I'm a 46-year-old lesbian that has been in a relationship for 4 years. This relationship has had elements of abuse and I am in the process of terminating it. My question is: How do you draw the line between co-dependency and caring for someone, and wanting to do things to see them feel better or happy? Is "wanting" the keyword here?
I am sorry to hear about your breakup. They are always painful even if it is for the best and if there are elements of abuse then it is for the best. However, you brought up a great question and one of my favorite topics.
You are also right that the issue is between wanting and needing. It is great to help, but it can be risky as well. Ask yourself these questions before helping. Do I really want to help? Will that help be appreciated? Is this an equal and respectful relationship where they help me at times? Would it be better for the person to help themselves this time and do they have the skill to do it. Will they accept "no" if you don't want to or don't have the time? Is the relationship basically equal? If you answer "yes" to all these and periodically want to help then great. If any of these are "no" then don't.
Co-dependence was first coined by psychotherapists working in the field of chemical dependence. A big part of treatment was to have addicts realize that they were trying to fill an inner void by chemicals. Many appeared to be spiritually empty and often they felt they should be perfect and in control of everything, which at last check fit the god profile. At first it was thought that substance abuse was an isolated problem of the addict alone. Fix the addict and the job was done. What we realized is that most addicts had loved ones who over time had subordinated their lives to the substance user. They often felt that they were responsible for the user's problems and became isolated and depressed in their own right. It became important to help these people as well as the one with the chemical problem.
Later it also became apparent that children who lived in these families were under incredible stress and that a syndrome called Adult Children of Alcoholics was the result. In the early 1980's I was a director in one of these programs and worked with this population. When I moved out to work with families in general I started to see a number of families that acted like a severe chemically dependent family, but without a chemically dependent member.
This is how the term dysfunctional family was born. This concept needs to be viewed on a continuum. There are slightly abusive or dysfunctional families that don't know how to talk to each other intimately and then there are severely dysfunctional families that engage in physical abuse. Co-dependent behavior is often seen in these families as well. It is important to realize however that giving, loving, and caring about others is great and co-dependence only enters into it when people give too much, when they don't want to, or when they don't care enough about themselves. This concept has been discussed in Mental Health long before the term was coined. As a culture however, it was much more accepted to be totally selfless years ago. I would look at this as an attempt to find a healthier balance been caring for self and others.
Co-dependency is focusing so much on another person's needs and problems that we forget to take care of our own well-being and emotional health. The inability to say "no" when "no" is warranted, and often putting the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others before your own are red flags of co-dependency.
Characteristics of co-dependency:
- Most often putting the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others first ~ before your own.
- Feeling that you give more in relationships than you get back.
- Finding that your caring and loving feelings are turning to resentment.
- An inability to say "no" when "no" is warranted.
- Feelings of substantial insecurity in relationships where there is little or no reason.
- Experiencing rejection sensitivity.
- Feeling like the relationship "is out of control".
- Feeling that you won't be OK unless the other person is in your life.
- An inability to set proper boundaries in relationships.
- The inability to feel validated in the relationship.
- Unhealthy tolerance of verbal, sexual, or physical abuse.
- The inability to leave the relationship under any circumstance.
- Chronically engaging in behavior that is self-defeating.
Try reading "Facing Shame" by Fossum and Mason or "The Drama of the Gifted Child" by Alice Miller or "Co-dependent No More" by Melodie Beattie. I hope this helps.
Jef Gazley, M.S. www.asktheinternettherapist.com
This question was answered by Jef Gazley M.S. Jef has practiced psychotherapy for twenty-five years, specializing in Love Addiction, Hypnotherapy, Relationship Management, Dysfunctional Families, Co-Dependency, Professional Coaching, and Trauma Issues. He is a trained counselor in EMDR, NET, TFT, and Applied Kinesiology. He is dedicated to guiding individuals to achieving a life long commitment to mental health and relationship mastery. His private practice locations are Scottsdale and Tempe, Arizona. You can also visit Jef at the internettherapist, the first audiovisual mental health online counseling center on the net.For more information visit: http://www.asktheinternettherapist.com/