Co-dependency can develop in almost any form of relationship. Oftentimes it is prevalent with friends, families and partners of people struggling with addiction. It is also regularly seen in those close to someone who has a narcissistic personality. Whenever someone completely neglects their own needs in order to take care of another there is a potential for co-dependency to appear. Even the parent-child relationship can slip into this area when a parent’s care-taking consumes their own sense of self and they feel like a martyr or a victim all the time.
Four common qualities of a person in a co-dependent relationship are: poor boundaries, need for control, denial and unhealthy levels of caretaking. One of these features alone does not indicate a propensity for co-dependency though the possibility becomes greater when more of these traits are present.
Poor boundaries means that someone’s boundaries are either too weak or too rigid. Healthy boundaries are flexible boundaries. When the line between where one person ends and the other person begins become blurred there are weak boundaries. When one person is totally closed off to another there are excessively stiff boundaries. Someone that is co-dependent will often fluctuate between weak and rigid boundaries in a relationship.
Loss of control is one of the greatest fears of a co-dependent person. To alleviate their anxiety a co-dependent person often becomes excessively controlling. It’s as though they try to avoid dealing with their own inner chaos by strictly demanding external order of others. This can take a positive or negative form. A co-dependent person can easily become a people-pleaser who attempts to control others by being “perfect” all the time. Controlling behavior can take a more overtly negative form when the person constantly manipulates others to achieve a desired result. When this happen wielding power gradually becomes more important than expressing love.
Denial runs deep in co-dependent relationships. It starts with denying one’s own feelings and needs for “the good” of someone else. Then it spreads to include not taking responsibility for how they may be enabling the other person and perpetuating the dysfunction. There is a fierce resistance to admitting anything is wrong or to appearing vulnerable in any way. As long as the problem is outside of themselves they can continue to play the role of savior, victim, hero or all of the above.
Excessive caretaking is usually present in one member of a co-dependent relationship. The caretaker puts everyone else’s needs ahead of their own. On the surface this behavior appears to be noble and generous. The problem arises when the caretaker loses their own sense of self in the process. When this happens the caretaker becomes resentful of the person who does not want their help. Next the caretaker assumes the role of a persecuted victim who isn’t being appreciated “after all I’ve done for you.”
There is always a level of dependence in relationships. A healthy relationship occurs when each person is interdependent. This is accomplished by maintaining flexible boundaries that allow both people to remain as separate individuals. Interdependent relationships are also characterized by mutual trust, respect and willingness to let the other person grow.
If you are struggling with these issues I would recommend reading either “Facing Co-Dependence” by Pia Mellody or “Co-Dependent No-More” by Melody Beattie in conjunction with consulting a therapist trained in this area.