Are you confused by what therapists and self-help authors mean when they talk about codependency (sometimes spelled co-dependency) as well as the codependent individual? Don't be surprised if you are. There's not just one definition for codependency you're going to see out there. (By the way, codependency, like alcoholism, should be seen as the problem or issue whereas the term codependent, like alcoholic, refers to the person with the problem.)
One author's writings may seem to imply that codependency is about becoming obsessed with the destructive behavior of an addict and trying to control it. Then, in the process, the codependent essentially becomes the doormat of the addict since the codependent assumes responsibility for cleaning up messes the addict has created.
Another therapist or author may use the terms codependency and codependent when talking about someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family and, as an adult, lacks a good sense of self, personal boundaries, and the wherewithal to go forth and create the type of life that honors him or her. Instead, the person may merely strive to live up to other's expectations or else live a lifestyle designed to impress others. In time, the codependent typically realizes these things don't feed the spirit or the soul as desired.
Because the terms codependency and codependent can be used to mean slightly different things by different therapists and self-help authors, don’t just assume you know what that particular person is referring to or means because you’ve come across the terms codependency and codependent before. Strive to understand how that therapist or author defines these two terms.
The History Behind the Concept of Codependency
Originally, the concept of codependency was developed and used by those in the recovery field (recovery from alcoholism, that is) to refer to the type of beliefs and behaviors that adults who grew up in families impacted by alcohol typically exhibited. In other words, adult children of alcoholics often held some similar dysfunctional beliefs, and hence, these people also displayed some similar maladaptive behaviors. But then, as children, they were basically forced into adopting certain beliefs and behaviors because parents or caregivers demanded this of them. That said, these beliefs or behaviors may have helped these children to better cope with their chaotic home lives, including helping them to minimize some of the emotional pain that was often a part of it.
In time, therapists and others realized that more than children of alcoholics displayed some of these same dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors. Other problems besides alcoholism that created such self-defeating beliefs and behaviors in adults included:
•other forms of chemical dependency in the family
•a family member with a chronic mental illness or physical illness
•emotional abuse, verbal abuse,psychological abuse, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse
•hypercritical or overly demanding parents who expected more than a child was developmentally capable of delivering
•neglect of a child's physical and/or emotional needs
• a rigid and unloving family environment
•rigid family rules
•family secrets that children knew but weren’t allowed to divulge
•obvious discord between the parents because of affairs or other problems
•disruption from divorce
Raised in such a household, a child develops behaviors which assist with survival in that dysfunctional family of origin. But as an adult, these same kinds of behaviors become maladaptive. In fact, they usually get in the person’s way of getting needs met. And even though the individual may realize that these behaviors aren’t in his or her best interest, the person engages in them nonetheless. Thus, the woman who hid in her room to avoid the wrath of her alcoholic and abusive father, for example, may be comfortable hiding out from her alcoholic and abusive husband because this is familiar behavior from her childhood. Furthermore, the fear or anxiety she feels is familiar. But of course, this isn’t what she truly wants for her life or from her relationship. While she desires a loving partnership, she is not going to be able to create one as long as her partner is abusing both alcohol and her.
Those who write about the codependent and codependency often talk about how codependents have unhealthy personal boundaries. Yes, those suffering from codependency are inclined to let others walk all over them. A codependent woman will likely try to cater to her addicted husband’s every need despite the fact she receives little in return besides his emotional abuse and verbal abuse—if not worse. Meanwhile, of course, she ignores her own needs and wants.
Interestingly enough,though, codependents are hardly aware of their own needs or wants anyway. They are too used to turning outward and catering to what others and the environment demands of them. They are also out of touch with what they need and desire because they typically have a fragile sense of self. In fact, codependents often look to a partner, their roles, and/or a lifestyle for a sense of identity. However, living with an addicted and likely emotionally and verbally abusive partner only further erodes that fragile sense of self.
The codependent woman also lacks healthy personal boundaries--as demonstrated by her willingness to become enmeshed with her addicted partner and his addiction-related problems. An emotionally healthy woman would likely not hook up with someone with such problems in the first place. And, if he developed them after they were together, if she realized that he was not making any effort to take care of his problems, she'd likely elect to leave the relationship. Indeed, she wouldn't assume responsibility for everything that was going wrong--as the codependent woman is inclined to do.
Of course, dealing with all the drama and essentially becoming a martyr can provide a sense of purpose as well as feelings of noble accomplishment to a woman who is an expert at pleasing others, not herself. Since she doesn't know how to step forth and take a chance on pursuing actions or activities that may please her alone--because to do so may make her feel out of control--the codependent woman settles for her partner's addictions and abuse. Furthermore, she may settle for this destructive way of life because she doesn’t believe that she is capable of making it on her own.
Codependent Women Attract, and are Attracted to, Men Who Can't Give Them What They Truly Desire
The woman exhibiting codependency attracts—and is attracted to--the man who is in a similar place psychologically. In many cases, she may be with a man who not only has problems with addictions and is abusive, but he may suffer from a pathological level of narcissism--or ever have the full-blown personality disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD, Now it may seem difficult to believe that they are in similar places psychologically since the narcissist is self-centered and lacks empathy. Yes indeed, it is all about him and his needs. Nonetheless, in truth, the codependent and the narcissist both lack healthy personal boundaries, for example.
Because the narcissist is indifferent to the wants or desires of others, he'll do whatever it takes to get his needs and wants met--including being verbally and emotionally abusive. But in behaving in these abusive ways, the narcissist is displaying a lack of healthy personal boundaries. After all, healthy personal boundaries aren’t merely about standing up for what’s in your own best interest or not letting others walk all over you. Healthy personal boundaries also keep you from infringing upon the rights of others--or from being too controlling or abusive. That said, can you now appreciate that the narcissistic man who engages in emotional abuse and verbal abuse doesn’t have healthy personal boundaries?
The thing is, the man suffering from narcissism isn’t likely to develop good personal boundaries, either. He is typically not motivated to change. And as long as he suffers from an unhealthy level of narcissism, he won't view other people as human beings who have their own needs. Rather, the narcissist sees others as objects to be used for his own gratification.
There is good news if you are codependent. Believe it or not, you can learn to change your problematic beliefs and behaviors. And in truth, I suspect you are at this site now because you want to do so. After all, aren't you tired of not having your own needs and wants met? Aren't you tied of cleaning up your partner's messes? And really, aren't you tired of his emotional abuse and verbal abuse ((or other forms of abuse as well)? As a result, aren't you ready to trade in a life of hurt for one which should prove emotionally rewarding instead?
Assuming you're here because you desire to make some positive changes, good for you! And, to help you get from where you are today to that place were you'd prefer to be, I sincerely hope you're helped by continuing to read on.