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Codependency: Normal or Unhealthy?

Codependency describes a type of relationship in which one partner is leaned upon to enable the other person’s addictions, insecurity, or emotional instability. In most codependent relationships, the stronger partner is used to complete the other half’s self-esteem or sense of identity. One of the most commonly recognized archetypes of a codependent individual is the woman who stays in a relationship with an abusive man despite her own better judgment or the concern of friends and family. This sample essay provides an overview of how the writing process works at Ultius.

The psychoanalytical history of codependency

The recognition of codependency as a distinct mental illness evolved from the same realizations that spawned the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) during the 1930s. According to this theory, culpability lies not only on the addicted or co-dependent individual but also on surrounding people—friends, acquaintances, relatives, in-laws, colleagues—who somehow enable or reinforce the problem. As observed by disabilities specialist and author Lennard J. Davis, codependency as a concept soon grew to refer to any:

“person [who] is fixated on another person for approval [and] sustenance,” (Davis).

The modern movement in which codependency is treated as a 12-step disorder, akin to AA, has been partially credited to early-20th-century German psychologist Karen Horney, who reasoned that certain people conquer insecurity through the affection of others. This predilection—which she termed the “moving toward” personality type—supposedly places the individual under the control of a more dominant individual with a slavish, martyr-like devotion that typically remains unhinging, even in the face of abuse, humiliation, or infidelity (Rotunda).

Codependency treatment now recognized in psychology

During the 1980s, codependency treatment grew into a full-fledged field of therapy. The movement was fueled by the release of two popular books that advanced the topic in the public discourse:

  • Women Who Love Too Much – Marriage counselor Robin Norwood’s controversial 1985 bestseller that identified the phenomenon of man-addiction among insecure women, and spawned support groups for those suffering this dependency (Travis).
  • Codependent No More – Self-help author Melody Beattie’s influential 1986 book debut that popularized the term “codependent” in the parlance of pop psychology.

Also in 1986, psychiatrist and author Timmen Cermak, M.D. published two works in which he lobbied the American Psychiatric Association to add codependency as a distinct personality disorder in the organization’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but this proved unsuccessful (Morgan). Nonetheless, the first AA-style 12-step program to treat this newly recognized problem—Co-Dependents Anonymous—opened its first chapter in October of the same year (Irving).

The habits and symptoms of codependency

The term codependency is often used informally to describe everything from clingy couples to partners that rely on their significant others for financial support. In its most formal application, however, the term refers to a relationship state in which one partner is unable to draw upon his or her own free will, and whose every action, choice, and thought revolves around the will of the dominant partner. An even stricter definition is applied by those who insist that codependency is another form of addiction.

Even though codependency consists of acting solely on behalf of a partner’s desires, this is not to be confused with care-giving. Acts in the latter category involve helping others out in clear conscience with the best of intentions, whereas codependency entails compulsive acts of behavior that often go against an individual’s self-interest. As such, codependency has been referred to by some scholars as a form of over-responsibility, in which the well-intended urge to be responsible descends into a more self-destructive form of behavior (Anderson).

Codependent relationships are often marked by volatile arguments, sexual miscommunication, physical abuse, and other stereotypically dysfunctional characteristics. Some of the tell-tale symptoms of the codependent person include (Johnson):

  • an insatiable lust for acceptance above all else
  • a low sense of worthiness in oneself
  • non-stop feelings of dreariness and futility
  • a tendency to be overly doting and supportive, regardless of the response
  • a tendency to play the martyr in conflicts; taking the blame for both sides
  • always forgoing one’s own desires on behalf of the partner’s wishes
  • the constant fear that the partner will cheat or leave the relationship
  • hatred or jealousy toward anyone that the partner might find attractive
  • always in need of company; does anything to avoid being alone
  • thinks of self-assertion as an act of shame

Problematic pairings for codependent people

In the unconscious mind of the typical codependent is an unshakable notion that virtue is achieved through extreme sacrifices on behalf of loved ones. Consequently, the codependent—lacking much sense of self-worth—puts all of his or her efforts into satisfying the other person. When the partner also has a dissociative identity or personality disorder the situation is usually one of dissatisfaction on both sides. Two types of personalities can be particularly troublesome when partnered with a codependent:

  • The narcissist – the person who thrives on exaltation and self-aggrandizement; who resorts to disingenuous tactics to manipulate others to comply with his own worldview. In business, the narcissist typically surrounds himself with agreeable lackeys; in his personal life, he’ll usually prey upon weak-willed women.
  • The leech – the person who uses others for favors, emotional support, and money, but gives nothing back in return. A leech can be a lazy mooch who simply wants a free ride in life at the expense of others; a leech could also be an emotionally unstable, crisis-prone individual with a track record for exhausting the goodwill of others.

The codependent and the narcissist

Narcissism is not rare and often is found in every walk of life and personality:

  • Narcissistic personality disorder in athletes
  • Overconfidence in totalitarian dictators
  • Corrupt in politicians
  • Greed and power lust in criminal overlords
  • Lack of empathy in serial killers
  • Hunger for adoration and fame in celebrities

In everyday society, one of the slyest archetypes of narcissism is embodied by the womanizer, who sees himself as entitled to any woman he desires at any time. The seasoned womanizer will have had his way with many types of women, particularly those with either low boundaries or low esteems. Within both categories—especially the latter—are many women who exhibit habits of the classic codependent.

Insecurity and codependence

An insecure woman, for example, might have a tendency to fall for callous, macho, alpha-male types who take women like her for granted. While in her own better judgment she might know that such guys are players, another side of her is hooked on the challenge of trying to tame such a guy; to get him to choose her over all other women. From this psychological standpoint, the impossible catch—the taming of the untamable—is the ultimate form of validation for the insecure woman.

She’ll watch those gender biased advertisements on TV and try to emulate the “perfect woman.” She will transform herself into any given number of ways to meet his ideal of the perfect woman. As time goes on with no change in his womanizing ways, she’ll false rationalize and further submit to his disposal. Sooner or later, he’ll grow restless and bump her out of the rotation. In all likelihood, she’ll claim any number of things—she’s through with men; she wants a “nice guy” this time—but will ultimately repeat the pattern with another player, because she doesn’t realize the root of her problem: that her primal intent when it comes to men is not compatibility, but validation.

The codependent and the leech

The types of people who lean on the resources that relationships provide—but who in turn contribute nothing—are driven by various wants: money, pity, therapy. Commonly referred to as leeches, sponges, moochers, and parasites, many such people could also be described as walking train wrecks, due to the impulses, habits, and poor decisions that lead them from one crisis to another. Often times, these people stay afloat on the goodwill of others, such as family or lifelong friends.

Leeches usually develop their inward loathing and need to satisfy as a result of childhood trauma. These individuals were hurt by a close relative or friend and never learned to formulate healthy relationships or trust. They feel the need to earn or buy love and friendship.

Though there aren’t many people in the outside world who wish to involve themselves with such individuals, there’s a common exception made for pretty, young women who continually take and unload, but never give or carry their own weight. The men who open their doors for such women tend to be soft-hearted codependents: men who mistake pity for love. In some cases, affections go unreciprocated.

For example, a man might recurrently fall fast for women with substance issues, financial hardships, and emotional problems, because the idea of rescuing such a woman appeals to his romantic ideal of being the knight in shining armor. However, the woman who matches these descriptions will usually view him as “too nice”—being as she is more used to the rugged, aloof, and temperamental male—and so she’ll only consider him as a friend.

Despite this, she’ll constantly use him for favors and emotional support, which he’ll continue to provide with hopes that she’ll ultimately return his affections. Eventually, he’ll get burned when she takes off with a man who’s more her type, and he’ll stumble on confused, only to repeat the cycle with a similar woman—for a courtship that may or may not be consummated—just weeks or months down the line.

Works Cited

Davis, Lennard J. Obsession: A History. London: University of Chicago Press, 2008. p. 178. Print.

Rotunda, Robert J. “Codependency.” The University of West Florida. n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Travis, Trish. The Language of the Heart, A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. p. 168. Print.

Morgan Jr., James P. “What is codependency?” Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Irving, Leslie. Codependent Forevermore, The Invention of Self in a Twelve Step Group. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. p. 30. Print.

Anderson, S.C. “A critical analysis of the concept of codependency”. Social Work. 39.6 (1994): 677–685. Print.

Johnson, R. Skip. “Codependency and Codependent Relationships.” Facing the Facts. BPDFamily. n.d. Web. 22. Nov. 2015.

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