Codependency is a clinical term used to describe a relationship dynamic in which two individuals mutually rely on each other to meet their own needs and wants. Although not a diagnosable condition, codependency is a relationship phenomenon that is quite common – and quite problematic.
Another clinical term we could use to describe a component of the codependent relationship dynamic is “enmeshment.” Enmeshment refers to a relationship characterized by unclear and permeable boundaries. In both types of relationship, there is confusion surrounding each partner’s individual identity. This entanglement keeps both parties from realizing full independence and from meeting their own needs in a healthy way.
The key difference between codependent relationships and enmeshed relationships is found in the level of reciprocity that exists between partners. The term “codependent” highlights this difference in its name; The prefix “co” shows that both people in the relationship actively participate in permeating boundaries and relying on one another. On the other hand, “enmeshed” relationships usually involve one person acting this way towards another – lacking the blatant reciprocity seen in a codependent dynamic.
Codependent relationships are mutually destructive because – inevitably – one person ends up overcompensating to meet the other’s needs, while the other is being enabled to meet those needs without building his or her own skills and internal resources to do so. One example that depicts the unhealthy nature of codependency is found in a relationship between someone who is addicted (to a substance, sex, gambling, disordered eating, etc.) and another who cares for them. By going above and beyond for the addicted party, the other codependent party overcompensates and ultimately enables the addiction to continue. This example also highlights the reciprocity of the addicted person relying on and perpetuating the cycle of needing one another.
Codependent characteristics can also show up in less obvious ways. It can be two friends who rely on each other for validation in order to temporarily meet their need for love and belonging. It can be a generational pattern in a family system that is silently and unknowingly perpetuated by well-intended individuals who “over help,” and from generation to generation where dysfunctional helping becomes the family norm.
Codependency requires two individuals that have unmet needs (like love and belonging or power and control) or needs that are met in unhealthy ways. It occurs when an individual perceives inadequacy or weakness in oneself and desires that support from someone else. The other person gives that support in efforts to show care for the other, believing they have something that the other person does not have to meet that need. Each person develops an unhealthy degree of control or influence over the other.
As noted in the example above, without recognition, this dynamic – particularly in families – can continue for years. If you walk into a family system and sense chaos, disjointedness, or unhealthy patterns, this could be an indicator of dysfunction, which breeds codependency.
In the home, dysfunction could be fostered by an alcoholic parent, a parent who wants to micromanage and control their child, or a parent who has his or her own sense of inadequacy. It could be fostered by a child who emotionally manipulates a parent, expects a parent to fix all of his or her problems, or who enables the parent to fulfill destructive behaviors. Dysfunction breeds codependency because as humans, we all do the best we can with what we have in the moment to meet our needs and that can sometimes become problematic. In a dysfunctional setting, we don’t always have the skills or resources to access healthy behaviors. Codependency is then very likely because we want to control the chaos and calm the discomfort, and the result is more, perhaps subtle, dysfunction.
It’s developmentally appropriate for adolescents to be in the process of identity formation, which can complicate the recognition of this unhealthy codependent pattern. It becomes challenging at times to determine when an adolescent girl’s relationship with a loved one, friend, or significant other supports this identity formation in a healthy way or clouds it by having flexible or undetectable boundaries leading to enmeshment or perhaps a codependent dynamic.
In my work with adolescent girls in the wilderness, I look for signs of codependency within peer relationships in the milieu. This can often show up as “rescuing” acts, such as hugging someone when they’re sad or telling someone things like, “it’ll be okay.” Yes, these actions can be kind and appropriate, but when they become “over-helping” and a way to make the peer feel better in the moment and keep her from feeling what she needs to feel, this is a sign of codependency. At times, I’ll also notice two students creating a dyad in the team. In these situations, the two of them don’t want to talk to others, do chores for one another, etc. In addition, if a student is sharing stories of a friend or a “bestie” at home — someone with whom they do everything together, finish each other’s sentences, and cry at separation — this is a big point of curiosity for me and may indicate a dynamic of codependence in relationship.
Signs of codependency may also surface in parent-child interactions through phone calls and weekly letter exchanges. The biggest red flag is when parents struggle to hold boundaries with their child. If a student can say the right thing, portray sadness, or attempt to do something to gain the parent’s desire to fix something for them, and if the parent responds by doing so, this is a sign of enmeshment or “permissive parenting.” If the child then reciprocates with a similar response, this indicates codependency.
I initially recognize codependent tendencies through my assessment of adolescent girls in relationship with peers, parents, myself, and field guides. As I approach the topic with my students, I frame it with the language of Glasser’s Needs—that their relationships may be meeting the needs for love and belonging or other basic needs in unhealthy ways. This is language that the students can understand because it’s a big part of the Student Pathway and our conversations at Open Sky. It’s based in theory and can be practically generalized to their work. If it feels appropriate, I use more clinical terms like “enmeshment,” “permissive relationships,” “dependence,” or “codependency,” although it is possible to work through these types of relationships without specifically naming these clinical terms.
I speak with the adolescent girls about boundaries, assertive communication, and how to meet one’s needs in healthy ways. Each day is filled with opportunities to practice holding these boundaries and communicating assertively, like sharing an “I feel” statement when feeling hurt by another or sharing an observation that would allow for feedback to be given and received. These conversations would potentially allow conflict to arise, providing the student with practice in managing disagreement with someone else, which can cultivate natural differentiation and independence.
With parents, I do use more clinical language in framing codependency. This can be more helpful to them because they can intellectually understand and research these terms and concepts. I speak with parents about boundaries and healthy communication. We discuss how a parent can meet his or her own needs separately from the child’s needs, while supporting and empowering the child in meeting his or her needs in healthy ways. I direct parents to read books or view our webinars on boundaries, love, and differentiation. In weekly parent phone calls, letters, and feedback, I help them to build internal resources just as we help our students in building these resources. All of this puts parents in a parallel process to promote differentiation, helping them recognize that the parent and the child are two individuals that love one another.
I encourage parents and remind them that they’ve done the best they can with what was provided to them in those moments. I recognize that because they love their child, they often want to grow alongside their child in this process. In addition to the guidance I give parents in our weekly calls, Open Sky provides many other avenues to help them to grow alongside their child in this process. Family Services including Wellness Weekend, the Monday Night Parent Support Group calls, and materials like the Family Pathway and webinars all support families during this time. Enhanced Family Services like Family Quest and Parent Coaching allow parents to dive even deeper into the patterns and dynamics of the family system. I believe that Open Sky’s programmatic structure and the individualized therapeutic work done with each individual and family system provides a great opportunity for families to move from unhealthy relationship patterns to more healthy and harmonious relationships.
Article authored by clinical therapist Sierra Williams.