Co-dependency, in brief, refers to a maladaptive pattern of emotional and behavioral qualities that impact and individual’s ability to enjoy healthy relationships.  It is where one person subordinates their own needs to attend to the needs of others so the other person can continue to engage in their addiction, behave irresponsibly, or flounder.

Originally coined to refer to individuals in a relationship with an addict or alcoholic, co-dependency traits can be found in those who care for partners, dependent individuals, friends, or loved ones (e.g. chronic mental or physical illness or the elderly).  Applied to addictions, it is a behavior that enables the addict to continue to fly under the radar of detection and using.  

Common Characteristics of Co-dependency

1. Low Self-esteem

The inability to change a person or situation can be self-defeating. It’s like hitting your head against a wall.  Over time, individuals begin to feel inadequate.  Continued failure to rescue an individual from the ravages of substance use, mental illness, or any dependent behavior erodes self-esteem.  

2. People-pleasing

Co-dependents frequently surrender to the requests, pleas, or demands of their partners, dependents, or loved ones.  They avoid conflict. They go to extreme lengths to avoid making waves.  They fear being abandoned, so they concede to the needs of their partners, dependents, or loved ones.  Their countless attempts and failures to rescue an individual  with a substance use disorder increases guilt and shame for being inadequate to deter the substance user from continued use.  The substance user can be manipulative and convince the co-dependent that failure to meet their needs is the cause of their continued use.

3. Poor Boundaries

Boundaries are both physical and emotional.  They define the limits we set for physical space and safety as well as our separate emotional needs including our thoughts and perceptions. They differentiate between one person stops and another person starts.   

Poor boundaries can pose significant problems for the co-dependent person.  Loose or diffuse boundaries leave you more susceptible to manipulation. Conversely, co-dependents whose boundaries are like impenetrable walls, make it difficult to connect.  What’s worse is the fluctuation between loose and rigid boundaries which send mixed messages that create confusion and discord in relationships.

4. Reactivity

Those with healthy boundaries can hold separate positions without feeling threatened or dismissed.  Co-dependent individuals with more fluid boundaries are subject to emotional flooding from the substance user. They can unwittingly be gas lit into over-reacting to situations. Absent logic or rationale for the substance user’s behavior, the co-dependent responds in kind and either defend the substance user or become passionately defensive.  

5. Caretaking

Co-dependents expend an awful lot of energy trying to rescue or problem-solve for others. They put the needs of partners, dependent individuals, friends, or loved ones ahead of their own.  When their efforts fail, they try harder. In an effort to rescue the substance user from the consequences of their addiction or loved ones from the consequences of their behavior, they make excuses for the behavior. The co-dependent will search high and low for the easiest, most acceptable form of treatment to entice the person to get help. And, if they reject the help, the failure fuels the already low self-esteem of the co-dependent.

6. Control

 In a quest to create a sense of consistency and safety, co-dependents strive for control, sometimes to an extreme. They can be high strung and inflexible. Their caretaking, people-pleasing, and poor boundaries infringe on the boundaries of others. Those they seek to help may resist their efforts or even retaliate. Directing their focus and energy towards the care of others, they neglect the self-care needed to deal with their own sense of rejection. The attempt to control a situation lead to greater loss of control. 

7. Dependency

Everyone needs a certain amount of affirmation or validation to feel okay about themselves. When that well-being is solely conditioned upon whether or not the co-dependent is able to succeed at controlling partners, dependent individuals, friends, or loved ones, then they set themselves up for what they fear most – rejection and abandonment. They often cannot tolerate being alone themselves, so they take extreme measures to maintain their dysfunctional relationships. They are held hostage by their co-dependent need for approval.

8. Denial

While denial is an earmark symptom of addiction, individuals in a relationship with substance users or who are care providers for partners, dependent individuals, friends, or loved ones may struggle to accept their own issues with denial. They attribute all their troubles to their care-taking hurdles. Left unrecognized, the denial worsens. As the crisis grows, the more they focus on solving the problem rather than admitting their vulnerability and addressing their own needs.

9. Problems with Intimacy

So many of the traits of the co-dependent person are in place to avoid rejection and abandonment. As mentioned, low self-esteem, people-pleasing and poor boundaries make matters worse. They have little defense against criticism and shaming. Intimacy or close familiar relationships generates fear in co-dependent individuals. They hide their shortcomings behind dysfunctional behaviors (e.g. work, substance use, shopping). On the other hand, they may fear being suffocated by the needs of another to attach to them in a relationship and seek autonomy instead.
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