Codependency as common vernacular
I first heard the term “codependent” as a counseling student in graduate school. I remember working with one of my first clients, who was going through a painful breakup at the time. I can still see her sitting across from me in that cramped university office, tears streaming down her face, sobbing as she described the way he was withdrawing from the relationship, even though they had a young son together. She was furious with herself for being so “codependent.”
I remember feeling confused about what this client was telling me. Codependent? What did that mean? She said it with the same tone one would describe an unwelcome health condition. I am asthmatic. But rather I saw a lovely young woman who desperately wanted to save her relationship. It looked like she wanted a dependable, you-are-with-me-I-am-with-you-we-are-together type of partnership. You know, garden variety. Yet here she was expressing such frustration with herself for wanting something that to me seemed so normal—a responsive partner. She was angry with herself for being “too needy,” which to her was the same thing as “codependent.”
Where does the concept of codependency come from?
Over the years since that session, I have heard the term codependent hundreds of times. Notably, I hear it more from clients than from other therapists. It has become a part of everyday speech, yet most people have trouble exactly defining what it means. The concept of codependency actually derives from the chemical dependency field of psychology, as in, substance abuse. It is an umbrella term to describe the common effects that the disease of alcoholism or other addictions have upon those who are in relationship with the addict. For example, a codependent person is someone who gets stuck in problematic patterns of caregiving to someone with an addiction, in an attempt to rescue and control their behaviors. Those patterns are exhausting, anxiety-producing, and angering.
Why does the distinction matter?
When I hear people use the term codependent outside of the context of addiction, what I hear them saying is, “I really badly want my partner to act in a way that makes me feel close, safe, valued, and wanted…but s/he isn’t doing that. And I’m feeling panicky as a result. And I’m mad at myself for needing too much.” I often hear these same people get stuck in an endless loop of mental gymnastics, trying to turn off their powerful desire, and frankly their need for closeness and buying into a Western ideal that being too reliant on someone else is bad. This loop can be exquisitely painful.
That thought process makes me wince. It hurts to think that an individual with a longing for closeness would end up concluding that there is something wrong with them for wanting that. It seems distorted to end up with the idea that being dependent is bad, or that being “too” dependent is a risk.
After all, don’t the healthiest of relationships involve a level of dependency?
When we buy into the idea that we are “too needy”, we run the risk of denying our appropriate attachment needs and longings. This keeps us in a state of disappointment, anxiety, and anger.
What is typical relationship distress?
When we experience relationship distress, we often forget that it is normal and adaptive to feel panic when we are distanced from our significant other. Tons of research shows that we are naturally wired for closeness to others. This closeness helps us feel safe, protected, and grounded. It helps us weather the storms of life, and significantly reduces our perception of pain. When partners are accessible, emotionally responsive, and engaged, we feel sturdier, and life tastes sweeter. Thus, the anxious feeling that accompanies a growing sense of distance with a partner is a reasonable signal that something is wrong and needs repair.
However, it is often not that simple to repair a relationship disconnect, and we end up moving into self-protective mode as a result of our anxiety. We sometimes arrive at the conclusion that we should withdraw ourselves from the relationship and just handle our own problems. While this is an understandable line of thinking, it also causes us to miss out on opportunities to repair and build a stronger bond with a willing partner.
Staying engaged instead of withdrawing
Remember my original client? The one who was crying about losing her partner? She really needed to hear that the distress she felt was normal. There was nothing wrong with her for wanting closeness, or for feeling anxious at the thought of losing him. She wasn’t weak, or “too needy,” she was experiencing an appropriate reaction to disconnect. My client needed to figure out how to follow her gut instinct for connection by doing different behaviors instead of pulling away and trying to become more independent. This provided the chance for her partner to have a clearer understanding of her angry reactions to his pulling away, and they were able to repair together.
The gift of healthy dependency
When we can generally rely on our partner to be accessible, emotionally responsive, and engaged with us, something paradoxical happens. That healthy dependency naturally fosters healthy independency. This means we don’t have to worry about becoming “too needy,” or codependent. When we feel safe and supported by our partner, we naturally feel more courageous to take risks in life. When we can rely on our partner to be there with us, we are able to become more of our true selves.
Need a bit more help?
If you or your partner struggle with these simple-yet-complex concepts of accessibility, emotional responsiveness, and engagement, we can help. Sometimes it takes the trained ear of a compassionate therapist to guide a couple in the right direction.
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