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What is a co-dependent relationship?

What is codependency?

Co-dependency is an unhealthy way of relating which is based upon a believed need in both people. With this style of relating, one of the people is often in a controlling, dominant adopting a 'powerful' position, whilst the other accepts a 'permissive', tolerant role, often perceived as a weaker role.

I referred above to the needs of both being believed. What I mean by this is that either consciously or unconsciously (usually the latter), each person has a need that they believe can and will be met by the other. More often than not, this need stems from a place of vulnerability and insecurity.

If you look at the words chosen above for each person, it may not be surprising that they are antonyms (opposite words I.e big/small). This is so commonly the case in such relationships, where one person seems to adopt a position of power and the other of what is perceived as weakness; one is often active (in controlling) the other passive (accepting).

Both people in a co-dependent relationship thrive on this difference and the ‘needs’ it arouses and is hoped are met!

Here I use the word ‘hoped’ in that each hopes the other will meet their underlying needs of vulnerability and insecurity. Initially, the relationship may seem that it does this for both people, however over time this often changes negatively.

This article will explore both of these ‘types’ of relating, exploring the differences between the polarities, the Strong/weak, Active/Passive, Demanding/Pleasing roles adopted, and the similarities between them. Also, how the similarities between them keep the relationship going!

What are the types of relating?

As mentioned above, in codependent relationships, there are generally one of two roles adopted by each person. On the surface, they present as opposites. I mentioned above how this type of relating uses ‘opposites’ words such as strong/weak, active/passive, demanding/passive. If we think about two opposites they often are thought of as each providing balance to the other.

In a sense this is true. In Codependent relationships, one believes they need the other!

Let us take a look at each of these roles.

Type A [Stronger/Active/Demanding]

The first two words in the list above could be read as positives in people. Here they are not as they only exist in comparative terms, the way they relate to the other saying ‘I am stronger than you, ‘I do more than you!', ’You should do better!’.

This adopted role in codependent relationships is about demeaning the other to achieve a sense of feeling strong, active and powerful.

If we think about it, what I am suggesting is the ‘stronger’ role feels the need to demean and put down the other to ensure they feel strong and powerful!

It is often seen in one person telling the other (gas lighting) how rubbish they are compared to them, that they are not sexy enough, do not do as much as them (I.e. I earn the money...), or that they are pathetic or stupid, that they cannot cope and should get a grip!

Not very nice at all! And this is just scratching the surface!

Why does this happen?

On the surface it can appear that they are strong, capable and even powerful. Yet if we think about it, what is strong about making someone else feel lesser because they can? And it is exactly this that type of enactment that tells us that this role believes they need the other (lesser) to feel strong and the only way they can achive this is at the cost of another person!

More often than not, what is underneath this appearance of ‘strong’ is an absolute fear of feeling vulnerable or helpless or needing another.

I would argue that so frightening a prospect it is to feel vulnerable [perhaps how they felt as a child leaving feeling helpless], they must make another feel lesser to achieve a sense of strength.

People adopting this role are ironically terrified of not being strong enough! What a cruel irony for the other in relationships with them!

This role thrives on convincing the other they are not good enough with the unconscious aim of ensuring the other cannot leave them because they ‘could not cope without them!’

Type B [weaker/passive/pleasing]

This person adopting this role is often perceived as weaker and is usually a people pleaser.

They will often put themselves last, ensuring the needs of others are met way before theirs. This type of person often feels that it is more important to meet the other’s needs even if that creates unhappiness or discomfort for themselves.

This is any form of pleasing such as doing all the chores, ensuring meals are ready when wanted or demanded, and being a sexual object to please the other [even when sex is not really wanted at that time].

Why does this happen?

Interestingly, what is underneath this is a fear of vulnerability combined with low self-esteem. Therefore the person playing this role believes they will not cope on their own or if they experience rejection. To avoid this they do all they can to meet the needs of the other, often at any cost!

This role thrives on pleasing the other with the aim of being all the other wants and needs as a way to avoid ever being rejected.

Their role is to constantly meet the needs of the dominant one (a remnant from child/parent relationship) this, in turn, they believe, gives them a sense of having worth and if they please the other so very well, the other could not possibly leave them!

Toxic Ying and Yang!

As can be seen, both roles seem to believe that adopting such a role keeps them safe from vulnerability, rejection or feeling helpless.

Unfortunately, such roles only give the belief of these needs being met as, in reality, such relationships are toxic as they generally do not actually meet these needs, they just get a sense of them being met.

For the people pleaser, It is kind of like starving of hunger (self-esteem). For some reason, you feel unable to find any food (usually from earlier development issues).

Then, the other comes along and you believe they will help you find the food (self-esteem) and, for a while, they seem to do this. However, what then happens in codependent relationships is that the other only gives you enough small scraps of food to keep you hungry but in belief they have all the food. How can you leave? Small scraps are better than starvation, or so you believe!

For the demander, they too are starving. Perhaps feeling that food has been taken from them at some point.

They too are unable to find any food for some reason (usually from earlier development issues). Then this other comes along and is willing to continually provide food (self-esteem boosts)! How wonderful! No longer will they starve they believe! Best to never be starving again. How can I ensure they cannot leave?

This is generally how codependency works. It does not just have to be with another person, it too can be with things such as substances (drugs, alcohol, sex, work etc).

It is toxic because both parties believe they need the other to fulfil something in them (referred to above as hunger) that they believe they cannot get for themselves!

Both people, often in an unconscious way, are manipulating the relationship to ensure the other meets their needs in some way! Yet they are never fully met by the other for it is not in their interest!

Towards healthier ways of relating.

The issues underlying a codependent relationship are usually around fear of rejection and fear of vulnerability. This fear can feel terrifying (that is why it is avoided using codependent relationships).

However, with the right help, both types or people can work towards moving away from a false belief that they need the other to meet their needs and move towards getting to know and meeting their own needs better.

This does not always mean leaving relationships if both people are willing to do the work!

If we are better able to know and meet our needs, we often start to build our own self-esteem and hence feel better about ourselves! It does not mean we do not want another, it simply means we choose to be with another because we want to, not toxically need to.

Healthier ways of relating to others and yourself are waiting for you!


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