When Love Goes Wrong: Codependency Defined

For many divorcing couples, “irreconcilable differences” is the reason they give on their divorce papers. And whereas that’s technically correct, the true causes and conditions for divorce are probably much more complex. For some, a behavior called codependency may be at the heart of the problem.

Codependency is often associated with addiction, but that’s just one way this behavior comes to the fore. In fact, codependency is involved in any relationship where one party alters his or her behavior in order to try to control the other person in order to get a desired result. These actions often begin with genuine intensions to help or prevent another person from harming himself or by constantly trying to please another person to keep the peace.

According to Mental Health America, “co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.” Some estimates suggest that over 90-percent of the American population demonstrates some form of codependent behavior.

“Breaking up and rejection are especially hard for codependents,” says Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT in her blog on PsychCentral.com. “Breaking up triggers hidden grief and causes irrational guilt, anger, shame, and fear.”

Lancer believes that codependents often have low self-esteem due to feelings of loss or trauma from childhood. Rejection or a sense of failure due to the end of a marriage may trigger intense feelings of shame and fear. For the same reasons, people who experience codependency, may stay in an unhealthy relationship even when they are unhappy.

In 1986, author Melody Beattie published the best-seller, Codependent No More, which became the go-to manuscript on the subject. According to Beattie, codependents:

  • think and feel responsible for other people’s feelings, thoughts, actions, choices, wants, needs, well-being, lack of well-being, and ultimate destiny
  • feel anxiety, pity, and guilt when other people have a problem
  • feel compelled — almost forced — to help that person solve problems
  • feel angry when their help isn’t effective
  • anticipate other people’s needs
  • do things other people are capable of doing for themselves
  • feel bored, empty, and worthless if they don’t have a crisis in their lives, a problem to solve, or a person to help
  • get superficial feelings of self-worth from helping others
  • try to catch people in acts of misbehavior
  • become afraid to let other people be who they are and allow events to happen naturally
  • think they know best how things should turn out and how people should behave

In most cases, the codependent doesn’t recognize that his or her actions are detrimental to the other person, their relationship or themselves. But by not allowing his/her partner to take responsibility for, and feel the consequences of, their actions, the codependent maintains the cycle of destructive behavior.

“Even when their actions are demonstrably self-destructive, they will not cease their behavior — a codependent person will destroy themselves to maintain their relationships,” says Jon Miele in an article entitled Combating Codependency. “People with codependency believe that they must be responsible for someone else; they often feel attracted to people who have problems that need to be ‘fixed.’”

At first, divorce may feel like relief for someone enmeshed in a codependent relationship, but if not addressed through therapy or other self-work, the person usually gravitates into another codependent relationship, or turns the focus of their need to control on his/her children or other family members. Indeed, that need for control becomes a form of addiction. Fortunately, there are 12-Step programs to help. Al-Anon Family Groups and Codependents Anonymous (CODA) are community-based support groups to help codependents who want to change the way they approach relationships. Best of all, there is no cost to attend and the groups maintain safe and confidential meetings.

Do you have a codependency problem? There are a number of meetings in the Birmingham community. Click here to find a list of Al-Anon Family Group meetings and more information; and here for information about CODA.

Not sure if you’re codependent? Go to Mental Health America for more information to take a questionnaire to identify codependency.