What is Co-Dependency and what can I do about it?
How do I know if I am Co-dependent or am in a relationship with Co-dependent behaviors? What is Counter-dependency? All of this and more is answered in this article by Grand Rapids Counselor Paul Krauss at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids:
What is Co-Dependency?
- Co-dependency is classified as learned behavior that often develops during childhood.
- Co-dependency is often found to be closely tied to one’s family of origin and the unique family dynamics, and is essentially unconsciously taught to someone by their family.
- It is a behavioral and emotional pattern that affects a person’s ability to have balanced, healthy, mutually satisfying relationships.
- People with strong co-dependency traits often find themselves in relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive, emotionally neglectful, toxic, and/or abusive.
- Co-dependency or co-dependent behavior is an unconscious learned style of functioning in relationships with family, friends, and sexual partners—that is often so ingrained in one’s personality that a person may not recognize it.
- Often times people who have identified as exhibiting co-dependent behavior also have a history related to alcoholism, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, repression of emotions or communication, or instability and dysfunction in their family of origin.
Co-dependent behaviors are often identified in adulthood through introspection or feedback from peers or partners. Such co-dependent behaviors are often the result of an incomplete, disrupted, or frozen stage of normal human development, which can also cause development trauma in humans.
Stages of Human Development:
- Birth to 6 Months: The first phase is a very necessary co-dependency that in healthy progression of human development happens from birth to 6 months (or until child begins to crawl). During this phase, the caregiver and child do not experience separateness; there is a natural enmeshment in which the caregiver provides for all of the child’s needs—so that they may survive. During and through this process, trust and bonding occur. If there are major disruptions during the bonding process, the child may get stuck in a pattern of codependency and develop difficulty trusting others for years to come. Examples of disruptions include: birth complications, lack of skin-to-skin contact during the first 24 hours after birth, illness in caregiver or child, abuse or neglect, and caregivers’ inconsistency in meeting the needs of the child, and a range of inconsistent and negative attachment styles on the part of the caregiver.
- 6 Months to 3 Years of Age: The second phase is called the counter-dependent stage, which happens from approximately 6 months to 3 years of age. The important process during this phase is actually the opposite of the first stage; it is separation. A child should begin to view their parents/caregivers as separate individuals and develop the desire to begin exploring their world. It is vital for caregivers to allow the child freedom to explore while being nearby and available to provide comfort, safety, and encouragement when the child chooses to return.
When a child begins to realize the separateness from their caregiver, they may begin to feel scared or vulnerable. A child will often have temper tantrums and demand the caregivers’ immediate presence or attention. It is imperative that the caregivers do not engage in power struggles during this time, and realize that these behaviors are normal and instead offer emotional support. Most children are very perceptive and can sense if their caregivers begin to resent their behaviors. While boundaries for safety and to limit destruction of property are necessary, if caregivers are not consistent with their emotional support, comfort, and nurturing developmental trauma may occur.
During this phase, an important developmental milestone is reached: object constancy. This means that a child realizes that even though the caregiver may not be immediately physically present, they still exist. However, if caregivers are absent long periods of time, or inconsistent in their pattern of being with their child, then the child may not be able to fully grasp the concept of object constancy. Such a rupture may lead to feelings of abandonment or being unlovable in child (and may continue into adulthood). It is important to note that caregivers have a history—and if they did not complete their own separation process during their childhood development it is possible that they may fear abandonment as well and cause them to stymie their own children from feeling safe in developing their own sense of self.
- Age 3 to approximately 6 years old: Eventually, the counter-dependent phase will be completed successfully and the child will move into the third phase of development: independence. This phase often lasts until age 6. During this phase the child begins to master taking care of themselves, learns to function independently in a number of tasks and in play, begins to unconsciously develop or inherit core values, begins to be effectual in different social settings. It is fundamental to healthy development that caregivers help the child to learn how to self-regulate emotions (with the appropriate amount of help from the parent), and have some ability to sustain through delayed gratification. Other important skills are emotional in nature, such as developing empathy for others, how to share resources, and how to notice and engage others. During this phase children should also learn how to solve simple problems.
- Age 6 to approximately 29 years old: The longest stage of healthy development is the interdependent phase, which may last until age 29 (or longer!). The primary task in this phase of development is to be able to move back and forth between oneness and separateness (from self and caregivers), with healthy boundaries, expectations, and communication. It is important that the child learns to cooperate with others and to negotiate to have his/her needs met. Learning to be accountable for behaviors and life experiences is important in this phase. As the child’s abilities increase, the caregivers must tactfully assess their child’s abilities and encourage them with emotional support as they face larger and more daunting tasks and responsibilities. In a healthy interdependent phase, the parent(s) gradually allow their child to experience more and more age-appropriate responsibilities, do not attempt to “rescue them” from the natural consequences of their own behaviors (excluding death by overdose or suicide), allow their child to experience, understand, and take responsibility for their emotional experiences, and encourage the child to develop a sense of self, a passion, and to engage with their peers more and more. The parent would ideally not meddle heavily in their child’s affairs nor give them unsolicited advice. The parent would hopefully be aware of their own fear and not project it onto their child, as well as take accountability for their own regrets and unlived dreams and not attempt to live out their dreams or unlived life through their child. The parent must allow their child to develop into an independent person. Eventually, the goal of the interdependent phase is that the child emerges as an independent adult who has a relationship with their parent which has progressed to the point where the parent can serve as a mentor or consultant, but no longer has to frequently “parent” their child.
The Role of Developmental Trauma in Developing Co-Dependent Behavioral Patterns
Any critical developmental process that is not mastered during the age-appropriate time will be carried in one form or another (thoughts, unconscious behaviors, symptoms) into the subsequent developmental phases. Development can stall completely if too many developmental processes are not completed transitioned. Most often, codependent behaviors are actually a present way of coping with difficult circumstances caused by major developmental disruptions that happened along time ago—during development—these disruptions are also known as developmental trauma. Disruptions during the processes of bonding/attachment (in the co-dependent phase) and separation (in the counter-dependent phase) are often considered the most critical and will likely lead to co-dependency as well as symptoms often reported by individuals from in the ACES study (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study). Common disruptions include but are not limited to the following: traumatic birth, critical illness of infant or caregiver, lack of skin-to-skin contact within 24 hours after birth, inconsistency in having needs met, emotional disengagement of caregivers, physical neglect by caregivers, multiple changes of primary caregivers, repeated and/or long separations from caregivers, caregivers who project their feelings and unlived hopes and dreams unto their children, caregivers who use children to meet their own needs, and maternal use of alcohol or drugs during pregnancy/nursing.
If secure bonding does not occur with a child, there will be a manifestation of symptoms and behaviors seeking after these unmet needs for unconditional love, protection, nurturing, and underlying primal trust will continue to manifest throughout their adult life. Adults with codependent behaviors often feel stuck while attempting to complete the bonding process, due to becoming dependent on or attached to another person (or crisis, or job, etc.)
It is also important to understand that caregivers also may not have completed essential developmental processes themselves, which inherently will impact their ability to provide relational skills, assertive communication, and adequate emotional support for their children.
Family Dynamics, Dysfunction and Codependency
In a dysfunctional family, members may have multiple feelings such as anxiety, shame, fear, anger, and pain, which is ignored, denied, or aggressively used against them. There are often underlying problems in the family such as co-dependency, communication issues, addiction, abuse, neglect and/or chronic illness. Most of the time problems, which clearly exist, are not acknowledged by family members (except perhaps in a fit of rage). Many members of these families begin to repress their emotions and ignore their own needs. Unconsciously at first, family members will engage in patterns of behavior that support the family dynamic of avoidance an/or denial. Often times, the members of a dysfunctional family suffer from emotional development delays. To further avoid the problems that happen in the family, there is often a focus on one member of the family who may be sick, suffering from addiction, or have behavioral problems. Family members struggling with co-dependency will often ignore their own needs to take care of a person in the family who is the focus. Over time, to survive, the family member focuses on other’s needs instead of his or her own. Eventually, they may lose sight of their own desires, personal feelings, sense of self, and even basic needs.
Codependency and Relationship Addiction
People who struggle with codependent behaviors tend to find themselves “addicted” to a relationship in the way that another person might become addicted to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. A person with co-dependency traits might have a core belief that they cannot function or live without the other person or the relationship. If a person with co-dependency is in a relationship—they often struggle with boundaries, to the point where they are unclear or non-existent. They may even find themselves unable to know the difference between what they think or want, and what their partner thinks of wants. A person with codependent behaviors may feel resentful of their partner’s behaviors, but are unable to directly discuss their own needs and what they need—or even discuss their dissatisfaction with their partner’s behaviors.
Characteristics of Co-dependency
When people are struggling from co-dependent behaviors—their actions often appear to be stunted in an earlier emotional time and place. Most of the time, these behaviors are an attempt to protect or defend their sense of self, or perhaps an attempt to “complete” a developmental process that was disrupted in their childhood. Some co-dependent characteristics and behaviors are listed below:
*You have problems distinguishing your own thoughts and feelings from those of others (you may feel responsible and think about other people and their problems).
*You seek the attention and/or approval of others in order to feel good.
*You feel inappropriately guilty or anxious when others have a problem in their lives.
*You will do things to please others even if you don’t want to.
*You are not aware of you need or want.
*You defer to or rely on others to define and take care of your wants or needs.
*You believe that other people better understand what is best for you.
*You find yourself devastated and shutting down when things don’t work out the way you expect them to.
*You focus all or most of your energy on other people and their happiness or in fixing their problems.
*You take actions to prove to others that you are “good enough” to be loved.
*You don’t believe you are capable of taking care of yourself.
*You may naively believe that almost everyone else is trustworthy.
*You often idealize others and are disappointed when they don’t live up to your expectations.
*You “throw a fit”, pout or whine or pout in attempts to get what you want.
*You feel unseen, unappreciated and/or under-appreciated by others.
*When things go wrong, you blame yourself first.
*You believe you are not “good enough.”
*You live in fear of rejection by others.
*Your narrative makes you seem that you are a victim of circumstances.
*You’re terrified to make mistakes.
*You wish that others would like or love you more.
*You hardly ever make demands on others.
*You’re afraid that if you express your true feelings, people will reject you.
*You let others hurt you without attempting to protect yourself.
*You hardly trust yourself or your own decisions.
*You find it difficult to be alone with yourself.
*You pretend that bad things are not happening to you, even when they are.
*You keep as busy as possible, in order to not think about your circumstances and life.
*Outwardly you act as though you don’t need anything from anyone.
*You may experience people and life situations either as all bad or all good.
*You will lie to protect and cover-up for someone you love.
*If you feel scared, hurt, or angry—you work to not let it show.
*You find it quite difficult to sustain intimacy with others over time.
*You have difficulties with being spontaneous or having fun.
*You have an underlying feeling of anxiety most of the time and don’t know why.
*You feel a compulsion to eat, drink, work, or even have sex when you don’t seem to get much enjoyment from the activity.
*You find yourself worrying obsessively that other people will leave you.
*You feel trapped in multiple relationships or one in particular.
*You feel you have to manipulate, beg, coerce, or bribe others to get what you want.
*You yell or cry in attempts to get what you want.
*You feel controlled by the feelings and emotions of other people.
*You’re afraid of your own anger.
*You feel powerless and helpless to change yourself or your situation.
*You believe it would be easier if someone else changed in order for you to feel better.
If you related to more than half the items above, it is likely that you have some co-dependent behaviors to address. Co-dependency occurs when there is an externally directed focus in life where you may expect others to fix or direct some area of your life. Or you may stay in denial of your own wants and needs while focusing on another person or their problems. Anecdotally, it is seen that two people with co-dependency issues will come together in an attempt to form one whole person. Co-dependent behaviors are seen as adaptive responses to childhood developmental trauma. And thus, many co-dependent behaviors and relationships are merely an adult attempt to complete an early childhood bonding that was disrupted. In a co-dependent relationship, each person in the relationship may feel that they cannot function without the other.
Counter-dependence: A similar situation, but a different reaction.
Some people develop counter-dependence as a response to experiencing developmental trauma. One of the core tenants of counter-dependence is an attempt to flee from intimacy, which involves many diverse behaviors and personality characteristics, which include the following characteristics/behaviors: creating overly rigid boundaries, pushing other people away, attempting to appear overly independent, acting overly strong, blaming others for problems, working on keeping extremely busy, and major difficulties trusting others. Counter-dependent behaviors are linked to disruptions in child development, usually in the counter-dependent phase. Typically, there is a situation of neglect or abuse between 6 months and 3 years (although it doesn’t have to be during a specific time, necessarily) and/or secure bonding did not occur. Children may emotionally separate from caregivers in the counter-dependent phase of development if abuse is present. A child growing up in an abusive situation may grow to believe that the world is not a safe place and others cannot be trusted. These core beliefs may show up in later adulthood as counter-dependence.
A frequent personality quirk of counter-dependent individuals is that they often appear to feel secure, strong, and overtly hardworking on the outside, while they may admit that they feel week, fearful, insecure, and needy on the inside. People who struggle with counter-dependency often create a slew of outward defense mechanisms in order to prevent others from recognizing their emotional weaknesses, neediness, and vulnerability. Often, a counter-dependent individual fears being judged, criticized, or shamed—as this may remind them of childhood experiences. At times, such defenses will present as rebelling against authority figures, passive-aggressive behavior, and a refusal to rely on others for support or help. Counter-dependent individuals will often struggle with perfectionism. In relationships, there is anecdotal evidence that one individual may take a co-dependent role, while the other takes the counter-dependent role. Unless major relationship and “inner work” has been done, there may be shifts from counter to co-dependent in a relationship, which is not true healing, but merely a role reversal.
What can I do to address my Co-dependency and Counter-dependence
Co-dependency is not a disease or a diagnosis. Co-dependency is a learned behavior. This means that it is essential to learn different and new ways of interacting with others. Boundary setting and assertive communication skills are the keys to learn to be successful in building healthy relationships. This all starts with self-examination and insight. Next, it is important to accept that one has co-dependent behaviors and recognize unhealthy boundaries. While considering your boundaries, it is important to consider how others treat you. Your response to others’ behaviors gives them permission to treat you a certain way or not. Eventually, you must take action to unlearn unhealthy patterns and work on your own narrative story, find out what you want, and work to reduce unhealthy patterns of behavior through dealing with both the developmental trauma you experienced and the current circumstances and challenges in your life. You can change. Help is available and change is possible.
- Talk therapy (Counseling aka Psychotherapy)
- Trauma-Informed Counseling to address developmental trauma as well as current co-dependent behaviors.
- EMDR Therapy to address emotions and triggers
- Somatic Experiencing Therapy
- Group Therapy
- Informal and formal Support Groups
- Bibliotherapy (Reading books and articles)
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
Breaking Free of the Co-dependency Trap—by Barry Weinhold, PhD & Janae Weinhold, PhD
Codependents’ Guide to the Twelve Steps—by Melody Beattie
Codependent No More—by Melody Beattie
Co-dependency—by Teresa Kleffner, MSC, LCSW—
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
The Flight from Intimacy—by Barry Weinhold, PhD & Janae Weinhold, PhD
The New Codependency—by Melody Beattie
If you are located in the Grand Rapids area and are looking for help with co-dependent or counter-dependent behaviors, contact the counselors at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids to work on regaining control of your life, while working on healing the roots of these behaviors. Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids is the home of the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids.