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The concept of co-dependency was developed about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics.  However codependency has now expanded into a definition which describes a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving that developed during childhood. Co-dependent behavior is learned by watching and imitating other family members who display this type of behavior and learned from family rules and family routines.

Understanding Co-Dependency

The National Mental Health Association states that co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.

Codependence can be seen as a set of maladaptive, compulsive behaviors learned by a person in order to survive in a family which is experiencing great emotional pain and stress caused, for example, by a family member's alcoholism or other addiction, sexual or other abuse within the family, or a family members' chronic illness.

Codependent people have a greater tendency to enter into relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable or needy. The codependent tries to control a relationship without directly identifying and addressing his or her own needs and desires. This invariably means that codependent's set themselves up for continued lack of fulfillment. Codependent's always feel that they are acting in another person's best interest, making it difficult for them to see the controlling nature of their own behavior.

They have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the care taking becomes compulsive and defeating. Co-dependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need. A wife may cover for her alcoholic husband; a mother may make excuses for a truant child; or a father may “pull some strings” to keep his child from suffering the consequences of delinquent behavior.

The problem is that these repeated rescue attempts allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy care taking of the “benefactor.” As this reliance increases, the co-dependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed.” When the care taking becomes compulsive, the co-dependent feels choiceless and helpless in the relationship, but is unable to break away from the cycle of behavior that causes it. Co-dependents view themselves as victims and are attracted to that same weakness in the love and friendship relationships.

Even when a codependent person encounters someone with healthy boundaries, the codependent person still operates in their own system; they’re not likely to get too involved with people who have healthy boundaries. This of course creates problems that continue to recycle; if codependent people can’t get involved with people who have healthy behaviors and coping skills, then the problems continue into each new relationship.

Codependency advocates claim that a codependent may feel shame about, or try to change, his or her most private thoughts and feelings if they conflict with those of another person. An example would be a wife making excuses for her husband's excessive drinking and perhaps running interference for him by calling in sick for him when he is hung over. Such behaviors, which may well lessen conflict and ease tension within the family in the short term, are counterproductive in the long term, since, in this case, the wife is actually supporting ("enabling") the husband's drinking behavior. So, sometimes, the codependent is referred to as an "enabler." It is also worth noting that since the wife in this case is dependent on the husband's alcoholic behavior, she may actually feel disturbed, disoriented or threatened if she sees clearly that he is emerging from his dependence; the threat to her position as a confidant and needed loved one might lead her unconsciously to resist the husband's steps towards recovery. Similarly, a codependent parent might resist his or her child's steps toward independence.

Characteristics and Symptoms of Co-Dependency

Co-dependency appears to run in different degrees. Please note that only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis of co-dependency.  The following are some of the characteristics or symptoms of co-dependency:

controlling behavior
distrust in self and/or others
perfectionism, rigidity, and difficulty adjusting to change
avoidance of, and difficulty identifying, feelings
intimacy and boundary problems
care taking behavior often with an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
hyper vigilance (a heightened awareness for potential threat/danger)
physical illness related to stress
extreme need for approval and recognition
fear of being abandoned or alone
tendency to do more than their share and to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts

Codependence is often accompanied by depression, and anxiety as the codependent person succumbs to feelings of frustration or sadness over his or her inability to improve the situation.

Treatment for Co-Dependency

By way of introduction to treatment, it should be recognized that not all mental health professionals agree about co-dependence or its standard methods of treatment. It is not listed in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic manual.  Many professionals believe that codependence is over-diagnosed and that many people who could be helped with shorter-term treatments instead become dependent on long-term self-help programs.  Also worth noting is the belief by some that codependency doesn't need to be treated, as it is simply a personality trait.

Regardless, if you identify with the problems of co-dependency as discussed above and are dissatisfied with yourself or your relationships, you should consider seeking professional help with a licensed or psychologist or other mental health professional experienced in treating co-dependency. 

When I work with my clients, the first step is to help them understand how they are really behaving and thinking and then help them to change unhealthy behavior and thought patterns.  Any care-taking behavior that is negative is brought to light and then changed. Treatment approaches typically include typical psychotherapy, cognitive restructuring, reality therapy and behavioral therapies.  Listening, assertiveness and communication skills are frequently a part of the therapeutic plan. Therapy and coaching can help you to become more aware of non-helpful thoughts and behaviors and help you to develop new coping skills and new ways of relating to others.

The first step in changing unhealthy behavior is understanding it. It is important for co-dependents and their family members to educate themselves about the course and cycle of addiction and how it extends into their relationships. A lot of change and growth is necessary for the co-dependent and his or her family. Any care taking behavior that allows or enables abuse to continue in the family needs to be recognized and stopped. The co-dependent must identify and embrace his or her feelings and needs. This may include learning to say “no,” to be loving yet tough, and learning to be self-reliant. People find freedom, love, and serenity in their recovery.

In the case of codependency, counseling may only be effective if the counselor is aware of their own tendency towards codependence, or if the counselor has some understanding about the many addictive aspects of our society. Counselors, in the case of codependency, need to present good boundary setting and healthy living themselves. If a counselor develops a working relationship with a client that has codependent qualities, again, the pattern is repeated, and therapy may not be as helpful. The website www.allaboutcounseling.com cites that 50-80% of counselors have not addressed their own codependency issues and emphasizes that a person must be careful in choosing a counselor for this kind of support. 

In addition to individual type therapies, there exist support groups for codependency; some of these are Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) and Al-Anon/Alateen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), which are based on the 12-Step model of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Additional Information

For more information about co-dependency, relationship, couples, family and/or intimacy problems, please click on the linked websites listed below.

  Co-dependents Anonymous

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If you really want help dealing with your feelings and emotions, changing your behavior, and improving your life and the approach and office hours of typical therapists and counselors do not fit your life style or personal needs, I may have a solution.

By using very flexible office appointments, telephone consultations, email, teleconferences, and the willingness to travel and meet with you personally in your home, office, or other location,  I can be available to help you anytime and anywhere.

Feel free to contact me now for your free initial consultation. Once you become an existing client, you will be given a  pager  number where you can reach me whenever you need.

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