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What Is Codependency?

Part I: Control, Caretaking & Self Abandonment

Meg Mulroy, LPC 

Codependency has become somewhat of a buzz amongst my peers. Used casually, I’ve heard people say, “She can’t do anything without him — they are so codependent,” or, “Those roommates are completely codependent — they are attached at the hip!” One of my professional and personal pet peeves is the misuse of this word. Codependency has been defined in many different ways, but according to Melody Beattle, author of Codependent No More, she defines a codependent person as, “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” The other person described in this definition is often a person who struggles with a compulsive disorder or substance use disorder and is usually close to you — a partner, spouse, child, or parent. However, the root of this definition is more so about the controlling person in this dynamic and how they allow the other person’s behavior to affect them. This includes the ways in which they try to change them through controlling and obsessive caretaking, self-abandoning, or helping behaviors. Let’s dive into each of these a little more.

Codependency and Control

An example of a person engaged in a codependent relationship may look something like this: your partner is abusing alcohol and comes home early one morning after a long night of drinking. He insists that he can’t go to work, and asks you to call his boss for him. He might say things like, “Babe, I’m sick, I think it’s the flu- can’t you just do this for me one time?” or “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t think twice about calling in sick for me!” You may hate lying for your partner, but worry that he’ll get angry if you say no, so you find ways in which to control the situation without directly saying no. Eventually, your partner gets angry and may even project his problems onto you, even blaming you for the reason he drinks! 

In a codependent cycle, the partner usually calls in sick for them, claiming that it’s their last time, and reassuring themselves that you’re actually helping. Similar situations come up again and this is because codependent partners feel trapped, and often fear the consequences of standing up for themselves whether that’s abuse, guilt trips, or fear of being alone. 

Codependency, Control, and Self-Abandonment

Codependent people often believe they can control people into changing. They do all kinds of things like cry, beg, coerce, manipulate, garner attention, or lie to seek control in an effort to “help” the struggling people in their lives. I use quotations for help because what they are really doing is enabling, and in some cases tolerating abuse and reinforcing unworkable behavioral patterns. Codependent people often engage in self-abandoning behaviors — denying their own needs, desires, opinions, and feelings to try and please others and help their loved ones. Many people who struggle with codependent behaviors grew up with parents who were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Perhaps you had to learn to be a different version of yourself in order to avoid a drunken tirade — you HAD to be a ‘good kid,’ or you had to take care of a family member’s drug or alcohol related problems because it was either modeled to you, pushed on to you, or was the only way in which you felt loved and accepted.

Codependency and Caretaking 

If patterns of codependency were something you grew up with, you might find yourself in similar positions with partners and friends as an adult. It’s not uncommon for adult children of alcoholics to date other alcoholics — as humans we are drawn to what we know even when we know it’s harmful. So, the cycle repeats itself — many codependents begin to see themselves as victims. As caretakers, they participate in their victimization by constantly rescuing people who either don’t want it or aren’t ready for it. Caretaking does not help, in fact it causes more problems. 

When we take care of people and do things we don’t really want to do, we disown ourselves and resentment starts to build because we have made it so that no one notices what we need! But codependent folks keep reliving this cycle because when they take care of others, there’s a fleeting feeling of positive feelings. However, just as a drink temporarily helps an alcoholic feel better, taking care of someone distracts codependents from the pain of being who they are. Many codependent people feel unlovable, so they settle for feeling needed rather than loved. You can see how the unworkable behavior of caretaking only reinforces feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem. In part two of this blog, I will dive a little bit deeper into characteristics that make up the qualities of codependent people to assess if you may be stuck in this cycle.

If you’re struggling with codependency in your life or your relationships, talking to a licensed counselor may help. If you would like to talk to someone, reach out to Symmetry Counseling to see how therapy in Chicago can help. Explore our counseling services online to learn more, and contact us today to get started.

Works Cited

Beattie, Melody. Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Hazelden Publishing, 2016.

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