Codependency is a pattern of behaving that makes others more important than yourself. Sometimes people learn this pattern in childhood but sometimes they learn it later when in a relationship with an addicted person. It can also happen in relationships which are dysfunctional for other reasons such as violence or mental illness. In this post I will refer mostly to codependency in relation to addiction but many of the ideas are transferable to other situations also.
Codependency can be a very painful state and the codependent person often feels afraid and trapped. At the same time codependency can help one feel needed or in control of situations because they are functioning on the surface so much better than the addicted person.
Codependent behaviours are generally broken down into three categories: caretaking, enabling and controlling. Caretaking refers to doing something for the other which they could do for themselves. Enabling refers to protecting the addicted person from the consequences of their actions. Finally, controlling behaviour shows itself in insistence that things are done a certain way. These categories can overlap sometimes but they provide a helpful framework.
People often ask what is the difference between caretaking and caring. A caring person might listen and show concern when they hear someone is losing their apartment due to unpaid rent. They might even drive someone to a few apartment viewing appointments. Caretaking would go much further. A caretaking person might take over the whole project of looking for the new apartment, looking on the internet, making viewing appointments, putting themselves on the lease, and organizing the move.
Enabling might show itself as continuing to lend money over and over to cover rent when the addicted person uses their own money on substances. While this may seem a nice and supportive gesture for the first or second time, when it happens over and over it just perpetuates the addicted person's problem.
People also wonder how to differentiate between controlling behaviour and setting boundaries. The difference here is largely in intention. A person who sets a boundary is trying to protect themselves. The person who is controlling is trying to make the other person do what they want.
Changing from codependent behaviour can be very difficult and anxiety-producing. However, continuing in codependency can become literally unhealthy for the codependent person. They can become ill themselves from worry, depression and many stress-related physical illnesses.
To change, the codependent person needs to start focussing on themselves more and on their own life. They need to learn about setting boundaries and saying no when it is better for them to do so. When the codependent person steps back it allows the addicted person to step up and determine what they want for their own life. Will they step up? That is the scary part. Mostly I think they will. A few don't seem to sometimes. The hard lesson that we all have to learn, is that we can't make someone else change. We can love and encourage and try to motivate, but in the end we can't follow them around 24 hours a day. They will be on their own at some point and will need to make the choice for themselves. In the meantime you must take care of yourself so you are not injured in the process.
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