Often associated with substance abuse, the term extends to any abuse that causes two personality types to become codependent on one another in order to enable things like addiction, substance abuse, poor mental health, lack of hygiene, underachievement, immaturity, irresponsibility, and anti-social behaviors, like crime.
Codependency is a sign of a highly dysfunctional “helping” relationship and is actually considered a psychological disorder by experts like Dr. Becky Whetstone. A healthy relationship is made through conscious choice but a codependent dysfunctional relationship is compulsive. In other words, a codependent is unable to realistically weigh the consequences of their actions and often sacrifice their own needs in order to enable or be enabled by their codependent partner-in-crime. There is no choice for the partner being “helped,” or the martyr/submissive personality in the codependency, outside of extreme self-sacrifice. It’s the only way to gain acceptance, approval and identity with the controlling, abusive partner.
A recent quote from Whetstone's Huffington Post blog dated June 19, 2015 describes codependency as "sentence(ing) ourselves to a lifetime of emotional prison, and we are our own jailers."
For Whetstone, codependency centers around shame developed during an individual's childhood. This creates a martyr personality typically associated with the submissive partner. Interestingly, the controlling, abusive partner's codependency likely derives from the same place of private fear; it just manifests differently for different people and can even flip-flop in new relationships.
Psychologists describe the martyr personality involved in codependency as a person who feels over-responsibility, coinciding with Whetstone's ideas on the connections between codependents and shame. But responsibility for relationships with other people must be relative to responsibility for the self. Sacrificing your needs for others may seem noble, but healthy relationships do not require such extreme compromise. Only unhealthy ones do. In a healthy relationship, people are free to come and go as they choose. Compromise is made as a couple, consciously, and for a united purpose. No one partner is ever asked to completely sacrifice their professional, personal, social, emotional, physical, financial, and/or psychological health for the other. When that happens, codependency is inevitable. Because an imbalance occurs, leaving one partner vulnerable to the other.
True codependent relationships are earmarked by multiple issues including a controlling/abusive partner, a submissive/martyr partner, dysfunctional communication, dependency on substances like nicotine, a lack of boundaries, high reactivity, and intimacy problems. The controlling partner is always abusive, supporting or enabling the submissive partner’s addictions, poor mental health, irresponsibility, immaturity, and under-achievement.
Why would anyone prefer to enable rather than empower?
Because the controlling, abusive partner depends on the submissive partner’s low-functioning in order to satisfy their own emotional needs. Basically, controlling individuals are insecure individuals. And though often unwitting, it’s not always the case, especially in romantic relationships.
The submissive partner allows the abuse to some degree because they are dependent on making extreme sacrifices in order to satisfy the needs of the controlling partner—it gives the martyr personality a sense of purpose now that the controlling partner prohibited the submissive partner’s growth or evolution, removing any chance of the submissive partner to find a purpose outside of the controlling one.
Why would someone let any other person—even a loved one—control their lives in such a detrimental way?
The answer typically lies in a person’s background or childhood, particularly if they grew up in an abusive home with an alcoholic or addicted parent. Seeing codependency as a child, or having a codependent parent relationship, often manifests into that child growing up and choosing another abuser, or, finding someone else to abuse. It also pertains to abandonment issues. Whether the child was emotionally and/or physically abandoned, the deeply ingrained fear of being exposed to the violent world does not dismantle easily.
The controlling, abusive partner can be seen as a rescuer at first. Using a push-pull dynamic, the controlling partner then switches to being an emotional captor, requiring extreme sacrifice from the submissive partner based on some kind of threat—emotional, psychological or physical. The submissive partner often becomes accustomed to permanent victimhood and the total lack of self-responsibility therein. There is no way to get out of an abusive codependency as the submissive partner without completely breaking contact with the controlling partner.
When a pattern of codependency is allowed to continue and goes untreated, the submissive partner can sink lower in terms of their self-worth, jeopardizing their overall health through addictions, eating disorders, health-related paranoia, as well as other self-defeating, self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors. A submissive codependent will also be more easily abused or taken advantage of by others outside of the codependent relationship, as well as avoid medical and dental care, make less money, develop phobias and anxiety disorders, become painfully shy, suffer from depression and/or PTSD, have panic attacks, and even choose to remain in stressful professional, financial and social situations.
You may recognize yourself and a familial or spousal relationship from what I describe above. If you do, don’t panic. Simply talk to your spouse or family member about your concerns. If it’s a healthy relationship, no one will get defensive. Your partner or family member will show genuine concern and will be supportive of your needs, even if you feel you must leave. However, if your spouse or family member becomes angry and/or reactionary, you may want to ask yourself if you see the following symptoms before seeking the help of a therapist:
- Consistent over-responsibility for meeting others’ needs at the exclusion of your own
- Unresolved anxiety surrounding intimacy and/or separation
- A distortion of boundaries
- Self-esteem anchored in controlling the self or others, despite negative consequences
- Trouble avoiding enmeshment in relationships with people who have personality disorders, impulse disorders, are codependent, and/or chemically-dependent, including cigarettes
- Have three or more of the following:
- Substance abuse
- Rely on denial or dissociation in excess
- Constricting your emotions, with or without emotional outbursts
- Have been a victim of recurrent physical or sexual abuse
- Have been diagnosed with stress-related medical illnesses
- Have suicidal thoughts or tendencies
Well, damn. Forget three! Call me, “Seven of Nine.”
Again, if you recognize yourself, like I just did, talk to the partner or family member you feel may also be affected. Most people who have lived 30 or more years will see at least some of these symptoms in themselves or their relationship. You may also have carried over codependent tendencies from your childhood that have little to do with your partner. Or vice versa.
Codependence can also happen with any imbalance—where a mother stops working to care for her children, for example. Or one partner leaves their job to pursue a new educational or career path. Remember the rules for a healthy relationship—it is never compulsive. You always feel like you have a choice, even if you have to compromise. And you should never be asked to compromise to the extent where you are sacrificing any part of your life for the sake of your partner.
In grown-up relationships, discussion replaces defensive arguments. And compromise on the part of one partner is acknowledged and appreciated by the other, creating a bond through loyalty and love, not emotional captivity. But no matter how your partner reacts, it is the individual’s responsibility to get well. No other person can “fix” you or “save” you or “rescue” you, but YOU. If you make efforts to break from codependent patterns and your partner or family member resists, you must take care of yourself, and leave. Perhaps your partner will have an awakening when you do. Regardless, no one deserves to stay in social prison for someone else's benefit. It's psychotic. And completely unnecessary.
Good luck navigating the complex waters in our shared sea of humanity. Kindness goes hand-in-hand with luck…and, being healthy:
In ourselves. In our relationships. In our life-choices.