What is co-dependency?

Sometimes psychological phrases seem to enter the mainstream and, in recent years, one such phrase has been ‘co-dependency’. But what does it really mean?

One way of understanding co-dependency is as ‘relationship addiction’, particularly if it is a relationship that keeps the partners stuck in behaviours that are limiting or destructive.

Co-dependency can refer to partners, adult children, siblings or whole families. In this article I’m focusing on partners.

Frequently there is an addicted, troubled or dependent partner and a supposedly stronger partner who’s role can be a kind of helper, caretaker or who tries to fix the person who has the ‘problem’.

Co-dependency began as a description of how some people seem to be drawn to relationships with alcoholics or drug addicts and stay in these relationships even if they are treated badly or the addict shows no serious signs of change. On the face of it the  ‘healthy’ partner is trying to help the addict but the reality is that, at a deeper level, they find it almost impossible to walk away from the tie.

The ‘healthy’ partner is also getting some form of psychological benefit, often at an unconscious level,  from being in a relationship with someone who is much more obviously disturbed or distressed.

Frequently it turns out that the ‘healthy’ partner had a parent or other family member who was an alcoholic or addict and that, in some way, their relationship pattern is mirroring important aspects of their parents’ relationship or dynamics in their family of origin.

While it began as a description of relationships involving people addicted to alcohol or other drugs, co-dependency can be used in a broader way to describe someone who stays with a ‘problem’ partner but nurses underlying resentment towards that partner.

The ‘healthy’ or ‘helping’ partner may seem caring and nice, but often underneath this there is a deep fear of not being in control, which can lead the ‘healthy’ partner to being manipulative. There is also often a need to be admired or approved of.

US psychologist Pia Melody was one of the first people to write about co-dependency. She argues that both partners in a co-dependent relationship have deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that began in chilidhood.

The addict deals with these unbearable feelings through his or her addiction or troubled behaviour. The ‘healthy’ partner deals with shame and inadequacy by their addiction to the relationship and to trying to fix the partner.

For Mellody, the antidote to co-dependency is for the individual to come to terms with the wounds of childhood. In her book Facing Co-depdence she says: “Experience your feelings about the less-than-nurturing events of your past. Because if you don’t, the issues from your history will be held in minimisation, denial and delusion and truly be behind you as demons.”

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