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Codependent or Simply Dependent: What’s the Big Difference?

The psychological concept of codependence abounds with paradox.

Being codependent is hardly the same thing as simply being dependent. And in some ways, it’s crucial that these two types of dependency be recognized as distinct (as too often hasn’t been the case). Not that codependent individuals aren’t dependent on others. But, paradoxically, they’re primarily dependent on the other person’s dependence on them. So what’s the peculiar dynamic operating in such relationships? For—as this post will illustrate—it’s not very healthy for either party.

It’s also important to distinguish codependent relationships from interdependent ones. For as defined psychologically, codependence is clearly maladaptive and dysfunctional. It may have a certain mutuality to it, but it’s negatively symbiotic in a way interdependency is not. Having dependency needs isn’t by itself unhealthy. We all have them. In an interdependent relationship, however, each party is able to comfortably rely on the other for help, understanding, and support. It’s a “value-added” kind of thing. The relationship contributes to both individuals’ resilience, resourcefulness, and inner strength. All the same, each party remains self-sufficient and self-determining. They maintain a clear identity apart from the relationship and are quite able to stand on their own two feet.

On the contrary, a codependent union is one where both parties are over-dependent on each other. It’s a relationship in which the two individuals lean so heavily on one another that both of them are left “off-balance.” In their desperately trying to get core dependency needs met, their true identities are distorted, and their development and potential—personally, socially, and professionally—is stifled. The relationship is reciprocal only in that it enables both of them to avoid confronting their worst fears and self-doubts. As opposed to healthy dependency (defined here as interdependence), the codependent individual in such a relationship needs to be needed if they’re to feel okay about themselves. They simply can’t feel this way unless they’re giving themselves up, or “sacrificing,” themselves, for their partner. Sadly, without being depended upon (sometimes, virtually as a lifeline), they feel alone, inadequate, insecure, and unworthy.

Let’s now delve deeper into the anxieties—and secret shame—of those who suffer from this malaise.

Generally, as children the codependent’s needy parents repeatedly gave them the message that their own wants and needs should be regarded as secondary to their caretakers’. To the extent that these children neglected their needs and focused on their parents’, they could feel valued. But to the degree that they allowed themselves to assert their own, quite legitimate, dependency needs, they were subject either to indirect punishment (say, the silent treatment) or direct (being verbally or physically attacked).

In so many words, they were told that they were selfish and should feel guilty about thinking only of themselves. And it should be noted here that in such families at least one of the parents was probably an addict, arrested in their development and (childishly) seeking to compensate for their own earlier deprivation through a “substitute” [read, abusive] dependency on their child. That is, they defined the child’s role in terms of serving them, not the reverse.

Most codependents, then, learned as children that to be “good enough” to be accepted by their parents they had to deny or repress many of their thoughts, feelings, and impulses. In attempting to secure their tenuous (and so anxiety-laden) parental bond, they were required to forget about what they really liked, wanted, and needed—even who they were. So it’s only to be expected that once grown up and endeavoring to live a life of their own, they’d be saddled with a deep, internalized “program” regularly reminding them that to be accepted by others they had to make their own needs—which at this point they may only dimly recognize—subordinate to others’. Early emotional survival programs, once adaptive but no longer appropriate, continue to control their thoughts and actions.

So, as adults, how might they be characterized?

  • Their self-esteem depends on the validation of others (i.e., they can’t self-validate or, independently, approve of themselves).
  • Their (fragile) sense of self-worth and well-being is extremely vulnerable, making them highly sensitive and reactive to others.
  • Their ability to assert their needs in a relationship (and, assuming they’re in a committed one, not just with their partner but with others as well) is highly constrained. And if they do assert them, they’re likely to feel guilty afterwards.
  • Their sense of responsibility centers more on the other person’s feelings, needs, wants, and desires than on their own. Consequently, others’ attitudes, actions, and reactions typically govern what they say and do.
  • Their basic ability to set boundaries with others—and possibly others' requests of, or demands on them—is highly restricted (as it was originally with their intrusive parents, who regularly “used” them to compensate for the nurturing they themselves never received from their caretakers).
  • Their behavior is largely dictated by an underlying fear of being alone, and so feeling abandoned, spurned, or rejected.
  • Their feelings are experienced as less their own than tied to another’s behavior.
  • Their sense of themselves in situations of discord is that they’re victims, unable to be heard, sympathized with, or understood.
  • Their (compulsive?) loyalty to others can go substantially beyond what’s warranted, and may end up hurting them.
  • Their personal values are second-guessed, sacrificed, or ignored when they conflict with another’s. To protect a relationship, they’re actually ready to forfeit their own integrity.

Yet codependents—and this is one of the most fascinating aspects of their character—may not, outwardly, look dependent. That is, they can disguise, even beyond recognition, their urgent reliance on others to confirm their fundamental worth. How? By saying and doing things that make them seem quite in command, even controlling. Having learned in childhood to please and placate their parents, most of them can be "managerial" with others, and in ways that convey a contrary message about themselves.

To hide from others—and, indeed, from themselves as well—that their lives really feel out of control, they can:

  • Become the person that others depend on, making them look stronger, mentally and emotionally, than they really are. In fact, it’s precisely because they believe they can’t, or shouldn’t, depend on others (again, consider their self-absorbed caretakers) that they link their acceptance by others to “administering” unto them.
  • Become professional “volunteers,” routinely going beyond the call of duty to demonstrate their worth.
  • Spend a lot of time trying to convince others what to think, feel, and do (though here again, the underlying motive isn’t so much to control others but to feel more secure in their relationship to them).
  • Repeatedly do favors for, give gifts to, or anticipate the needs of others (though mostly to influence others’ reactions to them—making their magnanimity a kind of bribe).
  • Encourage others to let them be their caretaker or confidante—or otherwise become indispensable to them (in the hope of eliminating any chance of abandonment, which can be terrifying to them).
  • Take on the role of problem-solver, decision-maker, support person, savior or rescuer (see immediately above).
  • Use sex to optimize the chance of acceptance, confusing sex for real intimacy (which, given their past, is highly problematic [i.e., confusing] for them).
  • Manipulate people and situations, by way of connecting or (artificially) bonding with them.

Note that in all these instances, the codependents’ behavior—whether controlling, manipulative, supportive, super-responsible, sacrificial, or rescuing—is driven by the same never met childhood need: to be fully, unconditionally accepted by their caretakers. And that includes being able to feel safe and protected, attended to, empathized with, respected, esteemed—in a word, nurtured. So in their seriously misguided adult quest for (unfortunately, conditional) relational acceptance, there’s very little they won’t do.

Moreover, as already suggested, despite the pretense of strength and a non-self-interested desire to serve others (rather than somehow inducing others to serve them), the underlying dependency of so much of their behavior should be obvious. For literally “giving themselves away” to others is experienced by them as necessary if they’re to alleviate their self-doubts and self-perceived deficiencies. Their very sense of self (as inauthentic as it is) necessitates that they do all they can to receive others’ approval. And they anticipate and cater to others’ dependency needs mainly to shore up their shaky belief in their worthiness. Finally, not really trusting others (for they could never trust their parents—who inevitably became their models for “how to be” in relationships), their own carefully cultivated trustworthiness ironically sets them up to be taken advantage of (as, similarly, their needy caretakers exploited their normal childhood dependencies to take advantage of them).

The word codependent was originally employed as synonymous with the earlier term enabler. As broadly defined, enablers assisted addicts in their compulsive dependency by taking responsibility for them, making excuses for them, or minimizing or denying the many repercussions of their dysfunctional behavior. Typically, their problem centered on excessive drinking, since the designation originally came from Alcoholics Anonymous and the growing recognition that the problem drinker’s difficulties were best understood in the larger context of family and friends, who (however unwittingly) supported—or at least enabled—their “diseased” behavior.

So if codependents inadvertently promote what’s detrimental to the health and well-being of the afflicted individual they’re presumably helping, just how helpful are they? And the answer is pretty straightforward. As Shawn M. Burn puts it in her Psychology Today blog Presence of Mind: “In dysfunctional helping relationships, one person’s help supports (enables) the other’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health.” And “the helper does this by doing such things as rescuing the other from self-imposed predicaments, bearing their negative consequences for them, accommodating their unhealthy or irresponsible behaviors, and taking care of them such that they don’t develop or exhibit competencies normal for those of their age or abilities.”

The codependent’s actually cultivating the addict’s dependency on them doesn’t much help themselves either. The addict might fulfill their need to be needed—and thus valued by another. But the relationship impedes their growth, too. It prevents them from growing up and becoming autonomous, self-expressive, and self-validating. In a sense, the relationship, though curiously stable, is regressive for both parties. Undoubtedly, they can lean on one another (the addict more for material sustenance, the codependent more for more emotional security). But the union doesn’t begin to reflect any sort of healthy dependency—or interdependence.

Additionally, if the addict’s drug of choice is alcohol (or anything else—including activity, or process, addictions, such as gambling), the codependent’s drug of choice is the addict himself. Which is to say that both of them will require treatment if they’re to recover from their pathological dependency. And though there isn’t space here to go into the various options that might assist them in becoming a true adult, there are many articles and books that could guide them—or, in fact, yourself, if you personally identify with what I’ve been describing. But at the very least, this piece should assist you in better understanding such an important and all-too-common phenomenon. And, potentially, it might be useful in your dealings with those stricken with such a complicated—and convoluted—disorder.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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