I love when blog readers and subscribers ask me to write on a topic that’s of interest to them. One blog subscriber recently asked me to talk about codependency.
She was feeling confused about codependency because on the one hand she relates to the concept, but other partners she knows say they don’t. She had heard that codependency is an old-fashioned term describing traits or symptoms that we now talk about as simply unhealthy behaviors.
In the past, betrayed partners were often treated as co-addicts or codependent in relation to their unfaithful spouse, or the sex addict. I discuss the question of whether betrayed partners are trauma survivors or co-addicts in my book, Moving Beyond Betrayal, and on the blog here.
The concept of codependency emerged in the mid-1980s in large part from the work of Melody Beattie in her 1986 book, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, and Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives, published a few years later.
Beattie defines a codependent person as:
. . . one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.
Pia Mellody describes codependency as a condition that occurs when a person has difficulty with what she calls the Five Core Symptoms:
- Esteem: experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
- Boundaries: setting functional boundaries
- Reality: owning and expressing your own reality
- Dependency: taking care of adult needs and wants
- Moderation: experiencing and expressing your reality moderately
(Facing Codependence, Melody, P. 2003)
One of the challenges of talking about codependency is that there is no single definition for the term.
I define codependency as:
A persistent and unmanageable dependence on, and attempts to control, external factors such as another person’s thoughts, words, choices, or behavior for the purpose of managing one’s emotions and/or to gain a sense of self-worth.
In other words, a codependent person relies excessively on others to manage their mood, their sense of security, or their feelings of self-worth.
The strategies used by the codependent person include attempts to influence or control another person’s thoughts, words, or behavior. These strategies can be either direct (demanding or shaming, for example) or indirect—making hints, orchestrating events to get a desired outcome, or attempting to create a “debt” or obligation.
Codependency is experienced on a continuum from mild to severe, and is a learned behavior common in Western culture. The mere fact of being human means that most of us have at least a little codependency—meaning we sometimes focus too much on what others think about us or engage in “image management.”
The consequences of codependency can be profound. If your symptoms are severe, you ignore or override your authentic thoughts or emotions—the basis of knowing who you are, and making decisions in your own best interest and for your highest self-care.
If you’re wondering whether you struggle with codependency, here are 6 questions to ask:
Do you regularly choose not to share your authentic thoughts and emotions with those closest to you because you fear their disapproval, or so that you can manage what they think and feel about you?
When someone in your life is unhappy about something you said or did, do you automatically apologize or say something that is not true for you in order to alter their perception of—or feelings about—you?
Do you often spend time thinking and strategizing about what you could say or do to get another person to do or say what you would like them to?
Do you spend time on a regular basis worrying about what others are thinking or saying about you?
Do you often go out of your way to do something for another person, or agree to do something another person wants you to do, even though you don’t want to?
Do you regularly violate your own boundaries or values to please others or gain their approval?
If you answered yes to two or more, you are likely struggling with codependency.
I recommend picking up a copy of either book referenced above to learn more about codependency, and how to overcome it.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2018)
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Thank you for this very helpful post. Apparently I DO struggle with codependency since I answered “yes” to 4 of these questions! Through therapy I am learning about my Family of Origin and why it has caused me to make certain decisions and choices in my life, including choosing my husband, who turns out is a sex addict – who knew?! I have also realized that I was raised to seek others approval and not to trust my own decisions – what do others think of me? What do I need to do/say to get their approval? What’s wrong with me? So for 17+ years I have wondered why am I not happy?
I am currently in a therapeutic separation, which I asked for so that I can learn more about MYself and gain my own identity and self esteem. Going to my therapist on a regular basis, connecting with my church and surrounding myself with people that love me and respect me. And it’s working!
Vicki, your posts and articles are very helpful to me, thank you so much!
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
You’re welcome Cindy, so glad the info was helpful to you!
Vicki Tidwell Palmer says
Hi Kate, thanks for adding to the conversation. It’s interesting that the definition of trauma is as complex and controversial as the definition of codependency. There are many definitions for each of these concepts, and there is disagreement in the therapeutic community about how to define and conceptualize both.
I am a trained trauma therapist (in relational, somatic, and family of origin trauma), and have met, attended conference presentations, and am familiar with the work of both individuals you mention. I’m a firm believer in the both/and approach—rather than the either/or approach—when it comes to trauma and codependency in betrayed partners, or partners of addicts in general. Codependency, as I conceptualize it, is pervasive in western culture beyond the addiction and recovery community, and can prevent a betrayed partner from doing effective boundary work, which is so crucial for her/his healing.
See my article Co-Addict or Trauma Survivor? (also included in my book, Moving Beyond Betrayal) for more info.