Everyone loves the sense of being needed, to matter to someone in a deep and meaningful way. Being needed in general can pertain to the most basic symbiotic relationships, such as how a young child needs their parent and is dependent on them. That kind of need and dependence is normal and healthy. However, when the desire to feel needed becomes fueled by a compulsive desire to experience the “reward” of someone—such as a spouse, a friend, or a grown child—being dependent on you it crosses over into the psychological dysfunction known as codependency.
Of course, no one wants to think of him or herself as weak or easy to be taken advantage of. We may cloak our caregiving efforts in the mantle of selfless, altruistic goodness, serving our needy loved one with only the best of intentions. But when those efforts end up creating an unbalanced, unhealthy relationship where one person’s needs are going unmet—becoming the sacrificial lamb of sorts—it is time to reevaluate the underlying motives.
About thirty years ago, the term, codependency, burst onto the self-help scene within the pages of a book entitled Codependent No More by Melody Beattie. While Ms. Beattie was not the first person to use the term, she was very effective in describing the dysfunction, offering insights and useful ideas on how to make positive changes in a codependent relationship. In her breakthrough book, Beattie described enabling behaviors exhibited by the partner of an alcoholic spouse, for example, to illustrate the concept of codependency.
Essentially, codependency is the lopsided relationship dynamic that is built on unhealthy neediness—one party has unending needs while the other’s neediness to find self-worth by providing these services is fulfilled. One partner may be addicted, mentally ill, physically ill, or a narcissistic personality. The other partner plays the martyr role, the long-suffering caregiver who bends over backward to meet the person’s every need and rescuing them from certain calamity, all the while neglecting their own wellbeing. These relationships feature one party who is the perpetual taker and one who is the over-the-top giver. They usually deeply resent each other but are caught up in a cycle that satisfies some defective need for control in each.
Characteristics of Codependent People
First a distinction must be made between a codependent relationship and a loving, supportive relationship where one party is available to be of assistance in a time of need. People who tend toward codependent relationships often have a low self-esteem. Being the hero who comes to the rescue all the time gives them a sense of value, even if it comes at the cost of authentic self-worth. Why? Because in denying one’s own needs in the quest to fulfill the endless needs of another is ultimately self-defeating behavior.
Codependents are thirsty for approval, admiration, and recognition. These individuals are highly dependent on the relationship; fiercely protecting it as to not lose the one thing they derive a sense of purpose or identity from. Because of this, the codependent giver will bend over backwards to keep peace in the relationship and to avoid rejection—even if by doing so they humiliate themself.
Both parties are bent on controlling the other. Codependents often are over-achievers, gaining their sense of worth from grandiose displays of caregiving and generosity that they believe will establish a sort of control over the other. The recipient will take advantage of this, leaning that much more on the giver, as a way of wrestling control back. These relationships persist because both partners are willing participants, each taking something from the other, even if the relationship is fundamentally toxic.
Signs You’re in a Codependent Relationship
There are common features of dysfunction within a codependent relationship. Understanding these traits of codependency is the first step in identifying some of them in your own relationships and then taking steps to change behavioral patterns:
- You have difficulty saying no to your partner, have squishy or non-existent boundaries
- You seek out people who are broken and need fixing, often someone with a substance use disorder or mood disorder
- Your own emotions are dependent on the other’s emotional state; when they are happy your are happy, if they are depressed, you are depressed
- You feel personally embarrassed or humiliated by the other’s behavior or choices
- You stuff feelings to avoid conflict
- You are highly sensitive to other people’s opinion of you
- You are willing to make major sacrifices for the other, even if it causes you to neglect your own health and wellbeing
- You allow the other to belittle you without reprimanding them
- You have difficulty expressing your honest feelings with the other
- You are in a relationship with an abusive partner
- You spend inordinate amounts of time pleasing and appeasing the partner
- Your relationship causes you anxiety
- You feel that nothing you do for your partner is ever enough
PeoplePsych can Help You Free Yourself from Codependency
PeoplePsych is an Illinois-based counseling practice that helps clients break out of the patterns of codependency. Our therapists understand how easy it is to slip into a codependent relationship, often simply as a result of good intentions. With compassion and understanding, our therapists will guide you towards recognizing the destructive effects of a codependent relationship in your life, and give you the tools to establish healthy boundaries in all relationships. For more information about how we can help you free yourself from codependency, please contact PeoplePsych today.