What ‘Codependency’ Really Means

What 'Codependency' Really Means

Art by Tyler David Hall

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The word “codependent” doesn’t necessarily sound like a bad thing, right? After all, everyone depends on other people sometimes. Even the toughest loner needs somebody else now and again — if not emotionally, then physically (she’s probably not going to do her own dental cleaning, for example).

But codependency isn’t about the kind of ethical give-and-take we expect to see when you legally exchange goods for services. It’s also not about a solid friendship, good family relationship, or happy romantic relationship.

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Codependency — the state of being codependent — occurs when two people continue to engage in a relationship out of desperate need rather than healthy desire.

What may begin as a fun, casual fling can end up a codependent nightmare six months later if the two people come to believe they can’t possibly be happy without one another. A healthy person may realize he’s in an unhappy relationship and take steps to fix it or end it, even if it’s hard or scary to do.

A codependent person may stick around forever! In fact, a codependent person may even come to feel he can’t survive without his girlfriend, and he may do and say all kinds of inappropriate, damaging, and even dangerous things to keep her around.

Sometimes one codependent person enables the other’s alcoholism, drug addiction, unchecked gambling, habitual overspending, or other unhealthy behavior. (In this case, to “enable” someone is to intentionally or unintentionally support or even create the conditions that allow someone to continue negative behavior.)

The enabler — the one who isn’t wildly misbehaving, acting out, or committing a crime — may fancy herself the healthy one, but in reality she’s got a problem too. Chances are that she is addicted to the feeling of being needed.

That’s really why she does her best friend’s homework for her over and over again, risking getting in huge trouble, when her friend truly offers nothing kind or useful in return; or why he lends his buddy money week after week when he knows his friend is never actually going to pay it back.

Sometimes people need to deal with the consequences of their actions in order to see it’s time to make new choices. But an enabler interrupts that process by bailing the addicted, abusive, or just plain selfish person out.

In this way, two codependent people become locked into a seductive but ultimately dissatisfying dance in which each person gradually gives up a little bit more independence until it’s all about the two of them, all the time.

They may stop hanging out with other people, or consult each other on all their decisions (even the littlest thing, like what to order at a restaurant). If you have friends who consistently engage in soap opera-style dramatics but never actually leave the unhealthy relationship they complaining about, they may be codependent.

If you find yourself helping people not because of the good feelings it brings everyone, but because you believe this means these people will never leave you — you may be codependent. And if you don’t know how to feel until you know how your sister is feeling that day, you may be codependent.

Some codependent people don’t just feel like they’re in a wonderful close relationship — they actually feel as if they don’t know where they begin and somebody else ends.

But if your entire sense of self-worth is based on taking a cue from somebody else, it’s pretty scary, right? Because if they have a bad day, you have a bad day, even if you’re doing really good work and doing your best to lead a healthy lifestyle.

Some people describe codependency as feeling like they’re emotionally drowning in somebody else’s feelings.

If you’re worried that you’re in a codependent relationship, consider talking to a school counselor or therapist about it. You can also check out resources at CoDA, or Codependents Anonymous.

And if you’re not sure if a relationship is healthy for you, try asking yourself this question: “After I spend time with this person, do I feel healthier and happier — or more stressed and drained?”

The answer may be illuminating. Because while difficulties arise in any relationship, if you take the measure of it over time, you’re probably going to see a pattern. And a pattern of stress and unhappiness emerges, it may mean this person isn’t a great influence in your life.

But remember, passionately caring about somebody doesn’t make you codependent.

It makes you, umm: real, human, alive, and engaged with the world around you. It can be very healthy to love somebody deeply, and it’s understandable to sometimes worry about what would happen if that person wasn’t around anymore.

So long as you retain your sense of self and participate in activities and friendships independent of this other person (whether we’re talking about a friend, romantic partner, or family member), you are on the right track to maintaining very healthy relationships in your life.

We probably all get a little codependent sometimes. Perhaps the most hopeful and wonderful thing about being a human is that while you can’t change anybody else’s behavior, you can change your own.

Even if you (and a therapist) decide you are codependent, you can change and be happier and healthier than you may have ever imagined.