The idea seems to have originally come from research on families of alcoholics. While other family members may not be addicted to booze, they inadvertently become tangled up in the addiction because they are close to the alcoholic. They support the alcoholic through enabling (helping the person get drink) or through appeasement (avoiding conflict by complying). In other words, the rest of the family puts their needs second while trying to satisfy the needs of the addict. If the alcoholic can be thought of as "crazy", the rest of the family becomes slightly bonkers themselves. They are not personally dependent on alcohol but they are so involved in supporting the addicted person, they could be labelled "co-dependent".
As an alcoholic myself (sober for 23 years. See my blog Alcoholism: Let’s drink to that!), I recognise in the above definition the imbalance that comes from one person’s needs being more important than anybody else’s needs. In any relationship, there is give and take but in a healthy relationship, equilibrium is maintained between all parties and we could say that everybody’s needs are being met more or less. Addiction tips the scales so that one person’s needs become paramount to all else and therein lies the craziness.
I grew up in a stable family. My life was fairly normal. However, over the years I have met people who have told me stories of their childhood which would make you wince listening to the insanity of alcoholism, physical abuse and outright craziness. It is a wonder how some people manage to turn out normal considering the abnormal environment in which they may have grown up. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that some people are a little left of central, a little off or just a tad weird as their up-bringing occurred in circumstances from which any of us would run screaming. (See my blog Being a Father)
Experts point out that the idea is not just applicable to alcoholic families. Any relationship where there is an unhealthy dependence on the part of one person for another could involve co-dependency. Other examples cited entail physical abuse, emotional abuse and even chronic illness. The characteristics of the co-dependent person is that they feel compelled to “rescue” others, and put that person/relationship before all else at the expense of their own personal well-being. That "need" for love, for financial security, for the relationship itself if one can’t stand being alone, for whatever that person wants, may lead the person to try to maintain at all costs a situation which may be dysfunctional, such as one involving substance abuse. Keeping the other person satisfied is the number one priority.
Doing a Google search on the words "codependency quiz" yields a number of hits. I’m sure some of them would fall into the category of those harmless quizzes one would find in a magazine but professional help would be warranted to best understand one’s own situation. There does however seem to be a theme: how much any of us feel secure and confident as individuals. For example:
Question: Your friend promises to call you at 7:00 and so you two can go out to a movie. By 8:00, you still haven’t heard from him. By now you are…
- crying into your pillow
- leaving the 9th voice mail for him asking what is going on
- picking up the phone to see if he forgot and maybe just wants to see a later showing of the film
- quietly renouncing your relationship with this person and deciding not to pick up the phone even if it does ring
It’s not cut and dry
The extreme ends of the spectrum show situations which are easily recognisable. For instance, one person is an alcoholic or a drug addict or suffering some other disorder and the spouse or the entire family is pussyfooting around both the person and the problem. Another example is the person who is needy, lacking in self-confidence and who naturally gloms onto a stronger personality. In between these two extremes are many variations, some relatively normal, some odd. Where do we fit? As was previously stated, in a healthy relationship, equilibrium is maintained between all parties and we could say that everybody’s needs are being met more or less. This is a grey area where it may be difficult to diagnose a true co-dependency as opposed to the normal ebbs and flows of any relationship.
True Story: my job
In case you don’t follow my blog regularly, let me point out that I am writing under a pseudonym. (see Anonymity: The power to speak freely) This gives me a certain (perceived) freedom to speak my mind without fear of recrimination about personal, sometimes taboo subjects. Only my wife knows about this blog. Here’s my tale of co-dependency as it exists in my job. Since I don’t want to get my ass fired at the moment, I will use an analogy.
My company has always driven a Ford Escort. It’s a 4 cylinder car but peppy and certainly does the trick all for the reasonable price of $15,000. I actually owned one so I’m speaking from experience.
My boss talked the company into replacing the Escort with a Lamborghini which costs a quarter of a million dollars. The rationale was that this car is capable of going 360 kilometres an hour (223 mph). Now I know for a fact that the Escort’s top speed is 160 km/h (100 mph) but now for the joke. The speed limit is 100 km/h (60 mph) on the highways even less on streets within the city limits. Yep, that’s right, the speed limit is fixed by the government and you’re not allowed to drive faster unless you like getting speeding tickets.
My boss has repeated so often that our new Lamborghini can go 360 km/h, everybody in management, the president and even the board are telling anybody within earshot just what a terrific thing the company has done. Nobody, not a single person has clued into the fact that the speed limit prevents the company from ever managing to exploit the top speed of the new car. Unless we go to a race track or drive on the Autobahn in Germany where there is no speed limit, we can never drive 360 km/h. So we have purchased an absolutely fabulous car but a car unsuitable for the circumstances in which we work.
So now, my boss asks me to do what he’s asked me to do for years, "Drive down to the corner store and get me some milk." Except that now, I’m driving a car worth a quarter of a million dollars. I won’t say anything about the fact that an Escort seats 5 people while the Lamborghini can only seat two. I won’t say anything about driving on a city street where the speed limit is quite a bit less than the 100 km/h (60 mph) of the highways.
Where’s the co-dependency? I like my job. I like getting paid. I think the entire idea of buying a Lamborghini was a complete waste of money but I have to do what my boss says and keep my mouth shut. I have to sit in meetings during which my boss extols the virtues of going 360 km/h. I have to help write reports explaining 360 km/h. I have to explain to my fellow colleagues that our car is the next best thing to sliced bread.
We work with other companies in this industry and they all own Ford Escorts. I am obliged to help my boss sell the idea of a Lamborghini to these companies. They politely listen to my boss go on and on about 360 km/h but I am imagining them sitting there scratching their heads as they mentally compare $15,000 to a quarter of a million dollars. Just imagine, for a quarter of a million dollars, I could buy 10 Escorts at $15,000 a piece and still have a hundred grand left over!
Co-dependency can drive everybody crazy. I know I’m going crazy listening to my boss rave about 360 km/h knowing full well the speed limit is 100 km/h. I want to grab him by the labels, pull his face up to mine until we’re nose to nose and yell, "Are you out of your freakin’ mind!?!" But I like to get paid so I have to throw logic out the window and enthusiastically say, "A Lamborghini is a terrific idea!" I suppose any job is like this but referring to how co-dependency can create abnormal situations, I know that I am a little crazier being forced to work with somebody who has done and continues to do things which completely defy all logic.
Seek professional help
For heaven’s sake, do not diagnose yourself then launch into some self-help program or head off to a support group. Get professional help.
As an alcoholic, I can tell you substance abuse is a very clearly defined problem. After somebody has passed out on floor, embarrassed themselves at a party or wrapped their car around a telephone pole, I think there is very little doubt there is an issue which needs to be addressed.
If, on the other hand, you think you’re co-dependent or you’ve taken one of the on-line quizzes I mention above and get a score indicating you’re a co-dependent, I don’t believe the problem is as clearly defined. You need professional help. But let me add a piece of advice.
Living with an alcoholic
As of this writing, I have been sober for almost 23 years. When I got married, my wife knew I was an alcoholic but at that time; I had been sober for 9 years. During this time I have given her some advice which she seemed to think is harsh but I truly believe it.
An alcoholic only stops drinking when he (or she) hits bottom. "Hits bottom" means that they feel or know they have gone as low as they can go; they give up and turn to doing something about their problem. You cannot force anybody to "hit bottom"; you can’t force them to stop drinking.
Are you living with an alcoholic? Here’s my advice, the advice I told my wife.
Get out. Save yourself. Never look back. Kick the other person to the curb immediately. Be decisive; be brutal; show no mercy. You have your own life to live. Live it. Give up the other person. Go on with your own life.
Does this sound cruel? My wife thought so but as an alcoholic, I can tell you that if you are dealing with an addict, you do not stand a chance. You are not dealing with a sane person so you should not expect in any shape or form any kind of sane, rational relationship. And I guarantee you that if you stick around somebody who’s nuts, you yourself are going to become nuts. Reality becomes warped; what’s right is left and what’s left is right and the litany of lies, rationalisations, excuses, justifications and bizarre explanations will leave you doubting yourself, your own opinion and your ability to see anything through your eyes with any degree of clarity.
I told my wife that if, and I mean if I ever took a drink, she should throw me out and not think twice. I know she thought this sounded callous but I honestly believe that this is the best way of dealing with an addict. Why? First of all, you will remove a big problem in your own life. But secondly, and I admit this may be hard to believe, the shock of being thrown out could just be the wake-up call needed for the addict to hit bottom and realise just how low they have sunk.
I know about Al-anon. I know about people who support themselves while their spouses continue to drink. There must be valid reasons which explain why anyone would continue to live with somebody who is an addict. Talking with others who are in similar circumstances can be both comforting and educational. I would nevertheless come back to asking any of them if they could get out. We only have one life. That life is short. Let’s not spend it standing knee deep in crap.
This organisation, dedicated to helping people with similar problems, bases itself on a twelve step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. I provide links below to the web site and associated reference articles in Wikipedia. My warning to you: seek professional help; do not try and diagnose yourself.
Wikipedia makes note of some controversies associated with co-dependency:
Going from one extreme to the other. Sometimes an individual can, in attempts to recover from codependency, go from being overly passive or overly giving to being overly aggressive or excessively selfish. Many therapists maintain that finding a balance through healthy assertiveness (which leaves room for being a caring person and also engaging in healthy caring behavior), is true recovery from codependency and that becoming extremely selfish, a bully, or an otherwise conflict-addicted person, is not.
Victim mentality. According to this perspective, developing a permanent stance of being a victim (having a "victim mentality") would also not constitute true recovery from codependency and could be another example of going from one extreme to another… moving beyond victim-hood, the capacity to forgive and let go … could also be signs of real recovery from codependency, but the willingness to endure further abuse would not.
Not all mental health professionals agree about codependence or its standard methods of treatment. It is not listed in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic manual. DSM lists "Dependent Personality Disorder. Stan Katz & Liu, in "The Codependency Conspiracy: How to Break the Recovery Habit and Take Charge of Your Life," feel that codependence is over-diagnosed, and that many people who could be helped with shorter-term treatments instead become dependent on long-term self-help programs.
Some believe that codependency is not a negative trait, and does not need to be treated, as it is more likely a healthy personality trait taken to excess. Codependency in nonclinical populations has some links with favorable characteristics of family functioning.
Not everything promoted by recovery agencies is a demonstrable scientific fact, some of it is based on fashion and faith alone.
Addiction is a terrible sickness. But those who are close to addiction can also have the most terrible of times. Yes, co-dependency does exist but I repeat to seek professional help. I feel certain that co-dependency exists to some degree in many different situations which may be classified as completely normal. Such is life; some things in life just have to be dealt with.
Why haven’t I left my job if it drives me so crazy? Good question and I guess my answer comes back to something of the personal trade-off we all make when assessing our own possibly co-dependent relations. I am paid a good buck and the work isn’t too difficult for me. I try to distance myself from my boss and his decisions and if every once in a while it gets to me, I just shut the door of my office, bite down on a pencil and silently scream to myself, "A Lamborghini? Ahhhhh! What a gawd damn stupid waste of money!!!"
Click HERE to read more from William Belle.
Wikipedia: Co-Dependents Anonymous
Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a twelve-step program for people who share a common desire to develop functional and healthy relationships. CoDA was founded in 1986 in Phoenix, Arizona. CoDA is active in more than 40 countries, with approximately 1200 groups active in the United States.
Codependence is described as a disease that originates in dysfunctional families where children learn to overcompensate for their parents’ disorders and develop an excessive sensitivity to others’ needs. The term "dysfunctional family" originally referred only to families with patterns of interaction associated with alcoholism. It is now, however, recognized as a disease occurring in family systems based on "denial" or "shame-based rules." This includes a wide-spectrum of pathological emotional interactions in families, but there is always an avoidance of confrontation and inability to resolve conflict. This is sometimes described in terms like "enmeshment" or "blurred ego boundaries." Adult children of dysfunctional families often suffer from a sense of confusion and deprivation that has continued into their adult life — a feeling of "not knowing what normal is" — that has become an anguished desire to recover something emotionally missing in their upbringing. Co-Dependents Anonymous was formed to help individuals who grew up in all forms of dysfunctional families, not just those involving alcoholism or substance abuse.
Co-Dependents Anonymous (The CoDA World Fellowship)
- We admitted we were powerless over others – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other co-dependents, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Ferguson Speaks From The Heart – Feb 20/2007
Craig Ferguson speaks on his past problems as an alcoholic and why he will not ridicule Britney Spears and her shaved head crisis.