Codependency has typically been associated or understood to be a dynamic that occurs with individuals that are addicted to substances and their partners or spouses. Today the phenomenon we call codependency can be associated with those that are in fact not using substances of any kind. Mothers and children, husbands and wives, friends and associates can be codependent with one another. This article will focus and explain the nature of emotional codependency and the complexities that it introduces into relationships.
Most relationships involve connection to one degree or another which creates some nature of dependency on one another. This is not unhealthy but codependency is something that is cyclic and serves to injure and keep individuals in these relationships from becoming able to function emotionally in an interdependent way. At times, individuals can in fact subjugate or compromise their own feelings and values to accommodate another. Often this accommodation is an attempt to stabilize the relationship and keep things ‘calm’ so as to not be ‘out of bounds’ and keep the relationship codependent. Codependents often worry about what the other thinks or how the other will react to their thinking or behavior. Often emotionally codependent people perceive that the other person they are dependent on, their child or their spouse, is an extension of themselves thus they attempt to calibrate and more selectively say or do what is ‘ok’. Codependency does not foster love and interdependency but instead creates neediness and a bond that stifles growth and ultimately happiness and joy.
In an attempt to help their child, parents often end up creating a codependency that damages the child. Often the parent is blind to it; the parent becomes blinded by their motives reporting they are ‘just trying to help’ their son or daughter.
Take for example a past client I had we will call Mary. She came to see me for counseling regarding her son we’ll call Jeff. Mary was a model parent. She was involved in her son’s activities, often complimented him for his accomplishments, and was very supportive of his talents and hobbies. The difficulty with Mary was that she was often trying so hard to help her son ‘be ok’ and ‘feel ok’ that she entered into a codependent relationship. She often would feel his pain and feel his reality rather than staying clear and helping him enter in and solve his own issues and enjoy his own growth. For example, one morning Jeff would not get up for school. He had average grades and was not feeling like going. Jeff had bouts of resistance at times when he didn’t want to do things. Often Mary and her husband would give in and accommodate him as Mary felt sometimes he needed a break. This accommodation came in many ways but ended up creating a sense of entitlement with her son. He felt that when he was resistant he could in fact avoid the work or task and that in some way his emotionally codependent mother would compensate. Mary began over the years to spoil (unintentionally, she felt she was ‘helping’ him) and accommodate him which indirectly but clearly indicated to Jeff that he could in fact resist and get his mother to change the rules and/or that mom would makes things ok. So, back to the story, Jeff was now in bed, his room locked and his mother inquiring firmly but kindly through the door that he will be late for school and that he needed to get up and get dressed. Jeff was 15 with average grades. He usually made it to school and was your typical teen. Fifteen minutes later Mary went down stairs to find him still in his room. She now with some edge in her tone told him to get up. He did so, barreling out the door down the hall to the bathroom, not in anger but in haste. Feeling that he made it to the bathroom and would shortly be showering she felt accomplished and that he’d be ready soon and she went back upstairs. Well, to Mary’s disappointment she came down and found Jeff still in the shower 20 minutes later, with the bus coming in five minutes! Jeff ended up missing the bus and she ended up driving him to school and ‘accommodating’ him with a note at school for his tardiness. When I spoke to Mary about this I said, “So Mary, what kept you from allowing him to sleep in and miss school altogether?” She replied that she knew he’d be late and that he needed ‘help’. The problem here is that Mary often owned the anxiety and issue that Jeff needed to own. She bore his issue and ended up disabling the outcome of him missing school, a core element in his own growth that he missed as she was compensating. As his mother she felt she ‘needed’ to own it. That she was responsible for making sure he was on time. In doing so, she made it her task of waking him up, and then driving to school then covering for him as to his being late with a parent note. Now, while this may not seem on the surface to be a issue, it in fact was one story of a long sage of problematic incidents. The more I worked with Mary and Jeff I found that she often felt she needed to rescue and make things ok for him. He also reported privately with me that he always knew that his mother would make things ok so his irresponsibility grew out of that dynamic. His mother was also equally as needy and dependent on her son, as her keeping him on track influenced her to feel like she was a ‘good’ mother.
Emotional codependence also is very clear with couples I work with in therapy. They often escalate with one another. When one is hurt the other escalates attempting to defend their ego or position and cannot objectively look within and locate the empathy and willingness to stay clear about what may have happened. Couples that are emotionally codependent often have one member that is not assertive and is more passive. The other partner in the relationship may be more dominant and asserts their will or ideas more frequently. This dynamic can and often is very unhealthy as they fit in a complimentary way but really are not interdependent on each other but become codependent and stuck emotionally in unhealthy cycles. These cycles may not be apparent to their view but from outside observation can easily been seen by others. Now, are emotionally codependent couples happy? Yes, many of them think they are happy yet they often get into quarrels and juvenile ways of speaking to each other. Close and loving is very different from codependent. Close and loving behavior and feeling looks like mutual respect, support, space and concern for the other. Codependency often is bound to the other and is not grounded in love and support but loyalty, caution, escalation with emotion, etc.
In the animal world codependency is referred to as a symbiotic relationship. The sea anemone and clownfish operate in a codependent way. They are connected but they are not autonomous as they cannot function without one another. The fish helps the anemone by eating the algae and protecting it from predators. The anemone benefits by eating meals the clownfish attracts. Parents and children develop similar patterns that keep them each stuck in a rut of enmeshment and unhealthy dependence. Parent-child relationships that function in this manner will misguide the normal teen development and atrophy existing parent maturity. The paradox is simple: what starts out of good intentions of nurturing can become codependency and hamper parent and child growth but is hard to detect and work through since it began so innocently. When codependency becomes the norm, a tsunami of symptoms such as: entitlement, selfishness, defiance, and overt reactivity also accompany what parents thought was helping. Parenting that started as a solution, such as helping a stumbling toddler, can become codependency during adolescent rearing that arrests the teen’s being able to make healthy choices. Parents that operate within this paradigm often make decisions based on the nature of the codependency and not what would ultimately help the teen grown and mature. For adolescents to unfold in healthy ways, parents need to allow the child to individuate from the family in order to find who they are and contribute their individuality to the family as a whole. Parents can break out of codependency when they, along with their teen, work to better understand themselves as individuals. Learning to understand oneself through therapy and/or life-coaching and the nature of the patterns at home will allow each individual to find open waters without losing the consistent current of familial love.
Many parents that become codependent with their child end up becoming confused thinking they are in fact helping their child and really are meeting their own needs. Parental neediness often is not seen by the parent and serves to complicate the process.
So, what can you do if you find as a parent your entangled with your child or teen to become less enmeshed and emotionally codependent?
A few ideas …
Get educated. Reading about codependency in relationships can be helpful in sorting out what it is and how to change it. I recommend the book, Codependent No More by Melody Beattie and Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes from, How It Sabotages Our Lives by Pia Mellody.
Manage Boundaries. Managing and seeing where you end and others begin can assist you in guiding not helping, enabling, and entitling the child you are codependent with.
Letting go. Remember that growth occurs from letting go of being attached and overly close. Allowing your child to make mistakes (or your spouse) and own their own anxiety or outcomes is the key. Let your child control and make decisions, barring unsafe ones of course.
Ownership. Don’t own things that are now yours. Owning ideas, behaviors, outcomes, and words for your child is damaging. Instead, allow others the space to say and think on their own while also allowing them to bear the outcome of their thoughts and behaviors.
Professional help. Schedule a session to meet with me. The quickest way to sort through and come to objective conclusions and see through the dynamics can occur in counseling.
Copyright: No part of this article in section or full may be reproduced without permission from the author Justin Stum, MS LMFT. The one and only exception is for educational purposes and only if the contact information below for the author is fully cited here in article. Justin Stum, MS LMFT, 640 E 700 S, Suite 103, St. George Utah 84770, 435-574-9193 https://www.justinstum.com