Co-dependency refers to a certain pattern of relationship between people in which an individual’s sense of self-worth, identity, and/or wellbeing is dependent on feedback, approval, validation and need from another individual. Co-dependency takes on a particular form and meaning in the context of addiction, whereby the partner or family member becomes enmeshed in an alcoholic or drug addict’s behaviour and arranges their life and sense of self worth around the disordered behaviours and lifestyle of the addict.
What does a co-dependent relationship look like?
Co-dependency is not always obvious to outside observers or the individuals in the relationship. Co-dependent relationships can “look” healthy even when there is significant dysfunction.
Signs and symptoms of co-dependency:
Accepting too much responsibility for someone else’s behaviours, successes or failures
Minimizing one’s own needs
Trying to “fix” others
A sense that one’s emotional wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of another
Inability to set boundaries or consistently breaking them
Taking on or taking ownership of another individual’s emotions, battles, and struggles
Overinvestment in another individual’s values and desires
Serious fear of abandonment or loss
Fear of feeling guilty
People pleasing behaviours
Relationship seems “one-sided”
Ignoring warning signs about another individual’s behaviours
Staying in a relationship that doesn’t meet one’s needs out of fear for the other individual’s feelings
“Enabling” behaviours: behaviors that ignore, overlook, deny, or even exacerbate the other individual’s problematic behaviours to maintain a related status quo
Fear of “rocking the boat” in a relationship
Like other unhealthy relationship patterns, co-dependency is a behaviour pattern that is learned. Co-dependent behaviours usually follow an implicit logic of unspoken complicity to maintain a status quo. In many co-dependent relationships where addiction is a feature for one person (although this frequently occurs when both persons have addiction issues), the non-addicted person will enable the other individual’s addiction behaviours so that the status quo is not disturbed.
For example, the non-addicted person may continue paying legal costs, bailing the addicted individual out of jail or dangerous situations, making excuses for bad behaviours, etc.. Even to their own detriment and/or the detriment of the family, in order to prevent the addicted individual from “abandoning” them.
Enabling behaviours prevent addicted persons from effectively facing their substance use issues, and the enabler maintains their investment in an unhealthy co-dependency. A significant part of overcoming co-dependency is for the co-dependent to develop an understanding of what unfulfilled needs drive their enabling and co-dependent behaviours, and learning how to address those needs in healthy ways.
Treatment for co-dependency
Individual, couples, group, and family therapies help individuals develop and understanding of how co-dependent behaviours originate and the unhealthy role they play in dysfunctional adult relationships. Individuals will also learn healthy and effective ways of establishing and sticking to boundaries, how to cope with enabling tendencies, and how to identify their needs and meet them effectively.
Specific therapeutic modalities such as art and animal-assisted therapy, trauma informed talk therapies (TIC), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are all evidenced-based treatments for addressing the individual-level issues that fuel co-dependent relationships. These issues frequently include deeply seated fears from childhood including fear of abandonment, trauma, abuse, self-worth, body image, and neglect.