Codependence Explained in Psychological Terms

The term "codependence" has been bantered about for decades, first in reference to being the unfortunate partner of an alcoholic or drug addict who displayed behaviors that supported the addiction. A revival of the term came about in the 1980's with the emergence of 12-Step Codependency (or CODA) Groups. At this point, the term was loosely used to refer to anyone who put another person's needs before their own, to the consistent detriment of themselves.

Popular recovery authors made discussions of codependency more common-place, but succinct explanations that cite the early personality theorists are often lacking. This article is an attempt to integrate both camps: popular authors' personality theory and research to support similar concepts. These well-discussed and researched concepts have not received as much public acceptance, although they are steeped in decades of research that extend far beyond the 1980s. This article is an attempt to summarize this theory and research while discussing it in non-scientific language. According to many interpersonal theorists, the two most basic underlying motivations in forming and maintaining human relationships are intimacy and power. By presenting an exploration of the multiple ways in which we interact with others to experience power, this article outlines the various ways we are mutually addicted to one another. The objective of this article is to remind ourselves that even though we often strive to experience happiness by feeling a sense of power with others, an alternate path motivated by intimacy, trust, care, and love may be far more rewarding in the long run.

Co-Dependence as a Form of Addiction

Somewhere along the way in life, we can forget to love others for the sake of others. How does this happen?

  • We experience pain and hardships that make us afraid and defensive.
  • We learn to associate with others for our own personal gain.
  • We begin striving more and more to experience pleasure by becoming powerful and controlling.

Love Is Not the Only Drug

Dependencies are most commonly discussed in relation to substance abuse but dependencies can also occur between people. Interpersonal dependencies are commonly associated with love, romance, and friendships. We often think of interpersonal dependencies as a positive experience, a "feeling good habit" that develops when we experience togetherness with others. It is associated with a genuine sense of trust, and care for the well-being of others. The pleasure of togetherness however, can be experienced in two ways:

  1. characterized by trust, care, and love with others and
  2. by controlling and thus imposing our own will onto others.

Many relationship experts believe that people need both tenderness and power. In relationships, most people strive to achieve both to varying degrees. For example, we may focus on developing a sense of togetherness based on trust, care, and love with our family members, and we may try to control our family members, too. Though it is common to be dependent on togetherness with specific other individuals, dependency can also occur when we begin depending on specific others who consistently allow us to control and impose our own will onto them. For example, let's consider the following situation:

Every time Jane wants Jack to do some housework, she authoritatively demands it from him. As a result, Jack does the housework and Jane is rewarded for her demanding behavior. On the other hand, every time Jack wants something from Jane, Jack begins complaining. When Jack complains, Jane provides him with attention and Jack gets what he wants. Jack is rewarded for complaining.

Both Jane and Jack have specific interpersonal patterns developed from their past interactions with each other and with others in their lives, as far back as in their respective childhoods. These methods of interacting with others are commonly referred to as interpersonal patterns or interpersonal behavior patterns. Subtle ways of controlling others are used repeatedly with our friends and family since childhood. Thus as a child, if I repeatedly find that I am able to have my way when I cry, I may develop an interpersonal behavior pattern of crying based on a general belief system stating, "I can get what I want if I cry". John Bowlby, a well known scholar on human development, refers to these general belief systems as "working models". He has written extensively about how we use these working models to maximize our ability to get pleasure.

Specific Interpersonal Behavior Patterns

We all have specific behaviors designed to control others. Some of us may resort to being highly demanding or intimidating. Others may use more indirect methods such as using sarcasm or spreading rumors. Although we all have different interaction patterns, some of the more prevalent ones may be lumped into larger categories. Below are some of the patterns that we recognize most commonly in others. Of course, if we are very perceptive, we can also recognize them in ourselves.

  1. One-upmanship. This is perhaps the most simple and obvious type of interpersonal pattern of controlling or at least imposing our own will onto someone When we find ourselves arguing about who is right or who is better, we are in essence trying to impose our own will onto others. Sometimes this is just a matter of simple boasting. In other cases this may manifest itself in heated arguments.
  2. Criticism / high expectation. This behavior is characterized as being overly demanding of others. We expect others to be the way we want them to be, regardless of how they feel. We often criticize others, make sarcastic remarks, and make others feel inadequate. The underlying message of this behavior pattern is, "I demand that you to live up to my expectations and you are failing."
  3. Intimidation / anger. This is the extreme version of criticism / high expectation. This behavior is characterized as frightening others through intimidation or expressing anger. The underlying message here is, "I will punish you (even more) if you are not the way I demand you to be."
  4. Self-pity / guilt trip. This behavior involves making others feel sorry for one's self or making others feel guilty for not being compassionate. We sometimes demand that others wallow with us in our pity. At other times, we manipulate others to do things by making them feel guilty if they don't pay attention to us. The underlying message is, "You are making me suffer even more if you don't attend to my feelings."
  5. Buttering-up. This is a common variation of self-pity / guilt trip. It involves convincing others to do things we don't want to do by telling them that we are not good at it and they are better at it. This type of behavior also tends to make others feel guilty for not being compassionate and helpful.
  6. Aloofness and charisma. Though not easily identified, this is another very common interpersonal pattern. We try to generate interest in ourselves by withholding important information from others. The underlying message is, "I have something you want, but I won't give it to you."
  7. Passive-aggressiveness. This interpersonal pattern is similar to aloofness / charisma. With passive aggression, we do subtle things to cause the other person to feel a negative emotion (e.g., concern, annoyance, anger). For instance, we may be late just to annoy someone. In extreme cases, we may actually begin feeling sick (not just pretending to feel sick) to make others more concerned about us.
  8. Chainchatting. This involves speaking non-stop, and without listening to others. We sometimes demand attention incessantly without letting others have their turn. This is a mild form of imposing our will onto others: demanding that the other person to attend to our own needs while ignoring their needs. This type of behavior often makes others feel ignored and disrespected.
  9. "Yes, but" This pattern, identified by Eric Berne, a well known expert in this area, involves confiding in someone about a problem, but when that person offers suggestions, we respond with "Yes, but." and dismiss their suggestions. This can continue until the other person gives up. This pattern is not used to get helpful suggestions, but rather, to get attention.

Our Own Addictions: We Might As Well Face Them

Although we all engage in these types of behaviors to some degree, it is difficult to become aware of our own patterns because this type of information is most commonly processed out of our conscious awareness. Oftentimes, it takes a therapist or another perceptive person who is not afraid to inform us about our habits to realize that we actually use these negative patterns. Unless we experience complete ego-transcendence with nothing but the pure love for the well-being of others, dependencies are inevitable. These patterns are usually considered to be maladaptive when we consistently use these patterns with specific individuals, and we feel like we need them in order to maintain our sense of well-being. They are maladaptive when we begin relying on each other excessively to compensate for our insecurities.

Strong mutual dependencies based on these deep insecurities are what we commonly characterize as codependence. We often develop this type of maladaptive dependency with our family members and close friends. These dependencies, however, usually work in both directions. As in the example of Jane and Jack illustrated earlier, the people we are dependent on are, in many cases, dependent on us as well. Despite the fact that the term "codependence" is commonly used when we excessively rely on others in this way, we could consider most of our relationships as mildly codependent. Although most of our relationships are not highly problematic, many of them can still be improved by making a conscious effort to recognize our own behavioral patterns. In fact, most interpersonal forms of therapy focus on helping us become more aware of our own interpersonal patterns and its long-term effects.

The more we become aware of our own patterns, the more we are able to change the problematic ones, and free ourselves from our problematic codependences. The first step toward recovery is awareness. True recovery then leads to positive human growth. We gradually learn to experience pleasure by developing a sense of togetherness characterized by trust, care, and love with others rather than by controlling others. This is what makes the study of interpersonal dependencies so fascinating and meaningful. It helps us learn about ourselves and realize our true potential as human beings.

The Road of Life

Many of us have forgotten to love others for the sake of others. To varying extents, most of us have moments of fear, rigidity, and cynicism. To varying extents, we learn to associate with others for our own personal gain. We learn to take pleasure in controlling and imposing our own will onto others. We forget more and more that the path through trust, care, and love may be even more rewarding. This loss of our "selves" and excessive dependence on others is the essence of human drama, of love stories and tales of friendships. We constantly tell each other stories to remind us of this truth, because we realize that even if we are reminded today, we will probably forget tomorrow.

Jumpstart Your Journey!

We have probably all used the interpersonal patterns listed in this article. Here are a few ideas to help you learn to overcome these very human tendencies:

  • Examine each of your relationships and think about which patterns you might sometimes use.
  • If you cannot think of any, show this list to a close friend or family member, and ask them for feedback about these patterns. Choose someone who knows you well, is kind, but not afraid to tell you the truth.
  • Once you identify your own patterns, try to catch yourself in the act. There is no need to feel bad about it (everyone does it).
  • Take pride in your growing ability to stop yourself from pursuing a hurtful pattern with someone you love.
  • You can also engage in activities that make you feel powerful and confident without hurting others (e.g., writing how you feel in a journal, exercising, breathing deeply, expressing love and affection to others, etc.).

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