I am seeing themes of codependence more and more in my work with clients, but also in the people around me, and even in the world. I don’t think it is because it is on the rise – I think that it is just being seen in a clearer way. It seems that during this period of time, unhealthy social dependence is being revealed, and it makes sense to me that isolation, lockdown and quarantine situations would bring this to the forefront, both individually and collectively. It was already everywhere. But crisis reveals things.
Codependence, in the broadest sense, is much more prevalent than you might think. I see that like most things, it exists on a spectrum, and it is healthy for all of us to consider our relationships, and where they might be on this line. It is very likely for all of us, one or more of our social or intimate connections have some degree of codependence going on. This is not an indictment, it is just good to see. To see this, can bring adjustment. Rule number one in therapy and life – We cannot change things if we are not first aware.
What is Codependence?
But first of all, what do I mean by this existing on a spectrum, and what are we really talking about here? Well for starters, let’s get clear on a term that gets thrown around and misused a lot. A quick search will show you that the definition of codependence is a relationship characterized by excessive emotional or psychological reliance on another person, usually when that person requires support because of illness or addiction. It’s like person A develops a dependence on either a substance or a person or condition to help them feel ok, and person B develops a dependence on providing support to that person, in order for them to feel ok. And there are all sorts of variations in this that as far as I’m concerned, are still useful to call codependence, though I admit that I am stretching the clinical use of the term. It is an addiction of sorts – an addiction to a feeling or identity that is held in place by the way you relate to another person. It is tempting to say that it is addiction to a person, which might be a reasonable way to talk about it, but it is less about the person, strictly speaking, and more about the way you get to feel, or who you get to be, in relating to that person.
But the fascinating thing about it, is that codependence is, psychologically, just like an addiction – but rather than an addiction to a substance, it is addiction to a relationship dynamic.
And though it is most commonly seen in a romantic, intimate relationships – that is not the only place it shows up. Codependence can arise in any relationship, and it is just as commonly found in parent-child relationships, between siblings, with friends and roommates. Any relationship could be codependent, just like any drug can be addictive.
It all comes down to our use of externally located emotional regulators.
That means that any time that we are using something outside of ourselves to make us happy (or to calm us down, or to make us feel worthy, or validated) it can get slippery.
What is the common thing here with our addiction to substances such as alcohol or cannabis, and our addiction to people and relationships? As I have written about extensively, we can essentially become addicted to anything. Everything’s addictive, so to speak. And that is true because whatever external thing you rely on to make you feel good can become an addiction. When you rely on anything – be it alcohol, a person, the weather, running, etc. – then you run the risk of leaning on it for your sense of wellbeing. When you rely on something external to yourself for a sense of being happy or ok, you become bound to that thing. And if that thing is reliably and easily present, and it works for you for a good period of time, well then it just makes a lot of sense that you would continue to use it. But after prolonged use of something, be it alcohol or relationships, your brain literally wires around having that available – and this is what conditioned learning and habit formation is all about. It is very hard to change our habits!
The fact is that codependence is actually way, way more prevalent than other addictions, because many of us are wired for it in our families of origin. And this is where it gets tricky. Because as a baby, you are absolutely dependant on your parents for your sense of wellbeing. That is legitimate and true in profound, even biological ways. But here is the rub – we have to outgrow this dependence! And frankly, many of us just do not.
As I remind my clients all the time – and this is nothing new – but all the unresolved needs that we have from our parents and family growing up, we unconsciously try to resolve in our intimate relationships as adults. That is why the Oedipal complex is a valid and useful paradigm. The way that our mothers and fathers failed to love us is precisely the way that we want to be loved by our partners and friends. But ultimately we need to learn how to care for ourselves, and regulate our own emotions, or else, as the saying goes, the cane becomes the crutch. Meaning, if you let someone carry you, you will lose the ability to walk by yourself. This can go unnoticed for a long time. Years. Possibly, lifetimes.
To tie this back to relevant cultural conditions, it is interesting to me that a lot of what is happening right now in the world, is that people are starting to notice – only when these things were taken away during lockdown and quarantine – that they have been dependent on jobs, institutions, and social interactions to make them feel ok. And suddenly without them, we have to figure it out for ourselves. And many people discovered over the last few months that they forgot how to use their own legs.
As many of the regular distractions in our lives were abruptly not available, many of us found ourselves in a much smaller world, where we had to figure out new ways of regulating our emotions and staying balanced. Many people have been shocked to see how much of a workaholic they had become, or how without pubs, cafés and friends, they were really struggling. On one hand, we can see this as simply the affirmation that we are social creatures, who desire interaction and crave the presence of others. That is certainly true, and I don’t want to sound here like I am anti-social or pretending that our relationships are not very important. It is the reliance on them for a sense of personal identity, worth, and wellness that I want to point out, and which COVID-19 seems to be handily revealing for many of my friends and clients!
There is something perhaps bigger here too – our dependence upon institutions to regulate things – which we are now seeing that maybe we have given some of them too much power in our lives. Maybe we need to take some of that power back, not just individually in our intimate relationships but collectively, in our connection to our government and governing forces (like, obviously, the police). Maybe this whole time is about shaking up structures that no longer serve us, forcing us to find new ways to support each other without losing ourselves, or diminishing the other person.
We have been using each other for too long. We enslave lovers with our emotional manipulation, but it is just a magnified version of a global pattern, where we abuse the rights of other social classes to get what we want. Living in the commercialized, modern Western world it is arguably impossible not to be part of this system. Let’s at least admit that it’s there. We can’t change it if we don’t acknowledge it first.
And so we need to move, both individually and collectively, from co-dependence to interdependence. The fact is that we do rely on each other for so much! I rely on the farmers to grow my food, on the people who work in factories to make my clothes, to everyone who helps it get into my hands from wherever it started in the world. Coconut milk handy in my fridge! How could I do it alone?
And yet, when the shelves at the store are suddenly empty, it does not threaten my internal wellbeing. And if you don’t love me, I can still love myself. Going without our luxuries shows us that they are in fact luxuries. And it teaches us what matters. When we go without something that we thought we needed, we might – if we are very aware – be able to see that deep inside us we are still truly ok. And when I no longer need anything from you so that I can just feel ok, then we can truly have a relationship built on equality and fair exchange. Interdependence.
You are not, and could never be responsible for how I feel. And am not, not could I ever be responsible for how you feel. That is up to each of us, internally. To place the power of your own wellbeing into the hands of any person or condition is to lose yourself a little bit. And eventually we all need to take that power back again for us to see our wholeness.
And that is likely true for us as a planet, too.
It is possible that this whole COVID-19 period, and the subsequent stirrings of revolution-like social protest that has erupted out of the energy of frustration that it kindled, may ultimately prove to be the beginning of great goodness for the world, as all of us learn to come back to ourselves a bit more. It is showing us that many of these relationships – be they intimate and romantic, or political and systemic – are really not serving any of us. They maintain a status quo, but it is not one that is sustainable. At least not forever.
Peace begins in each person’s heart. When I can anchor strongly in my own worth and power, then I don’t need to take it from another person or thing. And I can model that in all my actions.
Emotionally and spiritually, we don’t ever need anything from anyone. While physically, every single one of us is essential to a precious ecosystem where we all have worth. To find the balance of these ideas brings us into a healthy interaction in the world. And if each of us could at least just move in the direction of that balance, the world would have far less suffering and abuse.
My cat is here now, at my ankles, bugging me for attention. He needs me to put his food out, to change the water and litter. But also, he makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t need me at all. He doesn’t snuggle with me when I want him to, and he doesn’t come when I call. But that’s so ok. We each do our own thing, and connect when it’s right. I think the relationship works. He is happy to stare at the birds, and actually, for right now, so am I.
Let’s all have the awareness to look at our connections to each other and notice what works, and let go of what doesn’t. And always, to bring the power back to yourself, and stop handing it over to others who not only cannot actually do it for you, but as is tragically often the case, don’t even care about your best interests.