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Dependence vs. Codependence

In a society that idealizes individualism and independence, it can feel difficult to allow ourselves to depend on others.

From birth, we hear things like, “It’s dog eat dog out there…” ; “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps…” ; “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself…” ; “It’s you against the world…” ; and more. It’s no wonder so many people today struggle to connect with, let alone depend on, others! The introduction of concept of “codependency” into mainstream media (and the subsequent misinformation that has been spread about it) has made the thought of depending on others even more difficult, almost associating dependence in relationships with toxicity or unhealthiness.

So, before we get too far, let’s set the record straight: dependence and codependence are NOT one and the same!

As social creatures, we humans actually thrive in relationships where we can depend on others AND they can depend on us. This mutual, “healthy” type of dependence doesn’t alter our sense of self, independence, or autonomy—it simply reminds us that we are supported and cared for, and that we are capable of supporting and caring for others. In a relationship with healthy dependence, both partners feel comfortable to share their needs and/or desires with each other, and both partners work to meet the needs/desires of each other. At the same time, both partners feel capable of meeting their own needs/desires if necessary, and neither feels bad about themselves if they are not able to meet their partner’s needs/desires. A relationship like this might look like partners going back and forth between supporting and depending on each other, or it might look like partners supporting and depending on each other for different things. Either way, what’s most important is that both partners have an equal amount of dependence on each other.

In a codependent relationship, there is a severe imbalance in dependence between partners. Most often, one partner needs to depend on the other partner, and the other partner needs to feel depended on. This can lead to a pattern wherein the former partner makes their needs/desires known, and the latter partner plans their life around pleasing these needs/desires. Furthermore, once the former partner’s needs/desires have been met, the latter partner feels a great sense of relief, worthiness, and happiness. This might look like a relationship where one partner makes their feelings loud and clear, while the other does not express them at all, or may not even be able to recognize them when asked.

In a codependent relationship like this, the person who needs to be needed is considered the “codependent,” and the person who needs a partner is often called the “benefactor.” While this type of relationship dynamic might seem advantageous for the benefactor, codependency is actually dysfunctional for both parties. Consistently relying on the codependent prevents the benefactor from learning how to build healthy, two-sided relationships, and it often reinforces manipulative, and even abusive, behaviors. On the flip side, consistently putting the benefactor’s needs over their own causes the codependent to base their self-esteem and -worth on their ability to meet the needs of others, as well as to lose connection with their own needs, desires, and, ultimately, identity. Beyond this, a codependent relationship can negatively impact the other relationships (e.g. friends, family), careers, and mental health of both partners. Even if they notice these negative outcomes, it is often incredibly difficult for either partner to leave the relationship, which is why codependent relationships are often referred to as being “cyclical.”

While codependence can develop in any type of relationship we enter into—friendships, romantic partnerships, work relationships, etc.—it often has roots in our early family dynamics. More specifically, exposure to family dynamics involving damaging parental relationships, mentally or physically ill family members, and/or abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual) in childhood/adolescence seems to be closely related to the development of codependent relationships in adulthood. In family dynamics such as these, children grow up in an environment where their own needs/desires are not attended to, and, in fact, they are often being asked to attend to the needs/desires of others before they are developmentally capable of doing so. Over time, these children learn that their role in life is to meet the needs/desires of others, so they take on this role in their subsequent relationships.

This connection to development makes codependence a prime topic for therapy! With time, a safe environment, and enough corrective relational experiences, codependents can learn a different way of engaging in relationships. We aim to offer those healing components here at The Holding Space, so if you and/or your partner struggle with codependence, please consider reaching out to us for an individual or couples therapy consultation!

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