Codependency is a very real phenomenon. Unfortunately, the term gets bandied about very loosely. The term is often egregiously misused, too. So much so in fact that over the decades it’s completely lost its original meaning. (See also: Commonly Misused Psychology Terms – Wrap Up.)
When someone tells me that they or someone they know is “codependent,” I’m always a bit skeptical. And I always ask the same follow-up question. “Along with whom (that’s the “co” part of the term), and upon what or whom (that’s the “dependent” part of the term) is this person unhealthily overreliant?”, I inquire. Most of the time, folks can’t answer this question. Moreover, the question itself, and the reason I ask it, really puzzles them. But what’s really striking is that the answer they eventually give almost always suggests that true “codependency” was never really the issue at all.
Some Important Distinctions
Codependency is not healthy interdependence. Nor is it mutual dependency. These concepts have their own meaning. And the phenomena they describe are different, too. So, allow me to illustrate what they represent and how they differ with the example below.
Most airplane cockpits have copilots. That is, the process of piloting the plane is shared by two or more individuals. To some extent, both pilots are mutually dependent in that in many ways they depend upon one another. And to some extent, there’s some interdependence involved in the piloting process. That is, one person’s actions might very well impact the other’s actions and/or well-being, and to a certain degree also dictate a course of action the other might have to take. But that’s not why the folks operating the vehicle are called “copilots.”
The overall operation of the craft is an enterprise requiring the skill and actions of both (or all) of its operators. That’s the “co” part of copiloting process. Each actor participates in the same process. In a very real sense, the pilots “co-operate” the plane (hence, the true meaning of the word “cooperate”).
What’s all this got to do with codependency and misuderstandings about the meaning and use of the term? I explain below.
The Origins of “Codependency”
A lot of valuable information came out of early addiction research. We know, for example, that in the case of true addiction, a person becomes dependent upon a substance to function. Moreover, addiction research clearly reveals how much control a substance can eventually exert over a person’s life. But the research also reveals that most of the time it isn’t just the addict whose life ends up being controlled. Others in the family, especially those cleaning up the messes of the person whose life had become “unmanageable,” become, in effect, just as controlled and dominated by the substance as the addict. So, in a very real sense, these family members can be seen as codependent. That’s because both they and the addict are in a very real sense dependent on the substance exerting control.
Emotional dependency is not codependency. In fact, it’s an entirely different animal, if you will. In essence, It’s an excessive reliance on persons, places, things, situations, etc. outside of oneself to meet or satisfy emotional needs. It arises out of an impaired ability to properly love and care for oneself.
We can’t help being dependent in many ways when we’re young and haven’t yet acquired the knowledge, experience, and skills to properly care for ourselves, especially at an emotional level. But right from infancy, the goal of all personal development is increased autonomy and independence. This takes time, a lot of mindfulness, much skill development, and gleaning the right things from our experiences.
To the extent folks haven’t mastered all the lessons necessary to properly love and care for themselves as adults, they are prone to dependence on external sources of support, approval, guidance, etc.. And many times, the focus of that dependency is a relationship partner, which is particularly dangerous in our character-impaired times! Too many individuals still struggling with some degree of emotional dependency end up in relationships with character-impaired persons.
The Freedom and Power of Emotional Independence
Cultivating healthy self love (as opposed to pathological self-adulation) leads to emotional independence. And emotionally independent folks understand their worth, sense their power, and value their freedom to be who they are. They also tend to enter and remain in relationships where their partners show the same positive regard for them that they show themselves. I have more to say about this in this week’s Character Matters podcast. And I have a lot to say about the process of becoming emotionally independent in Essentials for the Journey.