Co-dependency in relationships - what is it?

Co-dependency is a type of relationship in which both people are mutually dependent on fulfilling a particular role in relation to each other. Often that role serves the self-interests of one person at the expense of the other – but is presented as an act of caring and devotion. This means that one person relies on a loved one to find approval and validate their self-worth, while the other enjoys the influence of being needed. The strength of the bond relies on a mutual belief that each person was predestined to meet and fall in love, while in reality it is characterised by a need to manoeuvre one person into fulfilling the self-needs of the other. It may feel like unconditional love, but it is in fact predicated on a desperate sense of helplessness. These are some of the features of co-dependency:

You 'can’t live without them’

This may sound like a passionate, romantic declaration. Idealising a loved one to this extent seems like devotion or demonstrate desperation and a fear of abandonment. Not allowing yourself to be an individual, can lead to feelings of being smothered or trapped. Living in each other’s pockets means you lack emotional boundaries and become entangled in each other’s affairs. Psychologically, there is little room to breathe and ‘emotional dumping’ becomes a substitute for sharing.

The more you push for closeness, the more overbearing it feels. Too much closeness creates dependency and learned helplessness as you expect others to solve your problems. Living on top of each other without any room to breathe means that you take each other for granted, making unreasonable demands and learning to resent each other. Real intimacy, however, thrives when each individual learns to develop and grow outside of the relationship. Striking a balance between being an individual, as well as emotional closeness. Separateness offers each individual the space and time for personal fulfilment and independence, so that they can mature and grow in confidence. It allows us to cultivate our own interests and pursuits, which reinvigorate us as individuals and bring new qualities to the relationship. When we spend time apart we begin to miss each other and rekindle our desire.

The drama triangle

              Rescuer 

Victim                      Persecutor

The drama triangle above is a psychological game played out by couples compulsively, repetitively and unconsciously. It is where one person takes the role of a victim and invites the other person to rescue them, using their vulnerability as a way of receiving care, reassurance and security. This lures the rescuer in who feels good about himself because he feels needed and idealised by the ‘victim’. Both individuals feed off this mutual dependency in order to feel loved and validated, but after a while it becomes so entrenched no one is willing to break the cycle.

One person starts to feel controlled and smothered by the other, because they are not allowed to step outside of the implicit roles they set up together. This is often when the rescuer falls foul of the victim’s anger and disappointment – either because he cannot live up to expectations or because he is perceived as controlling. This is when the rescuer turns persecutor, keeping back the victim from growth and independence. Finally, the persecutor feels demonised by the person he was attempting to rescue. This is when the persecutor turns victim and to compensate the victim turns rescuer – in order to save the feelings of the persecutor and keep him from abandoning her. And so the cycle continues.

My soul mate

This turn of phrase is used to describe someone you feel is your perfect match and lives up to all your ideals. Someone you identify with, who shares the same qualities as you. Often, however, a soul mate becomes someone you over-identify with, while lacking boundaries. At first it feels like your soul mate is the only person in the world who can understand you or take care of your needs. But it isn’t healthy and quickly becomes restrictive for both people. In order for anyone to remain on a pedestal they must not display feelings or behaviours that step outside of that elevated position. They also need to be constantly validated by the person who idealises them – almost on demand. The soul mate believes they cannot surrender the role of perfect partner lest the other person is disillusioned. And woe betides anyone who breaks the spell, because they can easily become a big disappointment.

Lack of boundaries

When we lack boundaries in relationships it is because we find it impossible to believe that others do not think and feel like us. We are often in the habit of sharing all our emotions at once (even the intense, overwhelming feelings) without inhibition. This means we dump our emotions on our partners or even act out. We do not take time to process or take ownership over them, assuming that the other person will do that for us. We need to be constantly reassured or end up projecting our negative feelings onto our loved ones, while disowning them in ourselves. It also means we get caught up in other people’s dramas and entangled in the other person’s problems. We might even end up taking a parental role and rescuing a partner from a succession of catastrophes until we realise they don’t belong to us.

Control in the name of love

When we need to control someone else, it is fear not love. We may fear our partners cannot live up to our ideals or are about to abandon us, so we seek to control and manipulate them. But we often justify this as if it were an act of love. Jealousy is a good example of this. When we’re possessive of someone, it is not because we love them and appreciate them as a free individual, it is because we want them to comply with our will and become our possession. We may offer love and support in return, but really we’re trying to make the other person dependent on us. In order for you to feel loved and validated, you create the expectation: they must be who you need them to be. This is conditional love (because it comes with demands) which doesn't allow the other person to be who they really are. Instead, your happiness is dependent on them complying with how you want them to be.

Fixed roles

Couples often find themselves falling into fixed patterns of interacting and rigid roles that they cannot get out of. Perhaps they feel there is an implicit agreement to behave in a particular way or carry out certain duties. At first each person plays to their strengths and seems to complement each other, but very soon the roles become restrictive and unbearable. The couple begin to compete for status and validation, or refuse to learn new roles for fear of losing control. An example of this are arguments around how couples divide up the responsibilities for up paid employment, housework, childcare and finances.

Playing the caregiver

In many relationships, couples rely on each other to play a caregiver. A healthy relationship is between two adults of equal standing, not one parent and one child. When we are mothering or taking care of someone who is not caring for themselves, it is frustrating and disempowering for both people. As we mature and learn to take care of our own needs, we become independent and confident. When someone else begins doing it for us all we learn to feel helpless. It is much healthier for both people when we do what we need for ourselves and other people only look after our needs when we are vulnerable, or least expect it. This is a matter of choice, not demand.

Safety at all costs

Often couples who are afraid of confrontation and anger will do anything to avoid it, withholding their emotions for fear of burdening the other, continually pleasing behaviours and rarely expressing anger. This often leads to pent up emotion or unfinished business. Arguments rarely get resolved and are swept under the carpet in order to keep the peace. This leaves intense emotions simmering away and threatening to explode. Both people feel they are stepping on eggshells, but not being true to themselves or fearing they will alienate their partner.

Prove it to me

Co-dependent couples are often in the habit of demanding the other person prove how much they love them – which usually comes with conditions and demands. These proofs may be demanded aggressively or through emotional blackmail and manipulation. The proofs asked for might be in the form of grand gestures like expensive gifts or personal sacrifice that seem to demonstrate to the recipient how much their partner loves them. If this is a repetitive cycle it is because one person is manipulating the situation, while the other person allows themselves to be persuaded, used or abused. In some ways they are complicit.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, Enduring Mind. I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they live in. Please visit my website for resources on counselling, self-help tools and resources.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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