Most people seem to think that co-dependent relationships are rare. In fact, they are very common. And they tend not to be so dramatic as people expect. Indeed, those trapped in one usually don’t even realise it!
The Co-Dependent Relationship
A co-dependent relationship is an unhealthy relationship, one founded not on authentic love but, as the name suggests, on fear and dependence. One partner is usually enabling the other to live in an unhelpful way. This may range from laziness and immaturity to extreme, self-destructive behavior. Addicts, for example, often form co-dependent relationships. Alcoholics will build relationships around drinking, with each depending on the other to validate their habit. Imagine a man who loves his wife deeply. She is gentle, kind and loving; one day he leaves her for somebody obnoxious, coarse and unpleasant. His friends and family are baffled. But the man is a secret alcoholic. His wife disliked his drinking and did all she could to discourage him. Because he loved and respected her, this made him feel ashamed and guilty. His new partner, however, is also a heavy drinker and does not disapprove. In other words, he depends on her to make him feel normal and OK, when in reality he is drinking himself to death.
Gamblers and drug addicts also form these sorts of relationships, each relying on the other to validate their lifestyle. More often, one person helps to support the other’s dysfunctional behavior, mindset, or even physical illness. Imagine a 58-year-old woman named Sue. Sue’s husband left her two years ago, and she is alone for the first time. This frightens her. But she has a 26-year-old daughter named Jo who still lives at home. Jo comfort eats. Unfortunately, this has led to obesity, and thus to even worse self-esteem. Six months ago some local teenagers made fun of Jo’s weight as she stood at the bus stop. Since then she has refused to leave the house, and her weight has ballooned. Jo needs someone to tell her the truth: that her overeating is damaging her health and that it is a bad way to deal with her self-esteem issues. She needs to address this poor self-esteem via therapy. She also needs to go on a diet. Once she does these things, her weight will drop off, she will have more energy, and she will feel more confident. Right now, she is stuck in a vicious circle. But Sue does not criticise her. Instead, she brings home pizza and cakes and dissuades Jo from leaving the house because, as she puts it, “I can’t bear to see you hurt again”. The truth is that Sue fears her daughter losing weight, gaining confidence, getting a job and leaving home. Jo, on the other hand, likes sitting around watching day time TV and eating – it is a safe, easy life. Going to therapy would be demanding, scary and embarrassing. So they settle into a co-dependent relationship. Now Sue has company on those dark, winter evenings and Jo has an excuse for continuing her easy, comfortable life.
While not all dysfunctional relationships are co-dependent, most co-dependent relationships are dysfunctional. A healthy relationship is based on love and intimacy between self-reliant equals. In a romantic relationship, for example, the co-dependent couple are not together because they value and love the other person but because the other person gives them something they need.
In most co-dependent relationships someone takes on the role of helper. But such people often have problems of their own. For example, a man may look for a girlfriend with poor self-esteem. He does this because his first wife was unfaithful. Her infidelity hurt him, and he lives in fear of being hurt again. By finding someone who is desperate, lonely and frightened he can play the rescuer. More importantly, her need for his love and reassurance, and above all her gratitude for these things, gives him a sense of security and safety. “She will never leave me”, he thinks, “she needs me too much.” Helpers often yearn to be needed as it boosts their self-esteem.
Not all helpers have an ulterior motive, however. Some become helpers because it is easier, others do so without even realizing it. Even children can become helpers. The child of divorced parents may find herself enabling one parent to wallow in self-pity and dependence. This is often the case when a woman leaves an ageing man. The man frequently regresses to the state of a whining, dependent child and expects his grown-up daughter to take on the role of wife and mother.
In a co-dependent relationship, one person usually depends on the other. But this dependence tends to encourage dysfunctional behavior, thus making them even more dependent – as was the case with Sue and Jo. And of course, it reinforces the idea that they really are a victim in need of help. Imagine a woman who gets bullied and harassed at work. Each night she comes home and tells her husband all the nasty, spiteful things her work colleague has said to her. He listens, hugs her and tells her that she is brave for putting up with it – and each day she endures a fresh round of bullying. Instead of telling her to stand up for herself and fight back, he has encouraged her to think of herself as a brave martyr. This mixture of passivity and superiority then irritates the bullies and provokes them even more.
Signs That You’re in a Co-Dependent Relationship
Of course, many people find themselves trapped in co-dependent relationships without even realising it. When they finally do, they often feel angry with themselves for not having recognised this earlier. But co-dependent relationships can be subtle – especially when you are in one. If you are in a co-dependent relationship, whether as victim or helper, you may have experienced the following:
1) A wish to be saved. Before you met your partner, did you feel empty and incomplete – as if you needed someone to rescue you with their love, neediness or validation? In other words, did you feel that you would never survive on your own?
2) A wish to save someone else. Perhaps you felt the opposite – that you wanted to ride to someone’s rescue. Men often look for a damsel in distress; and many women play up to this. Women, on the other hand, sometimes look for a man who has been hurt.
3) Anger when the other person acts out of character. Those trapped in a co-dependent relationship usually like to cast their partner in a particular role. When he or she steps outside of this role, it tends to provoke fear and anger. So, for example, a man who wants his wife to be depressed and lonely, because it makes him feel secure, will feel threatened if she loves her new job and seems to be gaining confidence.
4) A sense that your happiness depends on someone else. A cliché it may be, but happiness comes from within. The healthiest relationships involve strong, self-reliant individuals who both know that they could cope and be happy without the other. That does not mean they do not love each other, neither does it mean they would be unaffected should things end. But they know they would survive.
Co-dependent relationships are very common. It could even be said that most relationships have some element of co-dependence. Recognising this fact is the first step to changing things.