Like “self love” or “inner child,” the term “codependent” smacks of pop psychology psychobabble. To make matters worse, it’s become shorthand for a whole host of unhealthy behaviors. But what does it really mean? And does it describe your relationship? This week, by listener request, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals what “codependent” really means and what you can do to set things right.
Why did the codependent cross the road? To help the chicken make a decision. Since its debut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the term “codependent” has become the stuff of punchlines, but it is a real thing.
While not an actual diagnosis, the term “codependent” was first used to describe how family members of individuals with substance abuse issues might actually interfere with recovery by overhelping.
As the term spread, so did the idea of the importance of context for people struggling with substance abuse. Indeed, before this shift, treatment tended to focus purely on the addicted individual without much thought for their broader support system.
But since then, the term has gotten a lot looser, so much so that it’s become a catchall for any enabling, over-dependent, or dysfunctional relationship. At its worst, anyone who offers support for a loved one risks being dragged down a rabbithole labeled “codependent.”
So what is it exactly? For our purposes today, we’ll focus on the over-helper’s side of the aisle. Here are four ways to tell if you’re part of the problem and three ways to stop.
Feature #1: Saving “broken baby birds.” Folks who find themselves in codependent relationships are often genuinely caring and empathetic. But we all know where a road paved with good intentions takes us.
Of course, not all supportive efforts are pathological—just the opposite, in fact. A 2013 review of 40 studies found that voluntary helping improves not only life satisfaction and well-being, but also goes along with decreased depression and later mortality. And who doesn’t want that?
Not to mention, all humans crave close connection with others, plus it’s hard to see a friend or partner suffer and not step in.
But what pushes helping into overhelping is that both people depend on it. When you are so pulled by the need to save the other person, or feel so guilty about allowing them to weather their self-made consequences that it creates a vicious, enabling cycle, help become more than just “help.”
If you’re on the helping side of codependency, you may have a need to rescue others. You may be drawn to people who are vulnerable, in perpetual crisis, immature, or not yet ready to take responsibility for their lives. It’s caregiving crossed with neediness crossed with control—rescuing people whether they want to be rescued or not.
Feature #2: Getting out of your league. Through no fault of your own, the problems of the people you are drawn to are way bigger and more entrenched than your capacity to fix them. It’s not that you aren’t giving your all, it’s that layers upon layers of problems can’t be solved from the outside by one well-meaning person. Not to mention that the relationship costs you: far more than just being inconvenient, it’s a sinkhole of time, money, and energy.
Feature #3: Self-sacrifice is part of who you are. Being a martyr provides an identity, a sense of purpose, and self-worth. Plus, it might also be a welcome distraction from your own problems. This is why it’s so hard to break a codependent relationship—the extreme helping is vital to the helper, so there’s no incentive to make yourself obsolete. At its ultimate worst, codependent caregiving can become a kind of manipulation.
Feature #4: Nothing really changes. This is the crux of the issue. Of course, it is natural and healthy to want to support a partner or family member through difficult situations. But what makes such efforts codependent is when helping perpetuates the bad behavior.
For instance, codependency might run the gamut from passive, like spending lots of time worrying about your partner but never objecting to their poor choices. Or it might be more active, like covering for the person, hiding the evidence of the aftermath from others, or even funding bad behavior. In a nutshell, the saving actually keeps the problems in place to ensure more saving will be needed.
To sum up, think of codependency as a symbiotic transaction: you provide “rescue” in exchange for being wanted and needed.
If you recognized yourself or someone close to you in the description, or if referring to your friends as your “caseload” is getting tiresome, what can you do? Of course you can still help, but you want to offer a hand up, not a never-ending handout. Here are three things to try: