Codependency is a set of compulsive and maladaptive behaviours learned in order to survive in an emotionally painful and stressful environment, in a family or group set-up. It was at first defined as originating in families where addiction, mental illness or severe physical illness existed, but it’s now understood that these behaviours can be passed on from generation to generation whether alcoholism is present or not. The dysfunctional pattern of relating to others is developed during childhood according to family ‘rules’.
These family rules might include
- other people are more important than you
- it’s not okay for someone to have a bad mood – it could lead to disaster
- you have to earn approval
- keep your problems to yourself
- keep your feelings to yourself
- if you’re feeling bad, it’s your own fault
- be strong
- do everything perfectly
- don’t be selfish
- don’t rock the boat
- don’t speak about anything difficult or painful
- if you don’t obey these rules, you won’t be loved or liked
- if you don’t obey these rules, everything could fall apart
Codependency is especially common when verbal, physical and sexual abuse or violence is present. When children grow up in an environment where there is drunken or abusive behavior, or neglect, they have to learn to cope with the chaos and unpredictability. One way of coping is to be the family ‘fixer’ or ’rescuer’. This role usually consists of trying to look after one or both parents, often breaking up family disputes and acting as peace-keeper. The child quickly learns to put their needs second to others in the family, and subsequently when they grow up are attracted to partners who are either addictive in some way, or emotionally unavailable and need looking after.
Most of us have elements of codependency. In fact, it’s very important that at times we consider others before ourselves. However, for some codependency sufferers it gets in the way of happiness and can lead to ill health or addiction.