“Codependency can be described as putting a thermometer in someone else’s mouth to take your temperature.” For the most part, an individual’s personality is set by the time they are six or seven years old, according to studies. But that doesn’t mean that this mark of individuality cannot be usurped when someone with a stronger personality intervenes. Then, of course, there are external factors that can work to change a personality and make him or her into another person entirely. Sometimes a traumatic event can work to alter perceptions and well-laid foundations, people have been known to go through an operation and emerge a ‘different’ person. Addiction to a substance or activity has also been known to cause a personality change and can also alter how people close to the addict react.
What is Co-Dependency?
The founder of Al-Anon (an Alcoholics Anonymous support group for families of addicts), Louis Wilson, coined the term co-dependency to include anyone who suppresses self and becomes wholly dependent on the emotions and actions of another. Basically, co-dependency is the act of becoming so embedded in the personality of another person that the individual’s actual self is lost.
It is also a learned behavior that may be passed from one generation to the next. It has been proven that addiction runs along family lines to some extent and this tendency also fosters co-dependency. This condition is sometimes called relationship addiction because the individual moves from one relationship to another seeking something mutually satisfying. But, they rarely find it because co-dependency, and its traits, are so embedded in their personality.
How Co-Dependency Occurs Within a Family
Many times the people involved have grown up with an addict – usually a father, a mother or both – and in some way this person has dominated attention within the family to such an extent that the family becomes dysfunctional. A dysfunctional family is one that has allowed harmful elements to become such a part of their lives that they don’t realize that the relationships are unhealthy. A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is ignored or denied. Underlying problems may include any of the following:
- An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
- The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.
This family becomes emotionally suppressed from long practice. They are not nurtured since the natural source of nurture is wrapped in their addiction so they hide their feelings. Dysfunctional families don’t talk about issues, don’t touch or feel or show a lot of affection, or love. In fact, love becomes distorted to the extent that it can only be felt as a product of co-dependency. Although a dysfunctional family life can trigger co-dependent behavior, it can also lead to addiction.
As the family member matures, he or she may look to satisfy emotional needs with other families or individuals. They look to partners or new families to get the external validations that have not been met in early childhood. Someone emerging from a dysfunctional family has not been taught to communicate their emotions in a healthy way; thus, they must latch onto someone else who can express their emotions. That person then becomes a conduit for continued co-dependency. Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to take care of a person who is sick. When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.
How Does a Co-Dependent Person Act?
Everyone is selfish by nature due to an evolutionary need to survive. When babies are born, if they do not cry and seek attention for their needs, they will die. An emotionally healthy person maintains an understanding of their own emotional needs and separates them from the needs of others; while a co-dependent person, will suppress their own needs completely and adopt the emotional physical needs of another.
They are characterized by:
- The belief that they are responsible for the actions and emotions of the object of their dependency.
- The need to cling to a relationship at all costs.
- The tendency to have their feelings hurt when they do not receive some sort of emotional reward for their seeming sacrifice.
- Lying, manipulation and dishonesty.
- The fear of abandonment.
- The need to love people that they feel need rescued.
- Difficulty in setting boundaries.
- A belief in passivity over assertion.
- A feeling of guilt over the control they exercise over the other individual in the relationship.
- An inability to communicate what they feel or why they took a specific action.
- The inability to make a concrete decision.
- This person is completely uncomfortable with change.
Many times someone who is co-dependent can see that there is something wrong. They have a difficulty maintaining relationships with emotionally healthy people, but they have no understanding regarding why people frequently leave them. This may lead to a person who seeks validation from other sources, such as a counselor or a support group, but they rarely make an effort to change the pattern they find themselves in.
Co-Dependency and Addiction
Many people are fostered in their addiction by someone who becomes co-dependent on them, but many addicts are themselves co-dependent. To maintain the unreality that addiction requires (meaning people who are addicted to a substance believe that they are healthy and that the addiction does not have control), the addict loses themselves. They become dependent on another person for their emotional and physical well-being. As a matter of fact, if an addict does not have someone to support them, it is impossible to maintain a seemingly normal life for very long. Treatment for both the addiction and the co-dependency are imperative.
Is it Possible to Treat Someone Who is Co-Dependent?
The short answer to this question is yes, but, like treatment for personality disorders, it is difficult. Since this is a learned behavior, the sufferer has to be willing to learn healthy means of relating to others and ridding themselves of their former coping mechanisms. Counseling is effective and the method of counseling includes:
- Education: it is impossible to change behavior that you don’t understand. At Akua, counselors conduct individual therapy and group sessions during which co-dependency is defined in very specific terms. These sessions also instruct participants how they can start setting healthy boundaries in relationships.
- Family: clients and their support systems are usually engaging in these behaviors so it is important to do a lot or family work and therapy within the partners or support groups.
- All-encompassing: We teach our clients in treatment, groups and individual sessions, as well as al-non.
- Unique: The problem with co-dependency is that it takes away individuality. It stalls the individual, and the family, and it makes them insular and uncomfortable with the notion of change. We want to identify what these unhealthy behaviors are and realign clients with who they are and what their passions are and what makes them unique.
Counselors use the individual and group sessions to demonstrate how the tendency toward co-dependency has hurt the individual. After helping them realize what this has done to them, the counselor can then help them heal and make better relationship decisions. Being taught what a healthy relationship is becomes essential since the co-dependent individual was never taught how to have a healthy relationship.
If you think that you, or a loved one, is in a co-dependent relationship, contact Akua at 833-258-2669 and speak to someone about how to get help. With compassion and years of training, the Akua staff are experts in assisting those with addiction or co-dependency issues.