Excerpted from the April 21,2011 episode of my radio show, A Fine Time for Healing
Roughly 100 million Americans suffer the effects of codependency today. Relationship codependency is often referred to as the White Knight syndrome, because the codependent tends to be a rescuer.
Codependency is a commonly and loosely used term that we often hear, but many of us do not know exactly what it means. Within the context of addiction there are three types of codependency; the enablers, the persecutors, and the victims. Throughout a codependents relationship with the focus of their addiction, they will play all three parts, whether simultaneously or separately. I tell my own story about codependency in my memoir, Fine ly: My Story of Hope, Love, and Destiny.
So what is codependency? Codependency in general is the relationship that exists between everyone and everything. In order to live emotionally healthy lives, we all must have relationships. The type of codependency I am discussing today is the kind of relationships one seeks out and engages in for reasons that are emotionally unhealthy.
Codependency can be and usually is a debilitating addiction. It is in essence toxic love. Its like the time I had accidentally found a syringe that my husband, who by the way became my ex-husband and has since died, had hidden in a kitchen cabinet. Because he had led me to believe he was clean and sober, the shock of seeing that needle sent me spiraling into panic. Frenzied after Id fervently obsessed for hours (because he hadnt been home when I had found the earth shattering evidence) I confronted him, brandishing the evidence in my hand as he walked through the front door. He remained unflappably calm and gave me his usual lame excuse, Im not using. I just craved the feeling of the needle, but only shot up water. I wanted to believe him (to not believe him would have destroyed my world), but the evidence spoke for itself. Any way I looked at it, the thought of him sticking a needle in his vein was sickening and disturbing. Though I was devastated by the betrayal and overcome with my own pain, I immediately shifted into codependent mode I told myself that I was much stronger than he was. Id be okayit was him I had to worry about. I told myself that Id just have to try harder to keep him happy and I believed that if I loved him more and proved my devotion, he wouldnt use again.
At the time, that all made perfect sense to me. Thats what I mean when I talk about a toxic relationship. A codependent person has a psychological addiction to painful, frustrating, and unequal relationships. Codependents will often put others needs before their own while ignoring or discounting their own feelings, their own desires, and their own needs. They are rescuers; the codependent person is drawn to those who lack stability and/or act irresponsibly in a particular area of their life, because they have a compulsive need to help, nurture and/or control others. They are always looking for the potential in others, rather than accepting others as they truly are. The codependent person becomes addicted to hope that the other person will change, beyond all evidence or rationale. They will often focus on these types of relationships as a way to avoid dealing with the problems in their lives.
Now that we have a better understanding of what codependency is, how does someone develop this disorder? The emotional disorder of codependency begins in childhood and develops over a period of several years. Often as a child they had been subjected to dysfunctional family dynamics such as repeated anger, extreme rigidity, violence, manipulation, and/or abuse in the home. These detrimental assaults often occurred in secrecy and behind closed doors. The unpredictable behavior of the parents, and the constant chaos and turmoil made the child feel unsafe and their world feel unstable. It was high drama, crisis living all the time. As a result, the child may repress their feelings, not develop healthy coping skills. As a child, they had discovered that their compliancy and over pleasing were effective in placating their parents or guardians. They were always performing; that was how they coped, but it soon became a pattern of behavior. In another scenario, there may have been a parent in the family with substance abuse or other addictions. The emotionally developing child may have found his or her self in an inappropriate caretaking role. Whatever the case, in time, that childs self-esteem became entirely dependent on the unpredictable and ever changing moods of their parents or guardians. A child in this case never develops a clear sense of who they are as individuals. And because of unhealthy family relationships, the child never learns healthy emotional boundaries between themselves and others. They find that as adults they are dependent on others to tell them who they are. Children take these distorted survival strategies into adulthood. This kind of upbringing plays a vital part in what that person believes they are deserving of in life as an adult.
I mentioned the term emotional boundaries, but what exactly are they? Emotional boundaries are the appropriate and protective borders that exist between us and others. They give us the confidence to set the bar to how we expect others to treat us. I had never heard the term boundaries used in this context until I was in so much emotional pain that I went for professional therapy. When my therapist first explained that all the emotional turmoil I was suffering stemmed from boundary issues, I was totally confused. Over time it began to make sense. It was not an easy thing to change, but in the end my life changed in wonderful ways I could never have imagined.
When a child grows up in a healthy family, they are helped and encouraged by their parents to individuate, to develop a separate self-concept, to be a unique individual within their family. We learn about our boundaries by the way we are treated as children. When our boundaries are healthy, we recognize the difference between intimacy and enmeshment. We have defined ideas of how we expect others to treat us. The more developed and defined our boundaries are, the clearer our sense of self is. When our boundaries are healthy and flexible, we are able to use our discretion about what feels right and what doesnt. If our boundaries are too rigid, we may withhold closeness to others, will not express our feelings or let our emotions show. We may project the appearance that we are overly self-sufficient. When our boundaries are too loose, our life is one of chaos and drama. We give too much of ourselves to others and feel overly responsible for their lives. We say yes when we really want to say no. We are overly empathetic, absorb the feelings of others. We do not want our emotional walls to be too high or too low. We want them to fluctuate appropriately.
So how do those on the outside looking in recognize codependency in someone else? Some of the nicest people we will ever meet are codependent. They are great friends to have because they are understanding, helpful, and likeable. They strive to please everyone in their life because they believe that others only like them when they do. At first glance they appear to be happy, but that is merely a facade.
The mantra for the codependent is Love Conquers All. They may go from relationship to relationship thinking, If he or she would only change, this would be the perfect relationship, the one Ive always dreamed of. But it never is. In relationship addiction, the codependent feels like they have to be in a relationship in order to feel good about his or her self. They may use their sexuality as a way to feel accepted. The codependent person will deny and rationalize away the obvious, believing that if they love their partner enough, that person will change. They may make excuses for others by saying things like, He is really trying to change. She didnt mean to hurt me. He really does love me. She had a painful past and is doing the best she can do. When I was in my codependent relationship with an addict, I said all of those words and believed them.
Over time, the codependent becomes emotionally dependent on their significant other, and obsessed with their partners needs and problems. They may become overly empathetic; obsessed with the pain and suffering of their partner and feeling the need to sacrifice themselves. When they fail to make their partner happy or change their partners self-defeating behaviors after all their efforts, the codependent blames his or her self for not trying hard enough or not loving that person enough. The codependent person then tries even harder to fix the problem. It is a downward spiral. Many co-dependents have what is called a cross-addiction; in addition to their obsession with another, they may also abuse drugs, alcohol, shopping or food themselves.
To hear the rest of this transcript, please listen to this episode on my blog talk radio show A Fine Time for Healing