Codependency and Enablers: Understanding and Changing the Relationship Dynamics
You may have heard the term co-dependency tossed around in discussions about unhealthy relationships. Usually people are talking about an unhealthy attachment to another person to such an extent that there is a crippling reliance on the support and validation they receive in that relationship. Codependent relationships can occur in the context of a romantic relationship, but these dynamics can also be present in family relationships or friendships as well.
Codependency was first recognized and defined in the context of people with addiction problems and the people who support and facilitate addictive behavior in their partners. However, the pattern has been expanded and understood more broadly in the context of any relationship in which one person’s unhealthy behaviors are accepted and propped up by the other person, who becomes an enabler of the unhealthy patterns.
How to Recognize Codependency in Relationships
To understand codependency, you want to recognize the signs of this unhealthy dynamic in relationships. People who tend towards co-dependency may exhibit the signs of unhealthy attachment in multiple different relationships, and they may repeat these patterns in relationships that they seek out. Often the person is seeking out emotional validation or looking for others who will enable their own unhealthy behaviors, including addiction, irresponsibility, or poor choices.
Some of the signs of codependency in a relationship may include:
- Manipulative behaviors that drain others of time, resources, and/or emotional energy
- Lashing out when others try to set boundaries and limits
- Creating justifications for unreasonable behaviors
- Acting helpless in order to make others feel responsible for helping them or solving their problems
- Becoming disappointed or depressed when others do not rescue them or give in to their demands, claiming no one cares about or supports them
- Using past adverse events or situations to justify current helplessness or lack of responsibility for their choices
- Using other people’s concern for their wellbeing to manipulate situations or extract resources from them
These patterns indicate that codependency has become a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with life’s problems or taking responsibility for life’s challenges. People with codependency often need professional help to understand their own behaviors and take control over their own lives.
Sometimes this means seeking treatment for addiction or mental health problems. Often, family therapy is needed as well in order to break unhealthy patterns in the family dynamic and help everyone establish healthier boundaries with each other. In some cases family members or enmeshed partners have to stop their own enabling behaviors in order to force change in the codependent relationship.
Understanding The Enabler in Codependent Relationships
An important part of understanding codependent relationships is also understanding the role of the enabler. You may wonder why a person would put up with such unhealthy and maladaptive behaviors from someone else. Yet for the enabler in the relationship, they are often getting a secondary gain from the dynamics in the relationship. A secondary gain is typically an unmet emotional need that is being facilitated by the codependent dynamics of the relationship.
To use the example of codependency in addiction, the enabler is often put in the position of facilitating the addicted person’s behaviors by providing money, shelter, rescuing them from unsafe situations, and helping to minimize the negative outcomes of the addictive behaviors. They may be asked to pay for legal assistance, treatment costs, or food and shelter. The enabler may find themself supplying drugs or alcohol, or picking them up when they are intoxicated, or taking care of them when they are hungover or recovering from a drug binge. Even when the addicted person’s behavior and needs become excessive and unreasonable, the enabler often continues to support and facilitate these needs.
Why would anyone allow themself to be manipulated or used over and over again?To start off with, the person in the role of the enabler likely loves and cares about the addicted person very much. It’s difficult to watch someone you love do things that hurt them, and most of us have at least some inclination towards helping those we care about. There may also be a very sincere desire to do whatever is needed to help this person recover from their addiction and improve their life.
However, in codependent relationships this desire to help someone you love becomes excessive and unhealthy. Often, the enabler is also using the relationship to fulfill their own conscious or unconscious emotional needs. They may have a desire to feel needed, or a fear of abandonment, or they may feel validated by rescuing other people. These emotional needs get fed when they become enmeshed with a needy and co-dependent person.
Enablers may also believe that they deserve to be mistreated or used, and may feel that they will not find another person who will need or want them. This desire to maintain the relationship despite the unhealthy patterns will allow the enabler to justify manipulative or even abusive dynamics within the relationship.
Relationships between an enabler and a codependent person can become quite destructive. Enablers have difficulty with setting boundaries and co-dependent people are quite good at blurring and crossing boundaries when it serves them. The needy behavior is reinforced because the codependent person receives attention and nurturing when they exhibit the unhealthy behaviors, thereby further incentivizing the co-dependent patterns.
To understand if you might be enabling codependent behavior, ask yourself these questions:
- Is there someone in your life that makes constant and sometimes unreasonable demands of your time, attention, and/or resources?
- Do you find it difficult to say “no” when they ask things of you?
- Have you covered up for mistakes or unhealthy behaviors such as drug use, accidents, or poor choices for this person?
- Have you protected them from feeling the consequences of their own behavior?
- Do you worry that if you do not rescue them they will abandon you or will suffer from the consequences of their choices?
- Do you avoid confrontation by giving in to their demands?
- Do you ever feel trapped in the relationship, with no good options for how to handle the problems that arise?
- Do you feel like if you don’t help them, no one else will and the person you love will end up alone?
It’s also important to note that both people in a relationship can be codependent. When this happens, both people are enmeshed in unhealthy patterns of facilitating each other’s bad habits while also depending on each other to feel needed and valued. They can develop a desperate kind of love for each other in which they only feel understood and valued by each other, and use their intense connection to justify addictive and maladaptive behaviors with and for each other. They enable each other and use each other as crutches to avoid change.
Breaking the Patterns of Codependency and Enabling
If these relationship dynamics sound familiar to you, then recognizing the codependent pattern is the first step in breaking up these maladaptive habits. These patterns can be hard to break because both people are getting something out of the codependent pattern. The enabler feels needed and validated, while the codependent person feels loved and cared for. Breaking these patterns may require professional help, and most definitely will require behavioral changes that include setting and respecting each other’s boundaries.
While the codependent person is often the one most in need of help and treatment, the enabler is more often the first person who has to change. This is because the codependent person’s behaviors are being reinforced by the enabler. Once the enabler decides that they will no longer facilitate those patterns, the codependent person has to either change or find a different enabler.
This means setting firm boundaries on what will and will not be tolerated in the relationship. Saying “no” to things that you have previously said “yes” to will usually cause conflict, so you have to be prepared to weather the negative reactions from the other person. For the enabler, this step is the part where things get difficult, because they fear they will lose the relationship and no longer feel needed or desired.
Individual, family, or couples therapy is often a necessary step in breaking codependent patterns and establishing healthier relationship dynamics. Whether you have struggled with codependency or you have been the enabler in the relationship, healthier relationships have to start with a willingness to change patterns and examine the emotional needs of everyone involved.
For more on healthy relationships and emotional intelligence, check out these other posts:
How to Identify Toxic Relationships
Emotional Intelligence Series: Setting Boundaries
Relationship Series: Personal Confidence and Your Partnership
9 Tips To Deal With Difficult People