It seems the word codependent is thrown around quite a bit these days- but what does it actually mean? How do I know if I am codependent? The definition of codependency is so broad these days that many dysfunctional relationships are categorized as codependent, even when they are not. Let’s take a closer look at the actual meaning and how it affects relationships.
A codependent relationship is defined as a close relationship in which the love and intimacy in the relationship is experienced in one person’s distress and the other person’s rescuing or enabling. The helper (the one doing the rescuing) shows love by providing assistance, and the other feels love when they receive this assistance.
These relationships are often very strong and deeply rooted, especially if the stress or distress is great. Research shows that the intense shared experiences of the other’s distress and the helper’s ability to rescue can deepen the emotional connection and feelings of intimacy.
In a codependent relationship, the helper’s emotions are intertwined with the other’s, meaning the helper keenly feels the other’s struggles (as if they were their own) and can often feel guilty at the thought of ending the relationship or not offering help.
The reason this type of relationship is termed codependent is because one member depends on the helper to help them, and the helper depends on the other’s struggling and failure to rescue themselves to meet the helper’s need of feeling needed, helpful, or competent. This in turn gives a temporary boost to the helper’s self-esteem or self-confidence and deepens the connection.
The other member of the relationship in turn becomes dependent on the helper, as the helper’s tendency to rescue impedes the other’s development of life skills and confidence needed to take care of themselves. You end up with someone dependent on a helper to rescue them because they have not had to practice, mature, and develop skills for helping themselves, and someone that is dependent on helping the other to satisfy their need of being needed and loved. Each gets trapped in this cycle of dependency on the other partner in the relationship.
At HeadFirst, we don’t like the label ‘codependent’- just like we don’t like any other labels. We find that labeling someone or a relationship as codependent feels like we are giving them an out. That it’s just the way it is because they are codependent and there is nothing that can be done about it. Or that it’s always been that way and the one dependent on the help would fail if we suddenly took away their life vest. Labeling something as codependent feels very final, stable, unchangeable.
We like to think of relationships as part of a continuum between healthy vs unhealthy, and that relationships are dynamic and change constantly, often moving in and out from one end of the continuum to the next. Most relationships have unhealthy tendencies every now and then- that doesn’t mean they are codependent. Some relationships have been at the unhealthy end for quite some time (and maybe didn’t ever quite make it to the healthy end?). Some relationships are at the healthy end of the continuum when it comes to several conditions or circumstances, but are stuck in the unhealthy part for certain situations (i.e., jealousy, fear of abandonment, trust issues).
We look at all relationships holistically- meaning we look at the good and the bad. Talking with a therapist about all aspects of a relationship helps you gain a better, more accurate picture about what is going on, and helps you evaluate your role in the relationship more clearly.
Labeling something as codependent often gets in the way of this full examination and paints everything in a negative light. We stay neutral by just helping you shine a light on your relationship, and leaving the decision about how to act and proceed up to you.
As we all know- only the people in the relationship truly know what that relationship is like. HeadFirst therapists are available to help you explore your relationship and take a closer look at who you are and what role you have taken on in your relationships, and dive in to figuring out where you want to go from here.
Have you had trouble in your past relationships? Leave us a comment below or reach out to a therapist at HeadFirst (469) 665-9416 or firstname.lastname@example.org