Jonathan Hooker

What is Codependence and How Does it Affect Our Lives?


Codependence is a complex concept, and it can affect different people’s lives in different ways. Perhaps the key to understanding it is to understand where the term comes from. It is often not understood and, probably more often, misunderstood.

The term was created by a group of researchers working in the USA. They were studying a number of people who were addicted to alcohol, or to use their term dependent on alcohol. The researchers were studying the interactions that these individuals had in their homes with their families. During their study they noticed that the other family members were exhibiting a group of behaviours that were common to all the families being studied. As they continued the study they decided that they needed a name for these behaviours, and because they belonged to people who cohabited with dependents, they decided to call these codependent behaviours.

It is important to understand that people who are dependent on alcohol, or who have some other addiction, tend to behave, for at least some of the time, in an ‘unreasonable’ manner. So the dynamics of the families described above are not only limited to people living with alcoholics. People who live with family members who are addicted to other drugs, sex, work, the internet or computer, can all develop these characteristics. However this can also happen in families in which rules are very strictly enforced, or when a family is very restrictively religious, or where there is very little affection demonstrated. So why is this?

Well as individuals we all have needs. These needs are to be loved and cared-for, for others to show us affection, and to be allowed to have our own way for a reasonable balance of the time we share with others. We tend to learn and develop strategies and ways of getting those needs met quite early on in life. So if we are living in an environment where we do not get our needs met, we will learn to manipulate and control the environment, and those other people in it, so that we do get our needs met, at least for some of the time. These were the behaviours the alcohol dependence researchers identified.

Imagine living in a family where one member of the family is causing stress on the whole family unit, because they drink too much alcohol every day. It would be natural for the other family members to try to control this, in order to make their own lives more enjoyable, or even perhaps tolerable. So they may do favours, or seek to occupy the family ‘stressor’ by doing something, or anything, that will prevent them from drinking, or at least to delay the moment when they start to drink each day. The things they choose to do to distract the ‘stressor’ may not be things that they enjoy themselves, or even want to do, but they begin to believe it is better for them to be like this, than enduring the results of the ‘stressor’ drinking. Gradually the other family members become accustomed to doing things they do not enjoy or want to do, to control the ‘stressor’ or the environment so that this person delays drinking alcohol. As they become more used to doing things they would not choose to do, they become more accustomed to ignoring what they do want to do. In other words they become to believe that it is better to do what this other person wants than to do, than what they themselves would choose to do, given a free choice. Eventually they come to believe that they do not have a free choice, and that life as a whole, works out better if you do what others, or another person wants.

If this becomes the survival strategy for a child growing up in his or her home, then the chances are that they will become to believe that the whole world is like this, and they are required to live like this for their whole life. We all think our families are normal and represent normal life, until we spend enough time outside them, to identify the unique ways in which our particular family is, or was, dysfunctional. That is not to say we were bad people, or that any of us were. It simply means that we all have issues that have not been resolved, and they can cause us to behave in ways which can undermine us, or other people. We all do the best we can in every situation. I firmly believe this to be true. It is just that sometimes we learn survival strategies, or ways of making life run more smoothly, and having developed these habits, and the belief that the whole world requires us to be like this, it can be difficult to break out, or change.

What I have described above is only the beginning. Imagine living like this for an extended period while growing up for example. Continually suppressing our wants and needs to do what someone else wants, or what we think is best, will be painful for us to endure, so we need to learn to cope with that experience and to minimize the pain of not having our needs met. The way we do this is to start numbing our feelings. We begin to cut off from ourselves and our emotions to avoid this pain. The more we do this the more we lose touch with how we feel, and what we want. Eventually we get to the point where we do not even have any real sense of who we are. Often simple rules about being overly polite, or overly concerned about the feelings of others, can lead us to put others before ourselves. When we reflect on this, it is likely that we will say; “Well who is not codependent to some degree then”? This is a good question. Sometimes we can find ourselves in a foreign country and we find the people pushy, or inconsiderate. But are they really? Or are they just getting on with their own lives, unaware that we have been brought up in a way that causes us to be continually aware of those around us, and how we affect them, and we cannot help feeling we would like them to do the same. Often these can be simple cultural differences. It is important that we do not judge other cultures by the ground-rules that happen to work well in our own.

So if we have decided that we are codependent to some degree, so what? Does this matter, or do we need to change? Well no, not if you are happy the way things are in your life. It is only important to understand all this if you are not happy with the balance in your life. If you feel your needs go unmet, or that you are surrounded by selfish people, or if you feel that people take you for granted and do not say “Thank-you” often enough, then perhaps it is time to change the way you relate to the world. If we want to change the way people treat us, the first step is to recognise our part in all this.

There is no point in being in a relationship, and willing the other person to change or be different. The way to change the way they relate to you, is to change the way you relate you them. Others will change as and when they want to, but if you want them to change now, then the key is to alter the way you are. Give them a reason not to stay as they are, and a reason to be more like you would like. If they already have things the way they want as they are, why would they change or want to? You have to give them a reason to change.

If you think this may be you and you are not sure, try the questionnaire on the next page to help you decide. You may also like to look at the Self-Esteem Table , and if this is of interest, the Self-Esteem Daily Practice Sheet.