What is codependency? Signs of a codependent relationship

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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

“Codependent” is one of those oft-used buzzwords that implies various levels of neediness in a relationship, or attachments tinged with a hint of desperation. But, actually, the term stems from something a little more specific to addiction and recovery.

“Codependence is an imbalanced relationship pattern where one partner assumes a high-cost ‘giver-rescuer’ role and the other the ‘taker-victim’ role,” explains Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., author of “Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide for Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Helping,” and professor of psychology at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

Rob Weiss, Ph.D. MSW, CEO of Seeking Integrity, an online community that addresses behavioral health issues, and author of “Prodependence: Moving Beyond Codependency” says codependence “implies that the loved ones of addicts, due to their underlying, often unconscious childhood issues tend to, as adults, give too much and love too much. Thus, they attract, enable and enmesh with addicted partners.”

Those assuming these roles, consciously or unconsciously, perpetuate the taker’s addiction-driven (mis)behavior. “The codependent taker is usually some combination of needy, under-functioning, immature, addicted, entitled or troubled. They rely on the giver to take care of them, assume or soften the negative consequences for their actions, and to compensate for their under-functioning,” Burn explains. “Meanwhile, the codependent giver is usually an empathic, forgiving, competent and altruistic person. They play the role of extreme caregiver, rescuer, supporter or confidante. They show love and caring by making sacrifices for the taker that usually enable rather than empower them.”

Codependent relationships are built around an imbalance of power that favor the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving.

This other buzzword “enabler” means, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “one that enables another to achieve an end; especiallyone who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior (such as substance abuse) by providing excuses or by making it possible to avoid the consequences of such behavior.”

In codependent relationships, the balance of ‘give and take’ is off kilter

Healthy relationships, over time, have an equal balance of give and take in terms of fulfilling needs, rather than favoring the needs of one partner. Codependent relationships are built around an imbalance of power that favor the needs of the taker, leaving the giver to keep on giving. “Codependent relationships violate some of the essential features of healthy close relationships, because they are enmeshed rather than interdependent, and imbalanced rather than equitable,” Burn says.

Weiss says, when people are labeled as codependent, they are told that they are trying to either enable or control the addict’s behaviors. ”They put too much focus on someone else’s behavior and not enough on their own,” he says.

Why codependent relationships form

What causes us to seek out these types of relationships? “As far as givers go, available research suggests that emotional abuse and neglect put us at risk for codependence,” says Burn. “If you learned that the only way to connect with a difficult parent was to subordinate your own needs and cater to theirs, then you may be set up for similar relationships throughout your life.”

Weiss says the term codependence stems from something called “trauma theory,” which implies a traumatic event, sometimes occurring during formative years, possibly caused by violence or some other form of violation.

According to Burn, you may also have beliefs or personality traits that make it easier to fall into a codependent relationship. “You can over-internalize religious or cultural values that prescribe self-sacrifice for others. Being the giver in a codependent relationship can also satisfy needs such as the need to matter to someone, the need to feel competent, the need to feel close to someone,” she says. “As far as takers go, they are sometimes selfish and manipulative, irresponsible and entitled. But some are just troubled or addicted or lacking in life skills.”