At Milestones, we believe that the first step in changing unhealthy pattern of behavior is to understand it. Co-dependency is a common struggle, and it is necessary for co-dependents and their family members to educate themselves about the cycle of addiction and how it shapes their relationships.
Co-dependency is a learned behavior that is transmitted from one generation to the next. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects one’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with co-dependency often form relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. The pattern of behavior was first identified about 18 years ago as the result of longitudinal studies on the interpersonal relationships of alcoholic families. Co-dependency is learned by watching, being the recipient of and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior.
Who Does Co-dependency Affect?
Co-dependency often affects a spouse, a parent, sibling, friend, or relative of a person afflicted with alcohol or drug dependence. Originally, co-dependent was a term used exclusively to describe persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals. Today, however, the term has broadened to describe any co-dependent person from any dysfunctional family or close-knit social system.
What is a Dysfunctional Family and How Does it Lead to Co-dependency?
A dysfunctional family is one in which members suffer from fear, anger, pain, or shame that is denied or minimized. Underlying problems may include any of the following:
- An addiction by a family member to drugs, alcohol, relationships, work, food, sex, or gambling.
- The existence of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- The presence of a family member suffering from a chronic mental or physical illness.
Dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist. They neither discuss nor confront them. As a result, family members learn to suppress emotions, disregard their own needs, and deny their true experiences to maintain a false front or the status quo of the family system. They develop behaviors and other coping mechanisms that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves, don’t touch, don’t confront, and don’t trust. The identity and emotional development of the members of a dysfunctional family are often inhibited. Attention and energy focus on the family member who is ill or addicted. The co-dependent person typically sacrifices his or her needs to care for the person who is sick. When co-dependents place other people’s health, welfare and safety before their own, they can lose contact with their own needs, desires, and sense of self.
How Do Co-dependent People Behave?
Co-dependents have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of them to feel better. They find it hard to be genuine and express themselves authentically. Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine – and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like perfectionism, gambling, overspending, or unsafe and indiscriminate sexual activity.
They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr-type role, becoming “benefactors” to an individual in need. A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant, oppositional, and defiant adolescent; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent or otherwise irresponsible behavior.
The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” As the caretaking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from this cycle of behavior. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in love relationships and friendship.
Characteristics of Co-dependent People Are:
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
- A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue
- A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time
- A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts
- An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship, to avoid the feeling of abandonment
- An extreme need for approval and recognition
- A sense of guilt when asserting themselves
- A compelling need to control others
- Lack of trust in self and/or others
- Fear of being abandoned or alone
- Difficulty identifying feelings
- Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change
- Problems with intimacy/boundaries
- Chronic anger
- Poor communications
- Difficulty making decisions
How is Co-dependency Treated?
Because co-dependency is usually rooted in a person’s childhood, treatment often involves exploration into early childhood history and their relationship to current destructive behavior patterns. Treatment includes education, experiential groups, and individual and group therapy through which co-dependents rediscover themselves and identify self-defeating behavior patterns. Treatment also focuses on helping patients identify feelings suppressed during childhood and on reconstructing healthy family dynamics. The goal is to allow them to experience their full range of feelings again – without guilt.
We hope the information contained in this article has been helpful to you. Please feel free to contact us at Milestones Ranch Malibu with any questions or comments you may have. Call: (800) 791-6859 for assistance.