When people (including therapists) think of codependence, they often think “woman.” But despite this stereotype, most studies find small or no differences between men and women on codependence measures. Some studies even find that men score higher on codependence than women.
When you think about it, perhaps it’s unsurprising there aren’t large gender differences in dysfunctional helping and giving. After all, anybody can be set up for codependent relationships by absent, difficult, abusive, or neglectful parents. And individuals of any gender can be other-centered, empathic people whose giving nature is exploited by "takers." But I think for some of us, gender is a piece of our personal codependence and enabling puzzle. In our quest to be good women or good men, we go a bit overboard in enacting the parts of our gender role that prescribe helping and giving. Among the outcomes of too strictly conforming to those parts of our gender role: imbalanced relationships, enabling others' poor functioning, rescuing people that would be better served by bearing their own consequences, and exceeding our energetic and material resources.
In regards to women, unhealthy helping and giving can arise from behaviors and traits that are culturally approved and encouraged for women. Females are expected to put others first and to be nice and considerate. Traditional feminine roles such as wife, mother, daughter (and daughter-in-law), direct women to take care of other people, make other people’s lives easier by doing things for them, and to care for those that are dependent (providing what is called care labor). Caring for others, and accommodating others, in and outside of the home, is often designated as women’s work and selfless service to others is sold to many of us as a defining feature of the good woman. The bottom line: The way some women understand and identify with their gender and culture promotes unhealthy self-sacrifice and martyrdom for others. They go overboard when it comes to enacting cultural values that emphasize taking care of others. They have trouble telling the difference between excessive caretaking and normal nurturing. They aren’t emotionally or psychologically sick for following this cultural prescription, they’re just trying to be good women in societies where women are expected to subordinate their needs to others.
Like women, men’s codependent behaviors and traits sometimes arise from culturally approved and encouraged gender stereotypes, norms, and roles. When internalized by men, the heroic, chivalrous “man-as-protector and rescuer” role (an archetype found in many stories, toys, and media marketed to boys and men) and the “man as provider” role, gets some men in helping and giving trouble. These masculine roles can draw men into relationships with perpetually needy people that use them, and make men too quick to rescue people that don't need rescuing or whom could benefit from bearing the consequences of their own actions.
Of course it’s not bad to take care of others or to rescue those in trouble. These are things that people do to show love and caring and they make the world a more loving and caring place. Heroic rescuing can reduce suffering and save lives. But sometimes it’s wise to consider whether the gender script you follow causes you to enable others, drives you to unnecessarily exhaust your emotional, physical, or financial resources, or leads you into imbalanced relationships with people that use you to escape responsibility or work. Being a good woman or a good man should not require these kinds of sacrifice. You might also consider whether your actions really promote others’ welfare or enable them, whether your self-sacrifice is sustainable, and how you can better balance taking care of yourself while taking care of others.
For more on understanding and overcoming unhealthy helping and giving see my Unhealthy Helping book and my blogs on related topics:
Burn, S.M. (2016). Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving. Amazon: Create Space.
Chang, S-H (2012). A cultural perspective on codependency and its treatment. Asia Pacific Journal of Counseling and Psychotherapy, 3, 50-60.
Cowan, G., & Warren, L.W. (1994). Codependency and gender-stereotyped traits. Sex Roles, 30, 631-645.
Dear, G.E., & Roberts, C.M. (2002). The relationships between codependency and femininity and masculinity. Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, 46, 159-165.
Graziano, W. M.Habashi, B. Sheese, & Tobin, R. (2007). Agreeableness, empathy, and helping: A person × situation perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 583-600.
Noriega, G., Ramos, L., Medina-Mora, M.E. and Villa, A. R. (2008). Prevalence of codependence in young women seeking primary health care and associated risk factors. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 78, 199-209.