“If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” anon
When I think about co-dependency, I always recall a sign my mother had in our kitchen growing up which inscribed the above quote. The sign masqueraded as a “family joke” but as an adult I can see what a powerful message it sent out about who ruled our particular roost and what our role I was expected to play.
In a nutshell, co-dependency relates to an unhealthy relationship where one person’s needs are given higher importance to the detriment of the other. The person whose needs are not met or even acknowledge loses a sense of their identity and essentially merges or become enmeshed with the person whose needs are deemed priority. We only exist in the eyes of the other. Without them we have no identity.
Co-dependency is the need to be needed. At it’s core is toxic shame where we may hold false beliefs that we are not good enough, our needs or feelings are not important and have to be usurped by the dominant partner or parent.
The key characteristics of being in a co-dependent relationship include:
- Self-esteem is boosted by helping others (without being needed, our self esteem remains low) (the family saviour ring any bells?)
- Makes drastic sacrifices for others, even if this harms us in the long or short term (the good old martyr anyone?)
- Attracted to people who need rescuing or fixing (I call this ‘the wounded sparrow syndrome’) and whose issues require far more help than we are able to give (so we essentially set ourselves up to fail)
- Become embroiled in other people’s drama
- Poor/non-existent setting of personal boundaries or attempts at self-care (welcome all people pleasers!)
- An exaggerated sense of responsibility for others
Origins in childhood
Co-dependency starts from our very first relationship in our family, especially with our caregivers.
In a co-dependent household, we, as children, learn to adapt our behaviour to fulfill the needs of the parent. The focus in the home is on the demanding parent (often emotionally troubled or abusive). We get rewards/praise for helping the parent (causing those good feeling hormones such as dopamine to be produced). This positive attention is only available when we are putting the needs of others first. We quickly get the message that our own needs are less important, causing us to stop listening to ourselves. We start to lose touch with our identity (which as children is very much in its early, delicate stages of formation). We associate feeling good about ourselves as dependent on meeting the needs of others.
After this, the scene is pretty much set, the more we play our role, the more established the co-dependency becomes. The needy parent becomes more so, and we have to raise the stakes in order to meet their needs. We then go out into the world as adults recreating what we learnt growing up. The co-dependency cycle continues.
The first step is to see and acknowledge the signs of co-dependency in our lives. As adults, we now have a choice as to whether to get caught up in this toxic way of being with others. A choice we didn’t have as children.
Treatment understandably involves exploring our childhoods and how they connect with our attachments and ways of relating. Connecting with the original pain or wound will help reconstruct our relationships to a healthier state.
We can begin to experiment with new ways of relating to slowly dismantle our co-dependent tendencies. For example, the martyr can begin to introduce some self-care, the please pleaser can start saying no, the yes person can begin speaking their truth and the rescuer can start putting some boundaries in place. We move from a state of co-dependence to a state of inter-dependence.
There is recovery from co-dependency. The first step is to understand what’s happening in your particular situation. With the dynamics of the relationship unearthed, then the untangling can begin.
Pia Mellody, a well-known co-dependency expert writes “Recovery from co-dependence is a lot like a growing-up process – we must learn to do the things our dysfunctional parents did not teach us to do.”
It’s for us to break the co-dependency cycle, not only for ourselves but for those who come after us.