Most of our behaviors are learned, and are passed down generationally as a result. Our individuality begs us to believe that we are entirely autonomous; that we choose to be how we are, and that we develop based on these choices. Of course, if we honestly break down the majority of our emotional and behavioral traits, we will see that we picked them up somewhere along the line. In most cases, we learn how to behave by observing our parents. We learn how to interact on an interpersonal level by watching them interact with one another, with our siblings, and with ourselves. Just like any other behavioral pattern, codependency is learned – picked up from our parents or primary caregivers, who likely learned it from their parents in turn.
Codependency and Family Functioning
Codependency is characterized by the inability to develop and maintain a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. Those who suffer from codependency will often strive to maintain relationships that are dysfunctional, one-sided, and emotionally abusive. This learned pattern of destructive behavior was first identified over a decade ago, during a study that focused on the relationships amongst family members of alcoholics. Codependent behavior was once related exclusively to those who were enabling their addicted loved ones, and later broadened to include individuals in relationships with chronically or mentally ill partners. It is now understood to be a far-reaching and non-discriminatory problem; codependency can affect anyone who comes from a dysfunctional family (even slightly dysfunctional). Of course, the environment that we are raised in is inevitably our norm, and it can be difficult to determine if our family members are engaging in unhealthy behavioral patterns while we are stuck in the midst of dysfunction. We mirror what we know, and if all we know is codependency, how can we be expected to behave any differently?
Is My Family Dysfunctional?
The first step is identifying what it is that makes a family dysfunctional. We all tend to think our families are somewhat atypical, and to some degree they probably all are. True dysfunction, however, is characterized by a household in which one of several members suffer from fear, shame, anger, or pain that is consistently denied or ignored. In a truly dysfunctional household, there are often one or more of the following underlying problems present:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- A behavioral or chemical addiction affecting one or more family members
- The presence of a chronic or mental illness
It is important to note that the mere presence of one or more of these factors does not make a family dysfunctional – rather, the denial that a problem exists is what leads to dysfunction. For example, the mother in a household may suffer from depression. If she seeks medical attention and discusses the implications of her mental health condition with her children and husband, the family unit may remain healthy and functional. If she keeps her depression a secret from her children and her husband disallows her from seeking professional help, the entire family unit will likely become highly dysfunctional. The children will wonder why their mother stays in bed for the majority of the day, and why their father seems ashamed of her behavior. They may grow up believing that mental health concerns are something to be embarrassed about, and fail to seek treatment for their own issues later on in life because of this. Of course, this is just one example – the point being, we learn how to behave through observation; our earliest experiences shape us.
Codependent individuals typically suffer from extremely low self-esteem, and look outside of themselves for validation and a sense of self-worth. They find it extremely hard to be themselves, often because they lack a stable sense of self-identity. While their caretaking is good-intentioned, it quickly becomes self-defeating and compulsive. They feel responsible for the well-being of others, and sacrifice their own needs (emotional and otherwise) to tend to the needs of their partner. Many codependents take on the role of ‘martyr’ – a codependent wife may constantly cover for her alcoholic husband; a codependent father may pay the debts of his gambling addicted son. The codependent obtains a sense of self-satisfaction from this unhealthy caretaking. He or she enjoys feeling needed. Eventually, however, resentments begin to build; the codependent feels as if his or her efforts are not reciprocated, and feels helpless within the relationship. Despite feelings of discontentment, he or she finds it impossible to successfully break away from the relationship.
Codependency Treatment for Men
Because codependency so frequently stems from a dysfunctional childhood, individuals who exhibit codependent behavioral patterns will often need to undergo intensive therapeutic treatment. This treatment involves an exploration of early childhood issues, and an examination of their relation to current, self-destructive behavioral patters.
We tend to bury our dysfunctional pasts without truly resolving the uncomfortable feelings that we grappled with throughout childhood. Leaving these feelings unresolved will not eradicate them over time – rather, they will fester deep within us, and present themselves in our current relationships. In order for codependency to be truly cured, the entire functionality of the relationship or family must shift. Patterns of dysfunction within families must be acknowledged, addressed, and stopped. We at Next Chapter specialize in codependency treatment for men, and our comprehensive, family-oriented program focuses on permanently shifting unhealthy family dynamics.