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by Patty Simko

By now, many people have heard the term "co-dependency". That is because the syndrome of co-dependency is so widespread, and it appears with ever increasing frequency. What is co-dependency, exactly? And why is it harmful? Why should we care about this strange sounding phenomenon?

Co-dependency is actually an umbrella term; it represents an entire range of feelings, beliefs about ourselves, behaviors and symptoms. The main characteristic is a BIG focus on another person. This is usually our loved one – spouse, significant other, lover, boyfriend/girlfriend. But a person who is co-dependent often is focused on EVERYBODY else, rather than on her/himself. For example, when going out to a restaurant with a group, everyone might be trying to decide on where to go. The co-dependent person will demur, saying, "I don’t care, anywhere is ok with me." While this can be a very useful strategy in a group and make getting places easier, for the co-dependent, this lack of decision-making ability and knee-jerk compliance is a big problem. The co-dependent becomes so compliant and passive, eager to please the others that s/he really does forget to know what s/he wants/likes/prefers!

Typically, the co-dependent person came from a dysfunctional home in which their emotional needs were not met. Their parents were not able to provide the attention, warmth and responsiveness which kids need in order to feel that their needs count. So, they grew up feelings that their needs did NOT matter, that their desires were unimportant, that they themselves were 2nd class citizens. Over time, the co-dependent person actually FORGETS what her or his needs, desires, feelings about things even are! In one cartoon which captures this dynamic, the husband and wife are looking at each other over their menus in a restaurant. The husband says to the wife, "I forget, which one of us doesn’t like fish?"

Of course, as kids, we try and try to get the response we need from our least until we give up completely. But we remain always drawn to that same sort of familiar emotionally unavailable person whom we can try to get love from, whom we can try to change. The need to re-play the childhood drama and TRY, TRY, TRY to achieve a different ending is so intense, that it determines even the type of person the co-dependent is drawn to! A person who is kind, stable, reliable and interested would not be attractive, typically, to the co-dependent person...they would appear "boring." Having received very little nurturing, the co-dependent tries to fill this unmet need vicariously, by becoming a care-giver, especially to any person who appears in some way needy.

Many consequences flow from this sorry state of affairs. For one, co-dependents become addicted to emotional pain and to unhealthy relationships. They are drawn to people who are not available to them, or who reject them or abuse them. They often develop unhealthy relationships that eventually become unbearable. Because relationships hurt so much, co-dependents are more in touch with the dream of how the relationship COULD be, rather than the reality of the situation.

The co-dependent is often immobilized by romantic obsessions. They search for the "magical quali" in others to make them feel complete. They might idealize other people and endow them with powerful symbolism.

In the relationship, the co-dependent will do anything to keep it from dissolving. This is because s/he is terrified of abandonment, the same psychic abandonment s/he felt as a kid when the parents were not there. So nothing is too much trouble, takes too much time or is too expensive if it will "help" the person the co-dependent is involved with. Co-dependents are willing to take more than 50% of the responsibility, guilt and blame in any relationship (one person told me that when people bumped into her, she was the one who said, "I’m sorry.")

Accustomed to lack of love in a relationship, co-dependents are willing to wait, hope, and try harder to please. At the same time, they have a desperate need to control the relationship. This is because the need to exact the missing love and security s the foremost motivation in any relationship for a co-dependent. Co-dependent people mask these efforts to control people and situations as "being helpful." In fact, attempts to "help" other people, when these others are adults, almost always have elements of control in them.

The paradox here is that co-dependents really fear relationships, because of their bad track record at home! But they continually search for them. In the relationship, they fear abandonment and rejection, or they are chronically angry. But outside of a relationship, they feel empty and incomplete. This is because their self-esteem is critically low, and deep inside, there is some sort of belief that they do not deserve the love they seek, they do not deserve to be happy. Rather, they must work to earn the right to be happy...and of course, they never win.

By being drawn to people with problems that need fixing, or by being enmeshed in situations that are chaotic, uncertain and emotionally painful, they avoid focusing on their responsibility to themselves. While constantly seeking intimacy with another person, the "desperate" quality of their needs makes true intimacy impossible. In trying to conceal the demanding-ness from themselves and others, they grow more isolated and alienated from themselves and from the very people they long to be close to! They may be predisposed emotionally and often biochemically to becoming addicted to drugs, alcohol, and/or certain foods, especially sugary ones. They may have a tendency toward episodes of depression, which they try to forestall through the excitement provided by unstable relationships.

No doubt about it, co-dependency can be a serious, even fatal addiction. Most of us have some of these characteristics, at least at times. And we have to ask what can be done about it? Fortunately, there is hope for the person caught in the trap of co-dependent relationships/personality traits. Recovery from co-dependency is much like recovery from any other addiction: it takes time, commitment, and a willingness to do the work.


Help and Hope for Co-Dependency

In our seminar on co-dependency, we discussed the forces in childhood which lead to adult behavior which focuses on the other as the valued one. We saw the types of behaviors and attitudes which characterize this addiction, and we explored a little bit of the underlying problem.

In this seminar, we will discuss the recovery process, for there is help and hope for people suffering from this dynamic. Even a slight effort toward recovery will make a difference, and there are many resources available to anyone who wishes to begin the recovery process. Here are the steps for recovery as outlined by the 12-step recovery group, Co-dependents Anonymous:

  • Go for help. A reputable therapist or a recovery group is a very important tool here, because others can help you see your own co-dependent behavior and attitudes in ways you may not see yourself. Co-dependents Anonymous (CODA) is a free group which meets in many places around the country. Therapists likewise can help, and are everywhere. Therapy clinics often offer low fee, professional services provided by therapists who are training for advanced certification.
  • Make recovery a first priority. Like all addictions, co-dependency is insidious; you may recognize yourself in the symptoms, but then deny their importance, or deny that they apply to you after all. You make decide to change, and then time after time, find yourself doing the same old things. Making recovery a first priority means outlining your destructive behaviors, finding alternative behaviors, and then implementing them! It means going to meetings, challenging yourself, talking with others about changing, and then changing!
  • Identify with others in your group and begin to know yourself. The more you learn about this disease, the more you will see how it creeps into every aspect of your life, and how destructive it can be. Listening to others, and identifying with them can help you recognize yourself and understand yourself better. These are the first steps toward accepting and loving yourself, and setting higher standards, more appropriate goals.
  • Develop a spiritual side through daily practice. An inner life is important to those recovering from co-dependency, because it will allow you to see that you are loveable, and that your whole world does not have to revolve around the other person. Your practice might be daily meditation, reflecting on nature, watching the sunrise or sunset, playing music and experiencing its effects on your body, praying to a higher power, working in your garden...any activity which is serene and focuses you on a source of nurturance outside of your brain.
  • Stop managing and controlling others. This is a big challenge, but an important one. Here you stop telling the other what to do, how to live, what is wrong - or right! - with him or her. You stop intervening, helping, advising, trying to make things better, trying to fix it, trying to force a solution. You simply stop. You allow this other person to make his or her own decisions, for right or for wrong, you let them live their own life. This includes taking responsibility for their own mistakes, their future, their unhappiness, their issues and their own growth.
  • Courageously face your own problems and shortcomings. Now that you have liberated your energy from the other person's life, you have lots of time and energy to focus on your own life. All the things that occupied you with the other might actually need attention in your OWN life! Often co-dependents in recovery say that they never realized how chaotic their own lives were, or how empty, how lonely, etc. Now is your time to face yourself, instead of dissipating your energy on trying to fix someone else.
  • Cultivate whatever you need to develop as an individual. In facing yourself, you may see that you need to get in touch with your anger, or grieve what you have lost or what you never had, or contact your inner life. You need to sit still with yourself, that is important...WITH YOURSELF...and find out what you need to do, what you need to be, what you need to address to continue with your development.
  • Become "selfish." At this point, you need to practice putting yourself first. Do you know how they tell parents on airplanes to always put on your oxygen mask first before trying to help a child with its mask? The adult has to be able to breathe and to have his or her needs adequately addressed before being able to help anybody. This is true for all aspects of life, not just for oxygen masks! Make sure your basic needs are met before you start giving away your time, energy, money, and other resources. Make sure you get your sleep, your meals, your serenity, and whatever else is important to you. When you are adequately supplied, then and only then will you have "stuff" to give to someone else. When co-dependents tell me that they really don't care what decisions are made, and it's ok for the other person to run the show, I tell them to START show up and have an opinion. It is important here to learn how to advocate for yourself.
  • Begin to feel that you are worthy of all life has to offer. This is tricky. Most people, if asked, will say "of course I think I am worthy!" But if you look at their lives, you may see a pattern which belies that belief. They are unhappy in their work, underemployed, bored or otherwise unhappy. Perhaps they don't take care of their bodies, and fail to consult doctors when they need to. Or they overwork, and fail to give themselves enough rest. One woman blew off her doctor's appointment to help her lover with some clerical work; another person needed to be reminded that she was entitled to take her vitamins and be healthy. One way to know the areas in your life in which you have low self-esteem is to look at the places in your life which don't work! What do you tend to complain about? What needs fixing in your life? In your personality? How do these areas reflect low self-esteem?

Recovery from co-dependency is based on increased self-esteem...a self-esteem which can be gained by increased self-knowledge, your strong points and your weak points, and a full acceptance of yourself. There is a basic self-love, which you carefully nurture and expand. You get in touch with your feelings and attitudes about every aspect of your personality, including your sexuality. You begin to not only accept, but to actually cherish every aspect of yourself: your personality, your appearance, your beliefs and values, your body, your interests and accomplishments. You begin to validate yourself, rather than searching for a relationship to give you a sense of self-worth. As you do this, you can enjoy being with others, especially lovers, who are fine just as they are. You will not need to be needed in order to feel worthy.

You also work on accepting others as they are, without trying to change them to meet your needs. You know that you are safe because your standards are higher; you become open and trusting, but only with APPROPRIATE people. You no longer expose yourself to the exploitation of those who are not interested in your well-being. Your higher criteria and standards are reflected in your approach to relationships. Now, instead of hanging on to your relationship for dear life, you ask, "Is this relationship good for me? Does it allow me to grow into all I am capable of being?" When the answer is no, when a relationship is destructive, you are able to let go of it without becoming terrified or unduly depressed. You will find a circle of supportive friends and healthy interests to see you through crises.

Your values change; now, rather than your partner, you value your peace of mind and serenity above all else. You lose interest in the struggles, drama and chaos of the past. You become protective of yourself, your health and your well-being. You come to realize that for a relationship to work, it must be between partners who share similar values, interests, and goals, and who each have the capacity for intimacy.

You come to know that you are worthy of the best that life has to offer, and you know that with help, perhaps, you can find a way to achieve that!

About the Author:

Patricia Simko is a New York based psychotherapist/psychoanalyst.  She is a graduate of  New York University and of the Training and Research Institute for Self Psychology (TRISP).   She has been working with people in therapy for 12 years, and works with individuals, couples and groups.   

Her innovative style combines a solid theoretical base in Self  Psychology and classical analysis combined with a variety of tools and modalities which allow for a maximum of flexibility in working with people.

She is trained in Gestalt Therapy, psychodrama, Ericksonian hypnosis, Rubenfeld Synergy, EMDR, and IMAGO Therapy.  Patricia has presented papers, led discussions, and been  featured as an expert guest on many radio and television programs on issues in mental health.  Patricia has taught psychology at The New School University, at TRISP, and at New York University.

A believer in in the integration of body, mind and spirit, Patricia holds as a goal of therapy the growth of the Individual and the integration of all the parts of the self. Her warm and empathetic stance contribute to the healing process.

Rather than seeing therapy as a means of simply avoiding the pain, Patricia works with people to enable them to live through their own inner reality, and make peace with their feelings, their past, their inner selves.




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