, respect their needs, communicate sincerely and openly their desires, that don’t act like saviors, nor do they accept to be treated as hurt and needy children.

Such a relationship, even if it ends at a certain moment, can’t damage the integrity and self-esteem of the two partners, nor leave deep wounds or traumas, but beautiful memories and precious lessons.

Dr. Ursula Sandner





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