Our culture has become inundated with pop-psychology terms. If someone talks too much about herself, she is labeled a narcissist. If a man were to call an ex-girlfriend one too many times he might be “psycho.” Like so many other buzzwords, codependency is one which therapists hear a lot of these days. But what is codependency and what are some of the factors that might influence a person to become codependent?
I’ll start with a few simple definitions. When someone begins to subvert one’s own needs for the needs of those around him or her, this could be a sign of codependence. A person who feels as if she can not function without the stability or emotional support of another person is likely codependent. When a toxic relationship is no longer good for us, but we feel we can not leave because we have come to rely on our toxic partner, this is a clear sign of codependence. David Richo stated it best in his book, How to be an Adult, when he said this about codependence: “I know I’ve become codependent when I can’t let go of what doesn’t work and I won’t let go of what could work.” This idea of wishing and waiting for something to be better, but staying stuck in a relationship that takes and takes from you but doesn’t give much back is a cornerstone of what defines codependent behavior.
Does this mean it is bad to rely on other people? Of course the answer is no. As human beings our entire lives revolve around relationships. Our first relationships with our primary caregivers such as parents or grandparents set the stage for how we engage in relationships with others throughout our life. If parents are abusive or neglectful in some way, often times children learn to pay more attention to the emotions and needs of the adults in their lives rather than to one’s own needs or feelings. This early experience with codependence can cause adults who grew up this way to choose relationships with others who might also be abusive or needy in other ways. People with codependent traits were often children of alcoholics and may end up choosing partners with similar issues.
And now back to those buzzword psychology terms... narcissists. A narcissist is, by definition, someone lacking empathy for other people’s experiences. If a narcissist seems full of ego, it's likely because he or she is- the lack of ability to understand others makes the narcissist’s own experience the baseline for how the world should operate. In other words, the narcissist’s world revolves around himself because he is the only person he’s really thinking about. Unfortunately, people with narcissistic traits and people with codependent traits tend to pair off as a pretty regular phenomena. Often neither of the partners is fully aware of what is taking place until they are more deeply enmeshed in a relationship. The codependent person’s lack of boundaries is often infiltrated by the egoistic and needy narcissist. This is a relationship recipe headed for disaster.
So what can you do if you or someone you care about is codependent and feeling stuck in a toxic relationship? I would recommend meeting with a professional to get a clearer understanding of codependence and to learn how to establish clearer boundaries in relationships. A tried and true way of seeing that you are in a codependent relationship is to start doing more for yourself and taking on less from your partner. If there is a negative pushback, as the controlling partner begins to feel the loss of control, this is a likely sign that you’ve been in a codependent relationship. It’s also important to remember that codependent traits are really just a pattern of behavior. Behaviors can be changed and new behaviors can be learned. All one needs is time, patience and possibly the fortitude to leave a relationship that just might not be working any longer.