There was a time when "codependence" wasn't a word.
But years ago, when spouses of alcoholics began meeting together for support and understanding, the term was created to explain the dynamic between an alcoholic and their partner, who was spending a lot of time making things work and "enabling" the alcoholic – while believing that they were doing the right thing by keeping the impact of the alcoholic's behavior a secret. For example, they'd lie about the real reason their partner was late to work, or they couldn't make it to a party.
Melodie Beattie, the author of Codependent No More, explained that one common denominator in recognizing this "codependence" was having a relationship with someone troubled, needy, or dependent. But a second, more common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules that were consciously and unconsciously followed.
As these spouses began to recognize that they were living out these same unspoken rules, lightbulbs went on. "Hey, wait a minute. What we all thought was our own private answer to the very painful problem of a partner's alcoholism actually enables the alcoholic to stay immersed in their illness." And Al-Anon was born.
Codependence as Relationship Addiction
Yet the meaning of the term "codependent" has broadened widely since its inception.
Now, codependence has been described as "relationship addiction." This means losing yourself in the relationship, including such an intense fear of it ending that you'll sacrifice yourself to keep it intact.
Instead of your partner enhancing the life you've created for yourself, you feel as if you couldn't live without them. Sure, we all get heady with first love, and you feel as if you can't breathe if you don't get to see them soon. I'm not talking about that stage of falling in love. Most people move out of that and into every day, pull-your-boots-on-and-live-life kind of love.
Codependence keeps that normalcy from happening.
Is there any kind of healthy "dependence?"
So, is any kind of relationship dependence a bad thing? Certainly, you'll hear statements by relationship gurus such as, "No one can make you happy but yourself." Or, "I don't need anyone else to be complete."
While there is some truth to these statements, they're not what makes relationships or intimacy work. That's the product of healthy interdependence.
So, what is that?
It's when you value and work hard at being in a relationship while not losing your identity as an individual. You can be a "we" while also being an "I."
5 Means to Create Healthy Interdependence
Here are five ways to help make healthy interdependence happen in your relationship.
- You each claim or own your value – your individual competencies both in and out of the relationship. You know and can express what you bring to the relationship that's positive.
- You each have a voice, which you use to negotiate and compromise. You sometimes lead. You sometimes follow. But you take a stance.
- You each create boundaries that are reasonable and respected. Those boundaries aren't manipulative or controlling but healthy and create trust.
- You each take responsibility for your vulnerabilities and their impact on you and the relationship. "I'm sorry" is appreciated after you cause some kind of damage. But not if it's not followed up by attempts at change. Realizing that your mistakes, insecurity, or struggles influence your partner and your family — and then doing something about them — is key to growing healthy together.
- You each desire to grow into emotional vulnerability with one another. That can look like play. It can look like sexual exploration. It can look like tenderness.
Can I Remain in Emotional Control and Enjoy Interdependence?
Healthy interdependence would be almost impossible to build if you need to appear like you've got everything under control or if you identify with perfectly hidden depression because your camouflage won't allow you to reveal vulnerability.
You may be hiding so well that no one can find you, not even a loving partner.
And that's why a perfect-seeming life, haunted by unexpressed emotional pain, is so terribly lonely. The trust of healthy interdependence cannot occur.
Unless you risk, and you can decide to do just that. You can risk allowing the camouflage to drop a little at a time.