Codependency is an unhealthy form of dependency, but it’s not dependency in and of itself that’s the problem.
There are healthy forms of dependency, otherwise known as interdependency, that make relationships stronger. But distinguishing codependency from interdependency can be tricky — especially if you haven’t experienced many healthy relationships yourself.
What is interdependency?
Humans are social beings and we’ve always lived in communities and relied on each other for our survival. So, there’s nothing wrong with needing others, relying on others, and asking for help.
Interdependency involves a mutual give and take; both people give and receive support, encouragement, practical help, and so on. However, in codependent relationships, one person is doing most of the giving, but not receiving much in return. This is a recipe for burnout, resentment, and dissatisfaction.
Interdependence increases individuals’ self-esteem, mastery, and confidence, and it promotes loving feelings, mutual respect, and a sense of emotional safety in relationships. When you’re in an interdependent relationship, your partner’s help and encouragement make it easier for you to go out into the world and tackle problems, try new things, and overcome your fears.
Interdependency also allows you to be your own separate person, so there’s a balance of dependence and independence. In other words, healthy dependency doesn’t hold you back, it supports you in being your best self.
Interdependent adults have a strong sense of who they are and feel competent to navigate the world and express their needs. They accept help but don’t rely on others for their self-esteem. In contrast, a codependent’s identity is wrapped up in the relationship – she doesn’t know who she is, what she wants, or how she feels separate from her partner*.
In summary, an interdependent relationship doesn’t compromise your identity as a whole and separate individual. It allows you to connect deeply with others, give and receive help, while also retaining your individuality and autonomy.
What is codependency and what makes it unhealthy?
Codependency isn’t simply an over-reliance on another person. It involves enmeshment, meaning that your identity is intertwined with your partner’s. In a codependent relationship, your focus is on the other person so much so that your needs, goals, and interests are suppressed and ignored.
You may be an independent person in that you’re completely capable of earning a living, paying the bills, and taking care of the children (hard work, dependability, and caretaking are common traits among codependents), but you have an unhealthy need to be needed that keeps you dependent on someone else to make you feel worthy and lovable.
A need to be needed
Codependents build their self-worth on helping, fixing, and rescuing others. And as you can imagine, this creates an imbalance in their relationships. In order for codependent relationships to work, both parties must accept their roles – one as the caretaker or giver and one as the infirmed or taker.
As a result of childhood trauma, childhood emotional neglect, and dysfunctional family dynamics, a “giver” feels fundamentally flawed and unworthy and believes he must earn love. So, you sacrifice your own needs in order to feel accepted and valued. This creates an unhealthy dependency on others for validation of your feelings, interests, beliefs, worth, and even your existence.
It’s never healthy to depend on others to validate your worth. This need for external validation leaves many codependents trapped in abusive, unfulfilling, and unhappy relationships because they feel purposeless and unlovable without the caregiver role.
Helping vs. enabling
As I mentioned earlier, interdependent relationships provide mutual support and aid — and the help that’s given empowers the other person to grow and learn. But in codependent relationships, only one person is offering help — and the help tends to create more dependency because you’re enabling, rescuing, or doing things for your partner rather than helping him do them for himself.
If you’re a codependent caregiver, your need to be needed is so strong that you may unconsciously enable your loved one to remain dysfunctional and dependent because if your loved one gets “better” (sober, employed, healthy, etc), you’ll no longer be needed – and without a purpose, you don’t feel worthy of love. This is a frightening thought and your fear of abandonment can drive you to persistent nagging, giving unwanted advice, and enabling.
Enabling is different than the kind of helping that characterizes interdependent relationships, which encourages your loved one to become more self-sufficient and confident.
Interdependency encourages growth
Codependency traps people in unhealthy, sometimes abusive, relationships. Unlike interdependency, it doesn’t encourage individuals to grow emotionally, professionally, socially, spiritually, or otherwise.
Codependent relationships focus on maintaining the status quo so the giver can continue to derive self-esteem from “helping” and the taker can get his physical, emotional, financial, or other needs met. Codependent individuals have a hard time functioning independently because they’ve consistently relied on someone else to compensate for a core lack of self-worth.
Relationships are important. They add an extra layer of joy and fulfillment to our lives; they bring opportunities for growth and they build us up. They can’t, however, fix whatever core wounds we bring with us to the relationship. Instead, we tend to repeat dysfunctional relationship dynamics until we heal the root of the problem ourselves.
Healthy dependency vs. codependency
Understanding the difference between interdependency and codependency can be difficult, especially if you’ve never experienced a healthy interdependent relationship. The table below summarizes the primary differences between interdependency and codependency and I hope you will refer back to it when you need help distinguishing healthy dependency from codependency.
|There’s mutual reliance on each other; a balanced give and take.||One person does most of the giving and receives little support or help in return.|
|Asking for and giving help promotes growth, learning,|
|Enabling is disguised as help and it creates dependency and stunts personal growth.|
|You have a sense of being your own separate, independent person.||There’s enmeshment or a merging of identities and feelings so that neither person functions like a whole, independent person.|
|You feel free to be your authentic self.||You lose sight of your own interests, goals, and values because you’re focused on pleasing others.|
|You can fully experience your own feelings.||You tend to absorb other people’s feelings and suppress your own.|
|You know you have value even when others are upset with you.||You rely on your partner to make you feel worthy.|
|You feel safe and secure in your relationships.||You fear rejection, criticism, and abandonment.|
|You’re able to disagree or say “no”|
|You’re afraid of conflict, have poor boundaries, and expect perfection.|
|Honesty and the ability to admit|
mistakes promotes growth.
|Denial and defensiveness keep things stagnant. |
©Sharon Martin, LCSW
*Your codependent partner can be a spouse, parent, child, family member, or friend.
©2018 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
Photo of hands by Roman Kraft on Unsplash. Photo of couple courtesy of Canva.
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