That word, “co-dependent,” gets batted around a lot. I have patients who confidently alert me to the fact that one of their friend’s is “co-dependent” because she’s too needy and can’t leave her boyfriend alone. Or because he seems to need a relationship in order to feel good about himself. Or because she keeps breaking up and getting back together. Or because he argues a lot with his partner.
“Co-dependent,” used this loosely, ends up being a grab-bag term for anyone who isn’t ready for a relationship but ends up in one anyway. That seems too vague to be really useful.
And is it even called “co-dependency” or is it “co-dependence”? Does it get a hyphen – “co-dependent” or is it just “codependent”?
I can’t answer all these questions – and I’m not really sure how to spell it, either.
But co-dependency (however you spell it) is real, at least as I define it. It is a specific syndrome occurring within relationships that is fairly common and worth understanding.
For the record, here is The People’s Therapist definition of co-dependency: it’s when you express your own need for care by lavishing care on someone else.
In worst case scenarios, I’ve had patients who have taken care of other people for decades whom they don’t even like. One patient cared for a man whom she hardly knew for years, just because she couldn’t seem to kick him out of her life.
In more subtle cases, relationships are thrown out of balance as one partner gives and gives and the other falls into a dependent stupor, hardly bothering to lift a finger to participate.
It is an odd syndrome. It seems strange that someone would voluntarily offer so much to someone who seems to offer nothing in return. But like all neurosis, it has its own logic.
Co-dependents grow up in a world in which they are taught not to ask for care. Maybe their parents are busy with problems of their own, or distracted with other children. One of my patients who fell into the co-dependent pattern had a younger sibling with severe health issues that distracted his parents, and made it awkward for him to ask for care for himself. For whatever reason, the co-dependent learns that the best way to attract positive attention, and a few crumbs of the care he needs, is to offer help to others.
It relates to something I call “the birthday party syndrome.” As a child, birthday parties are a big deal. Some parents throw elaborate parties for their kids. Even for kids who aren’t so fortunate, there is the hope of this day being special, a time to be celebrated – one day when you are the center of attention.
But as we grow into adults, our parents drop this duty, and the task of celebrating our birthdays devolves onto ourselves.
We all want to be celebrated, but for many people, arranging for your own birthday feels wrong, forbidden. So you have to trick other people into celebrating it for you. Instinctively, you concoct a tactic – you’ll celebrate other people’s birthdays for them!
So you throw birthdays for all your friends, pulling out the stops.
And then you wait. Surely, they couldn’t forget you. Surely, they must remember your birthday. Maybe they’ll throw a surprise party. Maybe that’s why they’re all acting like they forgot.
And then you realize there is no surprise party. They simply forgot.
That’s because, instead of spelling out your need for care directly, you attempted to do it indirectly – through co-dependent behavior. You lavished care on others in a desperate attempt to attract attention for yourself.
For some co-dependents, caring for someone else seems to be an attempt to care for themselves by identifying with the recipient of their care.
For most, it is a frustrating, unsatisfying life lived like a silent cry for help.
One of my patients would go to singles bars and end up going home with whoever walked up to her. She couldn’t say no – she felt obliged not to hurt his feelings. She ended up dating some of these guys for months, going through the motions for his sake, unable to face rejecting anyone. She eventually decided to avoid dating altogether, staying home by herself – anything to avoid getting sucked into co-dependence again.
The key to beating co-dependence – like so much else in life – is awareness. Once you understand where this pattern started, and why, you can break it. No one should have to subordinate his own needs to everyone else’s.
You can only share yourself in an effective way when your own needs are being met – when you have a sense of abundance in your life, and can share it with others in a way that brings both of you joy. It’s like the oxygen mask on an airplane: you have to put it on yourself before you can help the child sitting next to you – or you’ll both suffocate.
Co-dependence can be a hard habit to break because it dates back to early childhood. That child who learned to give care in the hopes of receiving care was fighting for his life. He needed care for himself in order to survive.
As an adult, you can move past the old fear, and the old patterning. You are independent and self-sufficient now, and you can address your own needs. A balanced, healthy partnership is about two equals caring for one another. Care moves both ways – caregiving and care-receiving – nourishing both partners in the process.