The Co-Dependency Dilemma

If you have spent any time on the mental health side of Instagram, you have come across the term co-depdendency. Today we break down what it is, why it can be a controversial, and how to manage it.

When discussing a term that has been highly popularized through social media and pop psychology, it's important that we talk about the origins of it. You may be surprised to learn that co-dependency did not always refer to what it does today! Read on to find out more :)

In this post, we will cover:

What is co-dependency and where does it come from?

How can we identify co-dependency in ourselves?

How to manage co-dependent tendencies

Without further ado, let's get into it.

What Is Co-Dependency?

Co-dependency is a term that was originally coined in the 1950's to describe the experiences of those in a relationship with people dealing with an addiction. Partners and family members of people who abuse substances have a tendency to become intertwined (or caught up) in the lives of the substance user. Co-dependency was coined to describe and explain this dynamic.

Today, co-dependency has taken on a much broader definition.

Co-dependency is a form of reliance in a relationship. When we are co-dependent, we rely on our partner, friends, or family members in a variety of different ways:

  • Mentally
  • Emotionally
  • Physically
  • Spiritually

Relying on people in and of itself is not bad. In fact, some would argue that it's the most natural, human, and defaulted quality we have (more on this below).

When does reliance become co-dependency?

Reliance becomes co-dependency when we develop a poor concept of self due to our extreme focus on other people.

Here are some features of co-dependency:

One person in the relationship takes on the responsibility of meeting the other person's needs at the expense of recognizing their own needs, wants, and desires

The co-dependent person's thoughts and actions often revolve around their relationship partner or relatives

The co-dependent person feels worthless unless they feel needed by others

Pre-occupation and extreme emotional, social, even physical dependence on someone else

The co-dependent person may get hurt. and disappointed in the process of trying to 'save' someone from their addictive or toxic behaviour

It's important to note that co-dependency is not an official diagnosis.

While co-dependency implies a problem, this is not the only perspective  that exists on the topic 👇🏽👇🏽👇🏽

A Different Perspective On Co-Dependency: Our Biology Is Wired For It

To balance things out a bit, here is a different perspective on co-dependency from the book Attached. This book explores how we can apply the science of adult attachment styles to our romantic relationships.

How can we understand co-dependency through an attachment lens?

Authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller discuss the 'co-dependency myth' and challenge the view that if you develop a strong dependency on your partner, you are deficient in some way.

According to Levine and Heller, the co-dependency myth will have you believe that:

"The worst possible scenario is that you will end up needing your partner, which is equated with 'addiction' to him or her, and addiction, we all know, is a dangerous prospect."

Levine and Heller argue that our actual biology tells a very different story.

Attachment = One Physiological Unit

Studies show that when we become attached to someone, we form one physiological unit. This means that two people who are intimately attached regulate each other's psychological and emotional well-being.

As a matter of face, physical too! Our partner can help regulate our blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and even the level of hormones in our blood.

Levine and Heller argue that we can't expect ourselves to differentiate from our partners at a high level when our basic biology is influenced by them!

From this perspective, dependency is not a choice. It happens when we choose someone to share our lives with, regardless of how independent we are. Moreover, this is. a natural, needed, and elegant process that we need to co-regulate.

Therefore this perspective encourages us not to be afraid of depending on and relying on our partners.

The Signs Of Co-Dependency

Here's a general note for you: when reading anything about signs of (insert any topic here, really), be curious rather than prescriptive.

When we already believe to our core that we are co-dependent, anything we read on the topic confirms out convictions. It's called confirmation bias and it happens too often with psychological concepts.

A simple way to understand co-dependent behaviour is looking for external validation in various ways from others. And if we’re not careful we can fall in the dangers of losing self entirely.

Here are some common signs of co-dependency...keep in mind this shows up differently for different people- be curious, not prescriptive ;)

  • Offering unsolicited advice, when not asked
  • Apologizing when you have done nothing wrong
  • Feeling responsible for other people's feelings and problems
  • Making excuses for other people's inappropriate or toxic behaviour
  • Doing things for the other person that make you abandon your values/needs or make you uncomfortable
  • Harbouring a fear of being abandoned, neglected, or rejected
  • Feeling like a victim in most situations
  • Feeling like you have lost who are you in the relationship
  • Trying to 'fix' or rescue people when it is beyond your capacity to do so

Here is a reel below to summarize some of these points 👇🏽

Why Co-dependency Does Not Equal Caring

If you are reading this and thinking "so what?", this section is for you. Co-dependency is different from caring behaviour. Co-dependency is often one-sided- we pour ourselves into another person to the extent that our feelings are entirely dependent upon their feelings and actions.

Furthermore, we may begin to gain a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction from sacrificing our needs for other people. This dynamic slowly builds a cycle of need- our partner begins to do less for themselves and depend on us. This feeds back into the fulfillment we get from being needed- see the pattern?

Where Does It Come From?

Co-dependency emerges from our childhood experiences. It's a reaction to trauma, overwhelming childhood experiences, and inconsistent parenting.

More specifically, individuals who grew up having their feelings punished or neglected tend to form co-dependent relationships. If you grew up believing your needs are not worth paying attention to, it becomes progressively more natural to stifle those needs, rather than recognizing their validity 💔

We also end up developing low self-esteem and self-worth in response to our needs being neglected. A co-dependent relationship unfortunately only reinforces this narrative.

How do we challenge it?

So How Do I Cope With Co-dependent Tendencies?

Now that we've explored what co-dependency is, examined it from a different angle, discussed the signs of do we manage it?

Please see a few tips below:

1. Find Models Of Healthy Loving Relationships

Many of. us are so used to dysfunction in relationships that we don't realize what healthier relationships look like. Look for relationships amongst friends, family, and community members that have the following features:

  • Mutual trust and respect
  • Lives that are intertwined and still have healthy independent aspects (i.e., meaningful time apart, both shared and individual interests)
  • Love and care is not transactional, rather it is offered openly and abundantly
  • Willingness to compromise
  • The ability to voice differing opinions or point out when something conflicts with your needs

2. Change The Way You Offer Support

You don’t have to withdraw support for your partner, just tweak it.

  • Listen actively and resist the urge to jump into problem-solving mode
  • Discuss their concerns WITH them, rather than figure out the issues FOR them
  • Let your partner make their own decisions
  • Admit when you are out of your depth and need to step back OR encourage your partner to seek other resources or opinions

3. Take Baby Steps Toward Self-Discovery

If you feel like you are losing yourself in the relationship, take small and meaningful steps to discovering who you are outside the relationship. Here are some guiding questions

  • Ask yourself, is there something I used to do a lot that I haven’t done in a long time? Why is that?
  • What do I wish I had more time and energy for?
  • How much time do I spend worrying about other people’s problems?
  • What would it feel like to spend a whole day doing only things that fulfill me?

Use the 'pockets of ease' self-care strategy to schedule meaningful time dedicated to this process:

4. Spend Time With People Who Uplift You

This is especially true if you have left a co-dependent dynamic recently, or are considering doing so. Spend time with people who remind you who you are and treat you well.

People who value you and do not make you feel bad about your decisions or second-guess yourself!

The energy you surround yourself with in difficult times is important- so pay attention to this :)

Before You Go...

Co-dependency is not a label that you want to become too attached to- yes we see the irony here! It's nice and validating to have a concept that captures and describes your experiences. However, everyone experiences relationship dynamics a little differently.

Relying on each other for support and regulation is not a bad thing!

So it's worth reflecting on where the line is for YOU.

We want to hear from you: Where do you see co-dependent dynamics in your relationship?

Until next time!

 Sarah Ahmed

WellNest Psychotherapy Services