“Maybe we’ve been attached to people... for so long that we don’t have any life of our own left to live. It’s safer to stay attached. At least we know we’re alive if we’re reacting.” ~ Melody Beattie
What is co-dependency? According to Merriam-Webster, the medical definition of co-dependency is ‘a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifesting low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval has an unhealthy attachment to another person and places the needs of that person before his or her own’.
To be completely honest, I didn’t even know I had co-dependent tendencies until a couple of years ago. Also, although I knew I had low self-esteem, I didn’t realise I also had a ‘strong desire for the approval’ of others. Talk about eye-opening.
To begin with, pride stopped me from accepting that truth about myself. I kept telling myself it was my caring nature and nothing more. But the more I learned about co-dependency, the harder it was to deny.
In a way, it’s difficult to pinpoint where caring ends and being co-dependent starts. A loving, caring person can be mistakenly called a co-dependent. And aren’t most relationships made up of some form of co-dependency? To quote Rene Russo: “Being married, I would say most relationships are pretty co-dependent in some ways.”
I do have a caring nature and I’m happy to care for others. But where it goes wrong for the co-dependent is when they sacrifice their own needs and constantly place the needs of others before their own. Co-dependents also find it hard to be themselves and, in looking after another, they inadvertently lose their sense of self.
In a co-dependent relationship, co-dependents mean well – they simply want to help the person who’s going through a difficult time by looking after them. It all goes pear-shaped when the ‘difficult time’ stems from that person’s behaviour; when the caring becomes habitual, possibly irrational, and the co-dependent ends up making it easier for the person to continue with their damaging behaviour.
The parties in a co-dependent relationship are then locked in a cycle of mutual dependency. The one being looked after becomes increasingly dependent on the one doing the caring while the co-dependent develops a skewed sense of satisfaction from being needed. By the time that sense of satisfaction wanes – which can, quite possibly, take years – the co-dependent is left with the feeling and belief that there is no way out.
Growing up back home, I never gave it much thought when it came to looking after family, I just did it. When I got married, I was more than happy with my role as wife and then mother. Of course, there were times when I didn’t want to look after anyone and just wanted to spend time doing what I wanted to do for me.
Because Neil did shift work, I was aware of when he needed to catch up on sleep, especially when he’d come off a night shift; I’d keep things quiet around the house, and the boys caught on and were usually pretty good about it.
Looking back, I can now easily recognise where my co-dependent behaviour kicked in - when I realised his need for extra sleep was more the result of his drinking than work, I still made sure things were quiet around the house for him; he never had to worry about grocery shopping or cooking; he didn’t even have to worry about buying presents for the boys! Instead of calling him up on his drinking by insisting he take the boys to their activities, among other things, I made it easier for him by picking up the slack; I covered up by taking over what he should have been doing.
Another thing I should have done was to be more vocal about it. This is going to sound like an excuse but I'll say it anyway - my private nature means I keep to myself a lot; I’m not comfortable speaking openly or publicly about most things. I guess that’s why I blog. I wonder sometimes if I’d made more of a noise about his drinking earlier, maybe it wouldn’t have gotten so bad. As hard as it is to admit, I facilitated his drinking.
Although I didn’t realise my co-dependency at the time, I inadvertently stopped it. By deciding to divorce, I was saying ‘no’ to the caretaking behaviour that was enabling his drinking.
If you’re now wondering if you may have co-dependent tendencies, have a look at this list and ask yourself if you identify with any of these traits. (Just to be clear, this list doesn’t cover every co-dependent characteristic):
- You have an overpowering need for approval
- You feel responsible for the actions of others
- You tend to take on and do more than your share in whatever situation or relationship you’re in
- You feel hurt when people don’t recognise or acknowledge your efforts
- You believe you have to be in a relationship
- You have a fear of being abandoned or ending up alone
- You tend to confuse ‘love’ and ‘pity’ by usually ‘falling in love’ with those you pity because it means you can ‘rescue’ them
- You have difficulty making decisions
- You find it difficult to trust others and even to trust yourself
- You tend to suffer chronic outbursts of anger
If you think you might be co-dependent, don’t be hard on yourself. As with anything, to change it, first identify it then understand it. As you learn more about it and gain greater understanding, you’ll be better equipped to cope with it. If you’re in a relationship, it also takes courage to change the dynamic or to end it. You may think you lack that courage. But take time to look deep inside yourself – you’ll be surprised what you’ll find. And you don’t have to do it alone – there are those out there willing to help; you just need to ask.
“It’s not selfish to love yourself, take care of yourself, and to make your happiness a priority. It’s necessary.” ~ Unknown
(If you want to talk about it – this or anything that’s weighing you down – drop me a line; I’m a great listener)