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What Causes Codependency?

Once people recognize that they have codependent traits, they often begin to wonder where these codependent tendencies came from. Why are some people susceptible to codependency in their adult relationships? What causes codependency? Why is it so hard to break free from codependent relationships?

While the answers aren’t the same for everyone, for most people it begins in childhood. This is important because children are extremely impressionable. Young children don’t have the cognitive abilities or life experiences to realize that the relationships they are seeing and experiencing aren’t healthy; that their parents aren’t always right; that parents lie and manipulate and lack the skills to provide a secure attachment.

How family dynamics contribute to codependency

Kids who grow up in dysfunctional families come to believe they don’t matter and/or they’re the cause of the family problems.

Dysfunctional families tend to have some of these characteristics:

  • chaotic and unpredictable
  • unsupportive
  • scary and unsafe
  • emotionally and/or physically neglectful
  • manipulative
  • blaming
  • overly harsh or abusive
  • shaming
  • deny that the family has problems and refuse outside help
  • secretive
  • judgmental
  • inattentive
  • unrealistic expectations for children (expecting kids to be perfect or to do things beyond what’s developmentally appropriate)

The children are blamed for the problems or are told there isn’t a problem (which is very confusing because the children intuitively know something is wrong, but this feeling is never validated by the adults). The easiest way for kids to understand their chaotic families is to listen to the negative and distorted messages from adults and assume “I’m the problem.”

As a result, children learn that they are bad, unworthy, stupid, incapable, and the cause of the family dysfunction. This belief system creates the roots of adult codependent relationships.

A dysfunctional family affects a child’s developing personality, self-worth, and relationships

When parents aren’t able to provide a stable, supportive, nurturing home environment, several things can happen:

  • You become a caretaker.  If your parent was incapable of fulfilling the parenting role, you may have taken on the parenting role to fill in the gaps. You took care of your parents or siblings, paid the bills, cooked meals, and stayed up to make sure Mom didn’t fall asleep with a lit cigarette and burn the house down.
  • You learn that people who profess to love you may actually hurt you. Your childhood experience was that family physically and/or emotionally hurt you, abandoned you, lied to you, threatened you, and/or took advantage of your kindness. This becomes a familiar dynamic and you let friends, lovers, or family members continue to hurt you in adulthood.

  • You become a people-pleaser. Keeping people happy is another way you try to feel in control. You don’t speak up or disagree out of fear. You give and give. This feeds your self-worth and gives you some emotional fulfillment.

  • You struggle with boundaries. Nobody modeled healthy boundaries for you, so yours are either too weak (constant pleasing and caretaking) or too rigid (closed off and unable to open up and trust others).

  • You feel guilty. You probably feel guilty about a whole lot of things that you didn’t cause. Among these things is your inability to fix your parents or family. Even though it’s illogical, there’s a deep longing to rescue and fix. And your inability to change your family contributes to your feelings of inadequacy.

  • You become fearful. Childhood was scary at times. You didn’t know what to expect. Some days went smoothly, but other days you hid, worried, and cried. Now you continue to have insomnia or nightmares, feel on edge, and are afraid to be alone.

  • You feel flawed and unworthy. You grew up feeling and/or being told that there is something wrong with you. You came to believe this as fact because it was reinforced over and over when you didn’t know any other reality.

  • You don’t trust people. People have betrayed and hurt you repeatedly. The result is that it’s hard to get close and trust even your spouse or close friends. This is your way of protecting yourself from future hurt, but it’s also a barrier to true intimacy and connection.

  • You won’t let people help you. You’re not used to having your needs met or having someone take care of you. You’re more comfortable giving help than receiving it. You’d rather do it yourself than be indebted or have it used against you.

  • You feel alone. For a long time, you thought you were the only one with a family like this or who felt like this. You felt alone and shamed by the secrets you had to keep in childhood. When you combine this loneliness with feeling afraid and flawed, it’s easy to see why codependents will stay in dysfunctional relationships as adults rather than be alone. Being alone often feels like a validation that you are truly flawed and unwanted.

  • You become overly responsible. As a child, your survival or your family’s survival depended on you taking on responsibilities that surpassed your age. You continue to be an extremely dependable and responsible person to the point that you may overwork and have trouble relaxing and having fun. You also take responsibility for other people’s feelings and actions.

  • You become controlling. When life feels out of control and scary, you overcompensate for your feelings of helplessness by trying to control people and situations.

If you’re codependent, this is probably sounding very familiar and perhaps bringing back some childhood memories.

Your childhood follows you into adulthood

You carry all of these relationship dynamics and unresolved issues with you into your adult relationships.  Even though their unsatisfying, confusing and scary, you repeat them because they’re familiar. You don’t really know what a healthy relationship is and you don’t feel deserving of one.

Be compassionate with yourself

As a child, you’re stuck. You can’t leave your family, so you find ways to cope. You develop strategies to survive. Thinking of your codependent traits as adaptive is a compassionate way to look at them. They served you well as a child. Now you’re an adult who can see the roots of your codependency more clearly. Your parents weren’t able to meet your needs. This doesn’t mean you’re flawed. You no longer need to live your life as a scared child who has to prove his/her worth through every action. It’s time to emerge from that cocoon and be free. Asking for help is the first step.

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

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Codependency Maze ebook

Learn more about how to change codependent behaviors

Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing, and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

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