Don't get me wrong...I am so glad we have the word "codependent", and all its iterations. It has served effectively as a container for so many of our experiences; a way of making sense out of thoughts and behaviors that can tear our lives apart. But I struggle with how this experience is often described...most of the time, the reader or listener is made to feel that codependency is a trait inherent to who they are...some character flaw, some broken and dysfunctional part of themselves that needs to be exorcised or shamed into submission. But codependency is a trap; a relational cycle that feeds itself because to not think and behave codependently creates a sense of genuine threat, not just to one, but to everyone involved. So I'd like to get clearer about what we are talking about here.
The word "codependency" often points to a trait that seems to draw a person to, and keep them stuck in, relationships where they feel compelled to control the thoughts and behaviors of the other person. A "codependent" is someone who needs to be needed. They are self-sacrificing, do-gooders with low self-esteem.
However, the truth is often that in these situations, anyone with any feelings of responsibility to others will feel trapped into having to control and caretake their partners, because their partner's chaotic behavior creates real dangers for themselves and others.
And making the pattern even stickier is that those of us who end up in these kinds of relationships have often been practicing this relational pattern since we were infants, and can not see another way. We come out of the womb with one capacity, and one job - and that is to figure out how to get our needs met by our primary care figures. And, basically, if Mom isn't ok, we don't get fed. So in a sense, we are taking care of our parents feelings from the moment we are born...their distress is life-threatening to us. At some point, if we are lucky, our parents make it clear that this isn't our job. At some point, if we are lucky, our parents say, "No, no - we are fine, we are here for YOUR distress, and we will take care of our own, thank you very much." Later on, we can engage in an adult process of co-regulation, but for the time being, our parents are there for our needs, and not the other way around. But what happens if that message is never clearly sent? What happens if a parent doesn't send that message, either because they don't understand that it ISN'T their child's job to take care of their feelings, or because they don't even realize that this is what is happening?
Many of us have been trying to get out ahead of the distress of the people we love the most since day one, and for us, this is what it means to love. So we ARE attracted to situations and people that repeat this pattern. And so the idea of letting someone we love flail is impossible to us. And forget it entirely, if letting them flail means we get hit in the face to boot. We have to do something, and not just for them, but for us. It's not a trait, inherent in our personality. It's a survival strategy, related to attachment, that feels legitimately threatening to break.
That doesn't mean we don't have to break it. The problem is, when one partner is always getting out ahead of problems for the other partner, resentment is inevitable on both sides. The partner who is always getting out ahead of problems resents having to do so, and the other partner resents being parented by someone who is supposed to be their equal, whether they need that parenting or not. The dynamic stifles growth and autonomy on both sides, and keeps everyone locked in a battle between chaos and rigid control, with no hope of real connection to be found.
We all need each other, and we all need to feel necessary to others. We all feel compelled to get out ahead of the distress of our loved ones if we feel we can, and we are not sure they will. But there is a shift that is supposed to happen between infancy and adulthood, where intimate relationships become balanced, reciprocal and voluntary. If you find yourself in a relationship where things feel unbalanced, lacks reciprocity and traps you into being someone you don't want to be, it may be time to seek out some help from a couples therapist.