Everyone uses the word without knowing what it really means.
If somebody does not like the brother-in-law married to their sister, and miracles of miracles, their sister likes him anyway, the family is already labeling her co-dependent. And sometimes they may be right and sometimes they may be wrong. But what is certain is that nobody I know that has used this word to describe family members, their neighbors, or even themselves, has the slightest idea what co-dependency truly means.
Co-dependency is defined as a dysfunctional relationship in which one person supports or enables another person's addiction, irresponsibility, poor mental health, or under-achievement. In one definition, co-dependency can even refer to the relationship a person has to the addictive substance (like alcohol or drugs or gambling).
Co-dependency is different than dependency in that co-dependency is the need for the other's dependency on them!
So a little history lesson here.
The original definition of co-dependency referred ONLY to a person who was in an enabling or supportive relationship specifically with another person who was an addict. Meaning, one person was physically addicted to a substance, while the second person in the relationship was addicted to the addict. Meaning, the same way the addict's life was organized around his addiction, the second person's life was organized around the addict; meaning, neither of them could exist without their addiction. The former's addiction would be physical; while the latter's would be psychological.
This is what co-dependency looked like in its original version: For example, a woman has an addiction to alcohol or drugs and her husband enables/supports this addiction by having the qualities in the relationship that make him co-dependent. Those qualities are the very same qualities that creates a co-dependency between the addict and his/her drug of choice.
What are these qualities?
Low self worth. Chronic feelings of emptiness. Lack of trust.
Now notice how the next set of qualities are about the relationship. And notice how this set can be applied both to the person who is addicted to a substance and to the person who is addicted the relationship. Both are unstable and unhealthy; both feel intense in their need.
Inability to tolerate being alone. Frantic efforts to avoid being alone. Alone without the drug, alone without the other person.
Subordinating one's needs. In order to have that drug, in order to be in the relationship. At whatever the high cost.
An overwhelming desire for the drug; an overwhelming desire for acceptance and affection from the other person.
Dishonesty and denial. How the drug is affecting them, destroying them; how the relationship is affecting them, destroying them.
Today, the term co-dependency has broadened to include a person who not only in a relationship with an addict, and enables the addict to stay in their addiction, but who is a relationship that supports and enables a variety of unhealthy behaviors: irresponsibility, immaturity, violence, and even under-achievements (for example, unemployment, lack of parental involvement and the like).
When people are in co-dependent relationships with addicts or otherwise unhealthy people as described in the above paragraph, their behaviors are enabling. We understand the word enabling as removing the natural consequences of a person's problematic behavior. For example, if a woman doesn't socialize because of her depression, enabling would be for a husband to make sure the children stay quiet when she is in bed, not tell anyone, make excuses to other people why his wife did not arrive to simchos, or come for a yom tov meal, and cover for her by calling her boss that she is sick and unable to go to work.
Parents, siblings, friends, teachers can all be enablers. But not all enablers are co-dependent.
Co-dependency refers to anyone, family and friends, who are in a relationship with an unhealthy person who not only does not stop the unhealthiness, but interferes with recovery by over-helping—even causing the unhealthiness to exist even more strongly by their over-helping behaviors.
But what differentiates someone who enables with someone who is co-dependent would be the motivation for the over-helping, for the enabling.
People who are co-dependent do so because their self-esteem is dependent on others. They do not have the capacity to self-validate or approve of themselves independent of the opinions of others. Their self worth is so fragile that they are extremely vulnerable and cannot tolerate the disapproval or rejection of others. That leads to an inability to assert themselves in a relationship for fear of being rejected. Because their existence centers around the other person's they feel responsible for that person's happiness, needs, wants, in ways that totally negates their own. Obviously their ability to have healthy personal boundaries is severely compromised. Their entire sense of self is tied up in their relationship with the other person. They only feel substantial in the shadow of the person they are enabling. And to protect this relationship, they are swallowed up into it.
Here is the interesting thing.
Many of us find it easy to recognize the co-dependency when the co-dependent person is submissive, self-sacrificing, victim-like, super selfless, whiny, being taken advantage of/used/abused. But it is harder to notice when the co-dependent person acts in ways that seem powerful and in control. Because some co-dependent people, in order to stay within that relationship, will be super-responsible, magnanimous, the confidante, the problem-solver, the savior, the rescuer—and in extreme versions, manipulative and controlling.
But all of these behaviors serve one purpose: to keep the other person in the relationship at any cost—much in the same way an addict will hang on to the drugs or alcohol at any cost because of the intense urge, obsession, and need for it.
And what drives the co-dependent person is the horrific fear of being alone, of being rejected, of being discarded.
Thus the over-helping behaviors that ensures that he or she will continuously and always be needed by the addict, or the unemployed spouse.
What makes a person co-dependent?
I hate to say this, but it is all about attachment. People with healthy attachment to their parents do not, generally, fall into co-dependent relationship as adults. Their core is healthy and so they can function independently. They may care for a problematic person in their life, but they won't find themselves enmeshed in that desperate feeling of needing to be needed.
What is the treatment for co-dependency?
Which type? Doesn't matter. As long as there is a therapeutic alliance that can allow for the co-dependent person to feel safe, experience a healthy relationship, and explore new options.
Caring behaviors or a delight in another person's presence are not indicative of co-dependency even if you don't like your son's wife or your daughter's friend. It is when that relationship causes distress, doubts in oneself, insecurity, a negation of self, ignoring one's needs, or inability to function independently, then there is a cause for worry.
I once heard a wonderful metaphor of a healthy relationship that is interconnected, interdependent, but not co-dependent. Imagine two different colors of rolled pieces of clay. Lay them side by side then roll them like a braid. Interdependence means that they can be rolled together as one, yet you can see each color and strand distinctly. But then, un-twined they are able to be separate.
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