Destigmatizing Codependency

Codependency is a pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behavior and on approval seeking, in an attempt to gain safety, identity, and self-worth.  Codependency is a condition or state of being, that results from adapting to dysfunction (possibly addiction) in a significant other. It is a learned response to stress which, over a person’s lifetime, can worsen.

Perceptions of the term codependency have been that it was caused by association with someone who was an addict or abusive. It has been seen as an abnormal, dysfunctional response to a stressful situation. Identifying with the label had a negative connotation implying that there was something wrong with you if you were codependent. Codependent individuals are sometimes called controlling, compulsive caretakers, people-pleasers, and enablers. They were described as being incapable of minding their own business. Loving too much was seen as a bad thing that may even cause addiction and mental illness to worsen.

The spouse or partner of an addict that denies or minimizes the problem, are often trying to keep their relationship from imploding. They hope that love and commitment will heal what is wrong. When addicts are in their addiction, they are not immune to the problems other family members are experiencing.  They too are trying to preserve loving attachments while at the same time facing guilt and shame. The diagnosis of codependency appeared to exclude the addict and instead of viewing them as a member of the family, would blame him or her for making everyone around them sick. An addict does not intentionally harm their family and deserves the same respect and compassion as any member of the family. They need help to rebuild loving relationships, not only to maintain sobriety.

When a family is dealing with ongoing problems of any kind, negative stress increases and they begin to live in a survival mode. They develop patterns that are an attempt to decrease anxiety and increase attachment. Although they may appear to be dysfunctional, these patterns of attachment are meant to protect the emotional well-being of each person and the family unit.  Of course, if continued for too long, they become a painful way of living.

If family stress continues, these patterns, especially in children, will be overused out of necessity and may become a permanent way of coping with attachment anxiety in adult life. Those who use withdrawal to cope will have trouble handling intimacy or conflict and may have superficial relationships.  Those who are prone to caretaking may see everyone as a problem and spend their lives trying to fix what is wrong in hopes of someday feeling ok and safe.

Recovery from the anxiety of broken relationships is multi-faceted. At times it is an individual experience of getting to know oneself, acknowledging that the desperate actions we took in the past may have been all wrong. At the same time, we may also notice that when we are not taking care of ourselves, we resort to those actions again and again.

Many individuals, couples, and families find needed solutions by adding professional counseling to their recovery plan. With a skilled counselor, you may be able to shorten the process and lessen the pain. Since guilt, shame, and fear are a major part of the pain we feel during a relationship crisis, we need to be conscious of the impact of the words we speak to others and to ourselves. When we realize that love is behind much of the behavior that looks irrational or crazy, we begin to have compassion and love for ourselves and those we care about.

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