Co-dependency is often referred to as “relationship addiction.” It’s an emotional and behavioural condition that interferes with an individual’s ability to develop a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It can be frustrating and destructive, but there are things that you can do to learn how to stop being co-dependent.
The term co-dependency was first used to describe the partner of someone with an addiction, whose unhealthy choices enabled or encouraged the addiction to continue. But over the years it’s been expanded to include individuals who maintain one-sided, emotionally destructive, or abusive relationships, and those relationships don’t necessarily have to be romantic.
What Is Co-dependency?
Signs of Co-dependency
Individuals who are co-dependent have good intentions. They want to care for a partner or family member who is struggling. But their efforts become compulsive and unhealthy. Some signs of co-dependency include:
A desire to "be needed." Their attempts to rescue, save, and support their loved one allows the other individual to become even more dependent on them. The act of giving often gives a co-dependent individual a sense of satisfaction as long as they gain recognition.
They might feel trapped and grow resentful. Their choices often backfire, and they may feel helpless yet unable to break away from the relationship or change their interactions.
The relationship tends to deteriorate over time. It's often riddled with anxiety, frustration, and pity, rather than love and comfort.
For some individuals, co-dependent relationships become commonplace. They seek out friendships or romantic relationships where they are encouraged to act like martyrs.
Consequently, they devote all their time to caring for others and completely lose sight of what's important to them.
Co-dependency can come in many forms. But the root of a co-dependent relationship is that the co-dependent individual loses sight of their own needs and wants to the detriment of themselves and the other individual.
Examples of Co-dependency
Here are some examples of what a co-dependent relationship might look like:
In parent-child relationships it can involve:
Doing everything for an adult child who should be independent
Getting a sense of meaning or purpose from financially supporting an adult child
Never allowing a child to do anything independently
Dropping everything to care for a parent
Neglecting other responsibilities and relationships to respond to parents' demands
Never talking about problems in family relationships or behaviours
In romantic relationships it can involve:
Investing a lot of energy and time into caring for a partner with an alcohol or substance abuse problem
Making excuses or covering for the other person's bad behaviour
Neglecting self-care, work, or other relationships to care for your partner
Enabling a partner's destructive or unhealthy behaviour
Not allowing your partner to take responsibility for their own lives
Not allowing your partner to maintain their independence
Why It Happens
Co-dependency is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behaviour. It’s often passed down from one generation to the next. So a child who grew up watching a parent in a co-dependent relationship may repeat the pattern.
Co-dependency occurs in dysfunctional families where members often experience anger, pain, fear, or shame that is denied or ignored. Underlying issues that contribute to the dysfunction may involve:
Addiction to drugs, alcohol, work, food, sex, gambling, relationships
Abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual)
Chronic physical illness or mental illness
Problems within the family are never confronted. Co-dependent individuals don’t bring up the fact that issues exist. Family members repress their emotions and disregard their own needs in an effort to care for the individual who is struggling.
All of the attention and energy goes toward the individual who is abusive, ill, or addicted. The co-dependent individual usually sacrifices all of their own needs to care for the loved one or family member who is struggling. They usually experience social, emotional, and physical consequences as they disregard their own health, welfare, and safety.
Risk Factors and Characteristics
While anyone might find themselves in a co-dependent relationship, there are certain factors that increase the risk. Researchers have identified several factors that are often linked with co-dependency:
Lack of trust in self or others
Fear of being alone or abandoned
A need to control other people
Poor communication skills
Trouble making decisions
Problems with intimacy
Difficulty establishing boundaries
Trouble adjusting to change
An extreme need for approval and recognition
A tendency to become hurt when others don’t recognise their efforts
An inclination to do more than their share all the time
A tendency to confuse love and pity
An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
Studies show co-dependency is common in adults who were raised by parents with substance abuse problems, who live in chronic stressful family environments, who have children with behaviour problems, and who care for the chronically ill. Women are more likely to be co-dependent than men.
Individuals in the helping professions are also more likely to be in co-dependent relationships. It’s estimated that one-third of nurses have moderate to severe levels of co-dependency. Nurses need to be sensitive to the needs of others and often need to set aside their own feelings for the good of their patients. They may also find validation in their ability to care for others, and that need may spill over into their personal lives.
Identifying Co-dependent Relationships
While co-dependency isn’t something that shows up in a lab test or a brain scan, there are some questions that you can ask yourself to help spot co-dependent behaviour.
Do you feel compelled to help other people?
Do you try to control events and how other people should behave?
Are you afraid to let other people be who they are and allow events to happen naturally?
Do you feel ashamed of who you are?
Do you try to control events and people through helplessness, guilt, coercion, threats, advice-giving, manipulation, or domination?
Do you have a hard time asking others for help?
Do you feel compelled or forced to help people solve their problems (i.e., offering advice)?
Do you often hide what you are really feeling?
Do you avoid openly talking about problems?
Do you push painful thoughts and feelings out of your awareness?
Do you blame yourself and put yourself down?
If you answer yes to many of these questions, it may be a sign of co-dependent behaviour patterns in your relationships. Identifying these patterns is an important step in learning how to stop being co-dependent.
How to Stop Being Co-dependent
Some individuals are able to overcome co-dependency on their own. Learning about what it means to be co-dependent and the harm it causes can be enough for some individuals to change their behaviour. Some steps you can take to overcome co-dependence include:
Look for signs of a healthy relationship. In order to break out of co-dependent patterns, you need to first understand what a healthy, loving relationship looks like. Signs of a healthy relationship include making time for each other, maintaining independence, being honest and open, showing affection, and having equality.
Having healthy boundaries. People with good relationships are supportive of each other, but they also respect each other's boundaries. A boundary is a limit that establishes what you are willing and unwilling to accept in a relationship. Spend some time thinking about what is acceptable to you. Work on listening to the other person, but don't allow their problems to consume your life. Practice finding ways to decline requests that step over your boundaries. Set limits, then work on enforcing them.
Take care of yourself. People who are in co-dependent relationships often have low self-esteem. In order to stop being co-dependent, you need to start by valuing yourself. Learn more about the things that make you happy and the kind of life that you want to live. Spend time doing the things that you love to do. Work on overcoming negative self-talk and replace self-defeating thoughts with more positive, realistic ones. Also be sure that you are taking care of your health by getting the food, rest, and self-care that you need for your emotional well-being.
Some people learn about their co-dependent tendencies through books or articles. Others stop being co-dependent when they experience environmental changes, such as when a partner becomes sober, or they get a new job that requires them to stop care-taking.
Co-dependency often requires professional treatment, however. It can be treated with talk therapy. Research shows that several different types of therapy treatments can be effective in improving the quality of one’s life and learning how to stop being co-dependent.
There are several different group interventions that may be effective for co-dependency. The group dynamic gives individuals an opportunity to form healthier relationships in an appropriate space. Group therapy often involves giving positive feedback and holding individuals accountable.
Group therapy methods may vary. Some involve cognitive behavioral therapy, where members learn specific skill-building strategies.
Other co-dependency groups follow the 12-step model. Similar to the way other 12-step groups are run, individuals learn about their relationship addiction. Goals may include increasing self-awareness, self-esteem, and the expression of feelings.
Family therapy targets the dysfunctional family dynamics. Family members learn how to recognise their dysfunctional patterns so they can learn how to improve their relationships.
Improved communication is often a key goal of family therapy. Issues that have never before been discussed in the family may be raised in therapy. Sometimes, one individual creates a change (such as getting sober or encouraging someone to be more independent) and it can change the entire family dynamic.
Cognitive therapy can target the thoughts that contribute to unhealthy relationship patterns. For example, an individual who thinks, “I can’t stand being alone,” is likely to go to great lengths to maintain the relationship, even when it’s not healthy to do so. Therapy sessions might focus on learning how to tolerate uncomfortable emotions and changing irrational thoughts.
The goal is likely to create positive behaviour changes and allow the other individual to accept more personal responsibility for their own actions.
Treatment may delve into a person’s childhood, since most co-dependent individuals are patterning their relationships after ones they grew up seeing. Therapy may assist someone in getting in touch with their emotions and helping them experience a wide range of feelings again.
If you suspect you are co-dependent in your relationship and you’re struggling to create positive change, seek professional help. You might start by talking to your doctor or you can reach out to a mental health professional directly about how to stop being co-dependent.
If you aren’t comfortable speaking to a therapist in person or you are hesitant to attend a group, consider online therapy. You can speak to a therapist from the privacy of your own home from one of your electronic devices via video, live chat, or messaging.
Adapted from article in VeryWellMind
Sally Edwards Counselling
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
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