I still recall with sadness a client I saw many years ago who was extremely co-dependent with her mother. As you may know from reading my articles, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be a very effective treatment, but it is not necessarily easy. For someone with a severe anxiety disorder such as this client had, CBT meant facing her fears (with therapeutic support, of course). However, this person's mother not only supported her financially, but did everything for her and even would engage in her compulsive rituals with her.
The client told me directly that she had decided not to continue therapy because it was too hard and her life was pretty comfortable because her mother took care of her. I found this so sad because this woman was so intelligent and interesting with an incredible sense of humor, and yet, she had decided to isolate herself from the world.
Although I understand the mother's motivation, the problem is that the co-dependency the mother created was harmful to the client. I understand that the mother did not want to see her daughter suffer. She wanted to protect her daughter from her anxiety so that she wouldn't be in pain. However, paradoxically, as is often typical of co-dependency, the mother was also verbally abusive because at the same time she was resentful of her role as care-taker.
As a therapist, I didn't have much to offer this client because my way meant having to deal with her fears and anxiety, whereas her mother's way offered avoidance and peace. However, at some point that peace will be seen as the illusion that it is. What will happen when her mother is unable to take care of her? However, as is true for many people, she chose short-term peace even though it may mean long-term suffering. The main difference between her and others is that she made the choice knowingly.
Although as a psychologist, I use the term co-dependency, technically it is NOT a diagnosis. It is a description of a behavior pattern that was popularized by Melody Beattie in her book “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself” and is commonly understood by the general public. So I have found it helpful as an explanation to my clients of their behavior.
Co-dependency refers to an unhealthy relationship in which one person is excessively needy and the other is an overly responsible care-taker. Both of these roles involve control. The needy person controls through the demands that these needs be met. The care-taker controls through the dependency that is created.
I often refer to the difference between "true control" and "artificial control." True control is having control over yourself, understanding your emotions and making decisions about your behavior based upon that full comprehension. A person who has true control doesn't react, but acts based upon a personal code of behavior. Their behavioral choices are not about trying to feel in control, but they are in control because of their choices.
Whereas, a person who behaves so as to feel in control is engaging in artificial control. The feeling of control is very powerful and people pursue it in various artificial ways. One of the most common, but damaging, ways is controlling another person. Such control is extremely reinforcing, and therefore, likely to be maintained. Co-dependency is one of the ways this occurs.
The problem with the common definition of co-dependency is that the definition is so broad that a majority of people could be defined as co-dependent. However, I am using this term for situations in which harm is potentially caused by the co-dependency.
For example, an alcoholic's wife makes excuses for him and denies the severity of the drinking which places their children in danger riding in a car with him. Or, a parent protects a child from the consequences of her behavior which prevents her from learning responsibility for her behavior. Such as doing homework for a child may obtain a good grade but creates expectations in the child that her life should be easy and others should take care of her which can seriously affect her success in a work environment later on.
Many co-dependent people have the mistaken belief that such a relationship leads to the desire to always stay together and that their partner will never leave because he/she needs them. However, often the opposite is true due to the increased dissatisfaction over time. Although some people may remain in the relationship, it is unlikely they can reach their full potential due to the smothering nature of the relationship.
However the co-dependency may manifest, it is important to understand that this type of relationship frequently leads to unhappiness and dissatisfaction for one or both of the individuals in the relationship. Although at first the neediness and care-taking can seem to be attachment or love, overtime these behaviors can become stifling and erode the relationship. In addition, the passive-dependent person is unlikely to grow and become self-reliant and fulfilled.
"It takes two to tango." You may have heard this statement before which is certainly characteristic of co-dependency. Without at least two people complicit in the co-dependency, it generally can't occur.
However, a major exception to this rule exists in the case of a child and parent. Children may not have the option of resisting the control of the parent, and therefore, the parent can create a co-dependent relationship. However, there are methods for children to manage such situations (although they may need assistance). In particular, cognitive methods can be helpful--a parent might be able to control behavior and opportunities, but a parent cannot control thinking.
Given that it requires two people to be involved in a co-dependent relationship, there are two types of co-dependency: the care-taker and the dependent. However, it is possible for both people to have aspects of each style and alternate roles in different situations.
1) The Care-taker. The care-taker tends to be overly responsible. S/he may view her/his job as protecting and caring for everyone else. Certainly, to a degree this is necessary in life. We develop relationships for support and assistance. A parent is obligated to care for a child. A husband and wife make a commitment to one another.
However, a line exists between helping someone and taking responsibility for someone else's life. The care-taker frequently is acting out of the "noble" desire to prevent suffering in others. However, I placed "noble" in quotes because it is frequently a selfish desire from which the care-taker is acting. For example, a co-dependent parent may believe that if a child is not perfect or if the child suffers it is the parent's fault. Therefore, the parent protects the child from making mistakes and from other painful experiences so that the parent doesn't have to feel guilt.
In this instance, much more harm is caused by the child not learning about consequences to his/her behavior. As I tell parents, the consequences of mistakes or painful experiences are usually much less in childhood than in adulthood. Therefore, it is much better for a child to learn to deal with consequences than to learn that lesson as an adult.
I recently heard of schools in Great Britain that are banning best friends in elementary school because they want to prevent the children from suffering when friendships break up. This is seriously misguided! Childhood is a time to teach children how to handle emotional such as breaking up with friends. If they don't learn to deal with it in childhood when they have more support, what happens when they become adults and have a serious break-up? Or should they never break up with anyone? I can certainly see some potential problems with that philosphy.
Therefore, the care-taker may be concerned and have others' best interests in mind, but he/she is only considering the immediate effects on others and not the long-term effects. Sure, the immediate effect may be a decrease in pain, but the long-term effect is likely to increase pain.
2) The Dependent. The other participant in the co-dependent relationship is the dependent person who desires to be taken care of and may even demand that of others. The dependent person often wields substantial control of the other person through manipulation of the care-taker's over-responsibility for others' emotions. This may not always be a conscious behavior but can occur in ways unknown to the dependent person. However, it is a dynamic frequently found in the co-dependent relationship.
The dependent is often comfortable with the status quo, they may not have a desire for a change in the relationship dynamic because the relationship allows avoidance of dealing with the uncomfortable issues of independence and all that might entail. However, at times the dependent may become resentful of the dependency because it usually comes at a cost of freedom of choices in their life.
1) Resentment. Resentment can occur for both people in a co-dependent relationship. The care-taker often feels that he or she is unappreciated. It becomes very time-consuming and tiring always taking care of others. Since the care-taker places the needs of others first, his or her needs may be unmet. Therefore, the care-taker often feels that others don't as much and feel resentful about the lack of reciprocity: "Nobody does anything for me!"
The dependent person can become resentful of the ever-increasing dependency because dependency can be giving control over to someone else. They may want to be taken care of, yet at the same time may be angry about not being able to do what they want. For example, a person who doesn't drive and depends on the care-taker may think, "Why isn't she available when I need her? She knows I can't do it myself!"
2) Increased Dependency. Co-dependency creates a cycle of dependency which is likely to lead to more avoidance, demands, and resentment. Instead of the dependent person being helped by the care-taker, he or she is being enabled to stay in the same situation. For instance, the alcoholic can remain alcoholic. They may have to listen to the care-taker's complaints but they can still drink.
The more dependent people are enabled, the more they expect to be taken care of, and the more dependent they become. Yet, at the same time they may resent any infringement upon their lives. They may even view their problems as caused by the care-taker. "If he didn't complain all the time, I wouldn't be drinking as much."
3) Avoidance of Problems. Co-dependency creates avoidance of problems rather than resolution of problems. If the motivation is to avoid pain and suffering, that might be achieved in the short-term, but it is not likely to occur for the long-term. For instance, that alcoholic may be able to avoid problems by having another drink, but in the long-term, problems only become worse as they remain unsolved. Or, the anxious person may not have to feel anxious because she is avoiding things that cause anxiety, but she is less and less able to do for herself.
1) Recognition of Your Style. The first step for changing co-dependency is recognizing what type of co-dependent personality you may have. Do you tend to be overly passive and needy? Or, do you tend to be overly responsible and a care-taker?
If you are dependent, you need to take a look at how this may affect your relationships in the long-term and decide whether you want that consequence. Other people are likely to become frustrated and resentful because they may see the relationship as one-sided.
It is important for you to be aware of others' needs and to reciprocate with others. It is also necessary for you to develop more independence and to take responsibility for your life rather than expecting someone else to take care of you. Otherwise, in the long-term your dependent style may lead to increased dissatisfaction and even possible loss of the relationship.
If you tend to be a care-taker, you need to recognize that you can't be responsible for others' lives. The more you take responsibility, the less capable and the more dependent the other person becomes. The care-taker role actually creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which you believe others' can't function without you and then you create that dependency. However, in the long-term you are likely to become frustrated and resentful of this role because you don't get your needs met adequately. You need to allow others to take responsibility for themselves even if that might mean some mistakes and short-term suffering.
Keep in mind that life requires pain and suffering to grow, improve, and achieve. The infant doesn't learn to walk without falling down. Our mistakes and suffering motivate us to change. Protecting someone from the consequence of life or their choices and the emotions that can guide them only prevents them from having the opportunity to change and to succeed.
Yes, it is a painful process to see someone hurting and to not solve the problem when you know you are able to do so. However, you are likely to hurt the other person more in the long-term because s/he is not able to learn how to make choices and manage situations without you.
Frequently people will initiate therapy wanting answers. I explain that I cannot tell them what to do. I can only help them understand the different options and the obstacles that interfere with achieving their desired goal. Therapy is often a painful process because not only do I not protect them from the pain but I confront them with their behavior that is problematic. I do this because I know that although denial is a much more pleasant state, it does not lead to resolution of the problems or contentment with life.
2) Set Limits. The care-taker needs to set limits with the dependent person. If the relationship has been long established, this can be difficult because the dependent person knows how to manipulate your emotions (consciously or unconsciously). Therefore, initially, you need to fortify yourself to stick to the limits.
When my son was a teen-ager, I used to tell myself when setting limits "The more angry he is with me, probably the better parent I am being." Saying this repeatedly to myself allowed me to set the limits without feeling bad. Of course, I'm referring to reasonable limits, not unreasonable control.
In new relationships, it is easier to set the limits right from the beginning. However, in long-term relationships when there is already an established pattern, you may need to gradually establish the limits. For example, if you have been enabling an anxious person by driving him everywhere, you may not be able to stop driving him to places. However, you may start with a limit of not driving him to unnecessary places. So you might drive him to his therapy appointment, but not to the local bar.