Growing Beyond Co-Dependency

Author: Jackie Joens

Co-dependency is an increasingly popular and often times over-used term. It’s use originated to help professionals describe the behavior patterns of those individuals or families involved in relationships with people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. It has been commonly used to describe the “walking on eggshells” behavior pattern of those dysfunctional relationships.

More recently, “co-dependency” has been adapted to help describe the behaviors present in any dysfunctional relationship where one person sacrifices “self” in the hopes of satisfying their needs of feeling wanted, desired, loved, valued, etc.  These behaviors are also seen in the dysfunctional families where abuse (emotional, spiritual, physical or sexual) is present. Co-dependency is generally used to describe any self-sacrificing, unhealthy behavior patterns which result from dysfunctional relationships adding more fuel to the dysfunctional relationship patterns. It’s a circular pattern of behavior that is often distructive for all those involved.

For our discussion, let us embrace and own the idea that having healthy relationships in our lives is important. As a result, we need to make sure we bring our best we can be to the relationship process. What does it mean to be our best? To understand this idea we need to begin to understand the difference between being responsible for others and being responsible to others in our lives.

Everyone carries some baggage from their life’s journey. We can see that we are all lugging around some different sized loads – but we all have a load to bear. It is irresponsible for anyone to try and dump their baggage on someone else and equally irresponsible for us to carry someone else’s. It is important that we all carry our own load. (We all have baggage – we just need to learn how to carry it gracefully.)

With this baggage carrying analogy, we can see that if someone is trying to carry the load of another the weight becomes unbearable for one (he/she has been dumped on) and the other person is experiencing unbridled freedom – no worries. This isn’t good for either person.

Everyone has their own baggage or burdens to live through and carry. Life is just that way. Things happen on an everyday basis – we all must experience, learn and (hopefully) grow through these experiences, thus becoming more graceful at carrying our own burdens. If we try to carry this baggage for another, then we are depriving the person of experiencing his/her life. We are getting in the way of the lessons that are being introduced to them. We are feeling responsible for their life – for their happiness – for their success – even for their failures.

The same can be said if we try and get others to carry our life’s baggage. If we keep handing it off and not dealing with it ourselves then we are expecting someone else to be responsible for our lives. We are giving up our power. We will miss out on all of the opportunities we are presented to experience, learn and grow as a person. We will never learn how to gracefully walk with our burdens – our baggage. We are not being responsible for ourselves or our life.

Instead, it is a much more healthy approach to living if we consider ourselves responsible to other people rather than being responsible for other people. Sometimes life dumps a trunk on us and we need genuine help to carry it. It is far too heavy to carry alone. These are times in life that are extra heavy, extra difficult, extra trying. In these cases we are all responsible to ask for help and those of us who are able would be loving and supportive to help during those times of trial – ie. illness, death, divorce, natural disaster, abuse, war, etc. These times call for assistance – a temporary sharing of the load that someone has experienced in their life. To help the person struggling is to be responsible tothem - we are there to help, supporting others during difficult times of trial and pain. We are assisting, not trying to carry or control the burden alone. We are helping out for a while until such time as the trial is lifted.

One of the most commonly identifiable behaviors/attitudes in co-dependency is that of trying to control our environment (namely relationships) to satisfy our deep need of wanting to be loved. Have you ever found yourself saying things like:

  • “If I was good enough, he/she would love me.”
  • “If I don’t do it, the job won’t get done or won’t be done right and people will be disappointed in me.”
  • “If I volunteer more at church, I will be liked and respected.”
  • “If I wear the latest clothes, I will be more popular with my classmates/co-workers/potential partners/friends.”
  • “If I were thinner/more muscular/smarter/funnier he/she would love me.”
  • “If my kids are always clean, neat and well behaved, everyone will believe I am a good parent and will respect me more.”
  • “I know so much through my experiences, it is my responsibility to pass on this information to everyone whether they think it is important information or not.”
  • “If I get the project done ahead of time, everyone will respect me.”
  • “If my children are at the top of their class, people will believe I am a great parent and/or I will look good.”
  • “If I make sure to get my children to all of the “right” activities rather than taking time for me, everyone will see what a great parent I am by my self-less sacrifices.”
  • “If my spouse is always happy, then people will believe we have a great marriage/relationship.”
  • “My spouse/significant other will always be happy if I just behave in a certain way and/or provide for their every need.”
  • “If we pretend that the abuse isn’t happening, things will work out okay and people will see how great my family is. It is important to keep up appearances.”
  • “If I can just avoid saying anything confrontational on the nights my spouse has been drinking then things will be fine.”
  • “If I give 120% - one hundred percent of the time, everyone will see this and my life will be perfect.”
  • “A job worth doing, is worth doing perfectly.”

All of these statements suggest a strong issue of co-dependency. Here we are trying to carry someone’s baggage rather than letting them carry it themselves. It is a place where our boundaries blend in too closely with those boundaries of our family members, friends, coworkers, fellow students, neighbors, etc. They all suggest having control over other peoples’ opinions, thoughts and feelings – being responsible for others. If we have co-dependant attitudes/behaviors, we believe that we are strong and all powerful – we are able to “make someone happy, sad, angry, furious, out of control, elated, content”…the list goes on and on. With co-dependant behaviors/attitudes come the belief that through our actions we control how all other people see us, value us, and respond to us. This is a recipe for disaster.

Rather than allowing others to own their own reactions to situations, we believe they should respond in a way defined (and usually desired) by us. In many situations this isn’t necessarily “evil” control. Many of us want our family members to be happy and satisfied with life. We desire love and nurturing relationships. We want our bosses to approve of us and like us. None of these desires are wrong unless they get in the way of living life in an honest way where we are feeling responsible for other people.

It is important that we learn to live life in a way that is true to who we fundamentally are and what we believe. To live otherwise is to live in a falseness-of-self that will always come back to haunt us. We can’t “make” anyone feel, act, or be someway they don’t choose to be themselves…that is their choice (not ours) to make. Often times a person can get trapped in this cycle when involved in a relationship where he/she really cares about how the other person feels about him/her.

Remember back to your youth…as a teenager, we often would discover someone and develop a huge crush on him/her. We would wonder what they liked to do and what kind of things happened that resulted in smiles and laughter in their lives…we look for those things that made them tick. Then, we might have tried to emulate this type of person so that the object of our desire would “like us.” Maybe, if we were able to perform perfectly, dress perfectly, behave just so - this person might even fall in love with us.

We did our homework. We discovered what was important to him/her and then snared them in the trap of our charm. Weeks or months later, we possibly discovered that there were things about him/her that we weren’t all that wild about. Maybe we became sick to death of going shopping or having football games on t.v. every Sunday. We may even have tried to change them a bit…maybe bringing up other options for entertainment that were important to us – we encouraged them kindly (or forcefully) to just try and see how wonderful these things could be. We wanted them to change to fit what our real desires were – what was really in our hearts.  Instead of respecting that they where who they were and we were who we really were – that person behind the persona of “perfect.”

Does this scenario sound familiar? Unfortunately, it is all too often the case in relationships – even past our teen years. The passionate infatuation stage wanes and we find ourselves tired of trying to be someone we aren’t and then wanting to have our partner “just love me for who I really am.” We may also attempt this same type of manipulation with our parents or other significant people in our lives. Trying desperately to gain approval, acceptance, love – it just doesn’t work. We cannot (nor should we even try) get people to feel things they do not want to feel – even love. (Sorry Cupid, those arrows really don’t work!)

The best we can hope for and actually what we should be striving toward, is being true to who we are in our hearts. That doesn’t mean to be blindly accepting of our behaviors (both good and bad). But rather to live true to our values, skills, personality, and all those gifts that enrich our personhood. We need to discover, learn and grow in who we are. Then, we bring our “best” self to the table of any and all relationships. If the “object of our desire” isn’t receptive – that may be quite sad (and sometimes devastating) – but it is his/her choice.  We shouldn’t try to manipulate this process. It is the best for all involved.

If we think about it logically and remove our personal feelings from the observations, it really makes a lot of sense. If we are respectful of others’ boundaries and desires as well as our own, the result will be good matches rather than manipulated partnerships. Everything will be out on the table with no surprises. We won’t be trying to change anyone and no one will be trying to change us. We will all be living in truth rather than wishing for what “could possibly be if he/she would change.” The result will be an honest connection between people who share common values, beliefs, convictions, interests, etc. Not only will we be loving someone as they are – we will be loved for who and what we are – “loved for being me!”

Author’s Note: If you find yourself struggling in relationships, you may be experiencing symptoms of co-dependency. It would be helpful to seek assistance from a mental health professional to work through defining and setting healthy boundaries as well as respecting those boundaries of others. This is often one of the most effective tools to help experience good and healthy relationships.