Codependency is a term that gets thrown around a lot. What’s a little freaky about it is that we all have a touch of this in our lives.

We’re not here to put people in buckets, but to help you make sense of the world around you. If codependency is part of your world, here is some great advice on how to shift to a healthier place in your marriage.

What is Codependency?

Codependency is actually surprisingly hard to define. Perhaps the easiest way to get a succinct, lightweight but accurate definition is to google the phrase “codependency jokes”. If you’re worried that you may be codependent, and you have a good sense of humour, you may actually find some help there.

But to those of you who realize this is part of your world, it’s no joke. It’s serious. It’s really hard sometimes, and it’s a bewildering world to try to navigate your way out of.

One more thing – going back to what I mentioned earlier, we’re not here to put people into buckets. Actually, it can sometimes be very unhelpful to put people into buckets. It tends to give people a label, and then we treat people according to their label. It fails to honour your individuality, your personhood, the fact that you too are created in the image of God and you are, like everyone else, a valuable fallible child of God.

So, please don’t think we’re just trying to stick you in a bucket and give you a label. What we’re hoping to accomplish is to help those of you are who in codependent relationships to begin to make sense of your world. We want to give you a starting point that you can work from. If you’re feeling lost, your way out starts with understanding where you are today.

Am I Codependent?

To help you, we created a self-assessment that you can download and complete to score yourself. It’s adapted from a professional tool but you’ll be able to complete this and get a sense of where you’re at in terms of the likelihood of codependence being a significant part of the way that you interact with your spouse or family or origin. So, if you’re wondering, “Is this me?” make sure you get a copy of this free assessment!

Ok, back to our definition. It’s rather difficult to define codependency, but here is a fairly recent definition from the research: Codependency “involves relationship patterns, with two people meeting each other’s needs in dysfunction ways.”[i] That’s good, but pretty generic.

Some other researchers define codependency as “a pattern of compulsive behaviors that is motivated by dependence on another’s approval and is designed to find a sense of safety, identity, and self-worth.”[ii] These are more tangible dynamics. They go on to identify some of the traits and patterns that can be found in codependent individuals.

Codependent individuals place their self-esteem in their ability to “control and influence the behavior and feelings of others.” This attempt to control can actually look like the codependent individual catering to the needs of another person. However, often the codependent individual can never do enough, and their attempts are neglected and resented by those they cater to.

The codependent person then feels inadequate, feeling like they need to do more. Doing more often does not work, and the codependent individual turns to denial, rationalization, and projection. “As these defenses are used more often, persons become unable to recognize their true feelings, and they become unable to understand and take care of their own personal needs.”[iii]

This is where we have a lot of compassion because it ends up feeling very disorientating – something doesn’t feel right, but you can’t figure out what or why.

At the same time, what’s confusing is that there are parts of this that are normal – taking care of others is a good thing, right? And I feel better about myself when my hubby is distressed and I can help him find joy again.

The key here is recognizing there is so much ‘catering to’ that it is dysfunctional. There is an extreme focus outside oneself. There’s a lack of expression of feelings, and there is too much personal meaning derived from the relationship with others – like a hero complex.

Where Does Codependency Come From?

So, how do codependent relationships start? Where do they come from? Research suggests that codependent relationships are most common in families that are under a great deal of stress.

In fact, codependency was originally noticed in families with alcoholics. The family members organized themselves around the addiction with the purpose of protecting the alcoholic and ended up enabling the drinker to continue the behavior. Researchers have noticed that this extends to other family situations where there are major stressors such as chronic physical or mental illness.[iv]

It doesn’t mean that all families undergoing stressful times are codependent, but a study in 2000, of 257 undergraduate students, found that students from families with an alcoholic, physically ill or mentally ill parent tended to be more codependent than those from families without environment stress.[v]

What’s the Problem with Codependency?

Codependency hurts relationships and individuals within a relationship. That’s why psychotherapists consider it to be dysfunctional. It works somewhat for people in the short term but ultimately it hurts the relationship and the people within it.

Generally, codependency is associated with lower self-esteem and lower perceptions of control. “Codependents desire to control their lives as well as the lives of others but are unable to do so. As a result, they are left feeling defeated and depressed, and as though their lives are controlled by the world around them.”[vi]

Individuals who are codependent typically have:

  1. Great self-consciousness (chronic tendency to focus attention on oneself)
  2. Social anxiety (the extent to which people feel uncomfortable and nervous in social situations)
  3. Dysfunctional attachment styles (avoidant and anxious attachment styles)

Codependency is associated with decreased feelings of connectedness with a spouse and increased feelings of competitiveness with a spouse.

So it’s not healthy or helpful. It’s a real challenge.

What Do I Do If I’m In A Codependent Marriage?

If these descriptions of codependency describe your marriage, you may be wondering what you should do. How do you move out of codependency and into a healthy place in your marriage?

Researchers, in 2012, created a model to help couples, and other individuals, struggling with codependency move to a healthier place. This model helps couples understand codependency using a model called Emotional Stocks and Bonds.[vii] They encourage couples to work through the following four steps:

  1. Step 1: Understand codependency from the framework of emotional stocks and bonds.
    1. Emotional Stocks: the emotional time and energy you give to the people and situations around you. This would include time spent together, as well as time spent thinking about your spouse.
    2. Emotional bonds: this is the sense of being owed something in return for the emotional time and energy you direct towards your spouse. The more emotional stocks you put into your spouse, the more you expect your spouse to respond with the same proportion of time and energy towards you. The more attached you become, the more disappointed you are when your spouse does not reciprocate as you desire.
    3. Two Golden Rules: The first is that the amount of emotional time and energy in one’s life is finite. And second – emotional time and energy are traded, not created or destroyed.
    4. Emotional Overinvesting: this is another term to describe codependency. It is an over-identification with your spouse, so that your happiness and satisfaction can only come from your spouse. When you emotional overinvest in your spouse, your attachment to your spouse increases and your attachment to other relationships in your life decreases.
  2. Step 2: Determine the specific ways you invest your emotional time and energy into your spouse
    1. Once you understand the model of emotional stocks and bonds, take the time to sit down and ask yourself some specific questions. Answering the following questions builds awareness of whether you are over-investing your finite resources of emotional stocks and bonds.
      1. How do you invest emotional time into your spouse?
      2. How do you invest emotional energy into your spouse?
      3. Think of an occasion when you spent emotional time on your spouse when your spouse was not present.
    2. Step 3: Gain an understanding of your expectations for how your spouse will fill your needs.
      1. Answering these questions can help you determine if you have excessive expectations for your spouse to fulfill your needs.
        1. What expectations do you hold for your spouse to fulfill your needs?
        2. How do you respond when your needs are not met?
        3. Are you able to meet your own needs, or do you rely on your spouse to do this?
        4. Can you give to your spouse without expecting your spouse to always reciprocate with the same proportion of giving?
        5. Do you feel anger and resentment when you do things for your spouse?
      2. Step 4: Develop strategies to meet your own emotional needs
        1. Consider what you can do to improve your ability to meet your own emotional needs. What specific actions and steps could you take?

What these questions are doing is helping you to identify if you’ve become over-invested in your significant other over the needs of your own unique self. That’s where in marriage there needs to be a healthy interdependence – but when it becomes controlling or when there’s one person taking all of the responsibility for everything that goes wrong in the relationship, or one person desperately trying to find their significance in deeply connecting with the other, it’s unhealthy.

In a healthy marriage:

  • You want to be able to be alone and be content – but also be together and be content.
  • Know the difference between my junk and your junk and who needs to own what.
  • Keep a balance between giving and receiving (mutuality)
  • Be proactive about your marriage, your life, and your needs – rather than reactive.

Now, if you find out that you may have a codependency issue, talk to your spouse about it. If you both agree, this is a great subject that you can approach a marriage counsellor with. Just say, “Hey, we both see some things here that aren’t healthy and we’d like help to shift towards a better way of relating to each other.”

[i] Julie A. Fuller and Rebecca M. Warner, “Family Stressors as Predictors of Codependency,” Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs 126, no. 1 (February 2000): 5–22.

[ii] Carrie A. Springer, Thomas W. Britt, and Barry R. Schlenker, “Codependency: Clarifying the Construct,” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 20, no. 2 (April 1998): 141–58.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Fuller and Warner, “Family Stressors as Predictors of Codependency.”

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Springer, Britt, and Schlenker, “Codependency.”

[vii] Andrew P. Daire, Lamerial Jacobson, and Ryan G. Carlson, “Emotional Stocks and Bonds: A Metaphorical Model for Conceptualizing and Treating Codependency and Other Forms of Emotional Overinvesting,” American Journal of Psychotherapy 66, no. 3 (2012): 259–78.