When we talk about codependency, most people think that the term is usually associated with a person emotionally linked to a drug addict, whether that addiction is alcohol or illicit drugs. Therefore, when I bring up the topic of codependency in my office, doubts arise: how can I be codependent? There is no substance abuse in my home.
The truth is that the term, at the time it was created, was specifically related to substance abuse. However, today we know that codependency can exist in any relationship with emotionally manipulative people. But the question remains: why do some people become codependent and others do not? Why do codependents often jump from one toxic relationship to another?
Like many other problems and patterns we work with in the office, codependency has its roots in childhood. Codependents are usually born into unstable homes, where there is emotional manipulation and where love is conditional. That is, if the child does not act exactly as expected, he/she will suffer abandonment and/or abuse.
The child in such a home grows up learning to control and monitor their parents moods and abandon their true identity, their true self, to please the parents. It is a matter of survival – after all, every child needs a caregiver. Thus, they learn to “dance the dance” of the manipulator, transforming their own life into a theater, where they are always doing well, or rather, pretend to be. In short: it is learned in childhood that, to receive affection, it is necessary to be “perfect” in the eyes of the caregiver. Everything revolves around the caregiver, who shapes the child’s taste and personality, at least on a superficial level. The child does all this for a small dose of conditional affection, which the child needs so much of.
This pattern of abdicating oneself to please another person at any cost continues after childhood, and can be seen especially in romantic relationships. After all, what we learn through past experiences becomes our internal rule. It is the kind of love we earn in childhood that we usually look for in the future; not because it’s healthy, but because it’s what we know, it’s what we got used to. Thus, a child who was born and raised in a home with narcissists may find himself entering into relationships with similarly narcissistic people, and refusing relationships and even friendships with healthier people. The comfort of the known, even if bad, may be better (in the short term) than the unknown. Thus, codependents are at risk of leaving an emotionally manipulative partner only to go to another, thus generating a cycle of ups and downs and unhappiness.
In therapy, the codependent learns to break the cycle of abuse and also learns to seek (and handle) healthier relationships (whether they are romantic or not), where their self can exist and is accepted.