Codependence is usually portrayed as an extremely negative characteristic. Most writing includes a lot of judgment and blame for the codependent. It is as if codependents chose codependence. They do not choose codependence any more than the addict chooses addiction.
Codependents come by their malady honestly. It is a survival mechanism that doesn’t turn off when it is appropriate to do so. Codependence is the lion protecting her young, the bear protecting his home. The beginning of codependence is somewhat subtle, while the end may scream dysfunction.
Codependence often begins with the parent of a child who is either struggling or disabled in some way. Think of the learning – disabled child in third grade who is being bullied because of her special needs. Think of the child who is autistic and lacks an ability to make friends at school. Think of a child with dyslexia who is being teased by peers because of his perceived inadequacy. Think of a young teacher who does not know how to handle behavior problems and seems to send your child to the principal’s office every single day. Think of the woman who is in an abusive relationship and often must protect her children from abuse from her partner. Think of a blind child, who not only struggles because of sight, but is also unhappy and angry.
If the child or partner has suffered in life and the suffering has been repeated (think violence, or sexual abuse, or even PTSD from battle conditions) the codependent person develops a type of hypervigilance which is a defensive stance.
These are all situations which breed a codependent personality style. The parent becomes an uber protector who is hyper-vigilant about any perceived threat to the child’s happiness or health. The hyper-vigilance often creates misinterpretation, as Jeb Kinnison states, regarding anxious attachment style: Hair-trigger misjudgments and mistakes are more likely with this group and can get them into trouble. This is a facet of the codependent personality style; they often assume the worst about the world. Again, they come by the fear honestly. Bad things have happened to their family; they know that the world can be awful. Protection is the number one goal of the codependent personality. The codependent is usually protecting their child, their home, or their perception of being loved.
As life progresses, more and more time is swallowed by the child’s high level needs, or more and more time is swallowed by the partner’s high level needs. The child or partner becomes the ‘focus in life’ for the codependent person.
When I read articles about codependence, often the word control becomes synonymous with evil. This is a mistake. Our codependent person is trying to protect loved ones, albeit in an ultimately unhealthy manner. Initially, the control is a good thing: necessary to protect one who is not skilled in self-protection. It is only as time progresses that we see codependence deteriorate into an unhealthy habit.
Many years ago, I worked with parents of blind children. They told me that during middle school, they (the parents) were instructed by teachers to stop accommodating the blind child. The teachers urged parents to allow the child to navigate their home on their own. “Let them get their own glass of milk” they said. This is guidance away from codependence. Not everyone gets an educated guide that will help them through the pitfalls of caring for others.
Admittedly codependence can run on too long. By caring for others, an unwitting codependent may be communicating that the object person is unable to care for self. For children, this can be damaging. There are plenty of downsides to codependence, including the inability to maintain relationship boundaries. On this issue, both parties will suffer. No relationship boundaries result in the deprivation of personal space. This can be harmful to healing.
As we learned in the treatment of addiction. We do not heal when we blame, denigrate or otherwise put down people who are suffering. It is no help to characterize codependence as evil.
Remember that codependence comes naturally, even though it is a malady and also because it is a malady, it should not be damned.