I bring this up now because I have been seeing a lot of it lately. Before I became a therapist I didn’t really understand what codependency was. I thought maybe it was a good thing. I never could understand why two people being dependent on one another was a problem. Now I know that term is actually misleading.
Here’s what codependency really is: Bob has a problem. Jane thinks she can help Bob get over his problem. She starts to put a lot of time, money, effort, emotion and thought into helping Bob get over his problem. She becomes so wrapped up in Bob getting better that she becomes emotionally over-invested in Bob’s improving. Eventually she is totally immersed in Bob’s problem and it’s starting to cost her. She is getting worn out and burned out. However, she has also developed a dependency on Bob needing her to work on his problem. She gets self-worth out of feeling important to Bob. Jane has become codependent on Bob. As you can see this is a very unhealthy dynamic. Bob is stunted by his problem, and Jane is stunted by her over-focus on Bob fixing his problem.
I wish I could say that’s the end of the story, but there is more to Bob and Jane. When Bob finally does get better (on his own), Jane is left feeling empty. She has made her life’s purpose about Bob’s healing. Now that he’s better she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Unwittingly Jane will either drag Bob back into his problem so that she is needed again, or Jane will find a new person with a new problem to solve. Jane is never actually working on her own growth. Jane is blind to her problem.
As Dave Ramsey says, “Enablers [another word for codependent] are some of the nicest people in the world. They mean well, but they end up harming the person they love.”
What does Dave Ramsey mean by “they end up harming the person they love?” When you are codependent you often end up preventing the person you’re trying to help from experiencing natural consequences. Bob would have felt the pain of his misbehavior much sooner if Jane hadn’t have been there to mop up the mess. Perhaps Bob would have decided to change his situation earlier if he had experienced the results of his problem.
I have been seeing a lot of parents behaving codependently with their teenager in my counseling office recently. One of my clients has an addiction to marijuana. The parents are allowing that client to smoke at home, “because then he won’t get caught by the police.” The parents are meaning well in not wanting their son to get into trouble with the law, but that might be the very thing their son needs to quit using. Another client constantly complains of aches and pains. Mom takes her to every doctor, and nothing is ever found to be wrong. Instead of requiring her teenager to live a more healthy lifestyle, Mom’s codependent behavior is confirming that the child just needs to find the right diagnosis (While that might be true, over 20 doctors have said there is no problem other than lack of exercise and poor diet).
Codependency is always coming from a place of love and compassion. However, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. Make sure your teens get to experience both the good and bad consequences of their choices.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT