Why are some people susceptible to codependent tendencies in adult relationships, while others seem to be perfectly adjusted? Once you become aware of the fact that you tend to engage in codependent behaviors, putting the needs of others ahead of your own, you may begin to wonder why. What went wrong? Why is it so difficult to break free from codependent relationships, and what causes codependency in the first place? Of course, the answers are not the same for everyone. But for most, codependency originates sometime during childhood. Young children who have not yet developed the cognitive abilities to recognize when relationships are unhealthy are extremely impressionable, and susceptible to adopting dysfunctional relational patterns. They have not yet accumulated the life experiences needed to understand that their parents are not always right – that their parents may lie and manipulate, and lack the skills required to provide a healthy and secure attachment.
Dysfunctional Families and Codependency
Children who grow up in dysfunctional households will often come to believe that they do not matter as individuals, or that they are responsible for the problems their families experience. Dysfunctional families will often possess some or all of the following characteristics:
- Unsupportive of one another
- Inattentive in regards to the emotional needs of the children
- Chaotic and unpredictable
- Overly harsh or abusive – excessively punishing
- Emotionally neglectful
- Secretive – may deny that any problems within the family exist and refuse to get outside help
- Unrealistic expectations put on children (academic, extracurricular, etc.)
If the child is not directly blamed for the dysfunction, he or she will likely be told that there is no problem at all, and that everything is normal and just fine. Of course, this can be extremely confusing for the child. He or she will intuitively sense that something is amiss, and this feeling will be constantly invalidated and dismissed by the parents or guardians. It is far easier for children to accept distorted messages and consent to the belief that they are the root of the problem than to understand their families as truly dysfunctional. As a result, however, children that grow up in such households learn that they are bad, inadequate, unworthy, and damaged. Later on in life, this deeply rooted belief system will show up in the form of dysfunctional and unhealthy adult relationships – and in codependency.
Dysfunctional Childhoods Lead to Codependency
When primary caregivers are not able to provide children with the supportive and nurturing home environment that they require for healthy development, the children will almost always be affected in an adverse way. If you struggle with codependent tendencies, it is most likely because you experienced some degree of emotional abuse or neglect throughout infancy and early childhood. Take a look at several dysfunctional situations, and consider how children are typically affected by such circumstances. If you can relate to any one of the following examples and you feel as if you have been struggling to maintain stability in adult relationships, you may want to look into therapeutic healing.
- Parent was incapable of fulfilling his or her role as caretaker.
If your parent was incapable of fulfilling the parenting role, due to a mental illness, addictive disorder, or extremely demanding career, you may have felt obligated to take on this role and actively care for yourself and your siblings. You may have cooked the meals, made sure the bills were paid on time, or tucked your drunken mother into bed each night. Do you still feel responsible for the safety and well-being of those in your life today? You may have taken the role of caretaker into adulthood.
- Repeatedly emotionally hurt by a loved one.
If your parents or guardians consistently lied to you, manipulated you, punished you, and told you how very much they loved you in the next breath, the lines between love and abuse were likely quite blurred. You may now equate love with emotional pain, and if so, you likely still allow your loved ones to take advantage of you emotionally.
- Boundaries were permeable and unclear.
If healthy boundaries were never set or maintained throughout your childhood, yours are likely either too weak or too rigid. Perhaps you grew up with a codependent parent, and still lack a true sense of individuality or an understanding of personal space. Perhaps you grew up with parents were distant and uninvolved, leading to an emotional detachment and barrier in adulthood. Whatever the case, it is never too late to begin learning how to set and maintain healthy boundaries that work for you.
- Inconsistency and instability lead to fear and uncertainty.
If your household was chaotic and unstable throughout childhood, and you always felt on edge or fearful, you may be having a difficult time feeling safe your adult relationships. You may experience lasting psychological consequences, such as nightmares, anxiety, or insomnia. You may be afraid to be alone, feeling as if you need another individual around to protect you at all times.
- Parent was unable to nurture or meet emotional needs.
If you did not have your needs met throughout childhood, you are not going to be used to having someone care for you emotionally. This can lead to a subconscious opposition to affection, and will likely cause some major interpersonal issues later on down the line. If you are more comfortable giving help then receiving it, you are more prone to developing codependent tendencies.
- Family survival depended on untimely maturation of the child.
Perhaps your survival – or the survival of your entire family – seemed to rest on your shoulders from a young age. Maybe you took on responsibilities that exceeded your age, and you have had a hard time letting go of the idea that without your constant attention, things will begin to fall apart. Do you have a difficult time relaxing or letting those you are in relationships with bear some of the weight? Do you tend to take responsibility for the feelings and behaviors of others? Early patterns may be slipping into adult relationships, and therapeutic help may be a necessity.
- Parent uses child as a scapegoat.
If you grew up repeatedly being told that you were flawed and unworthy of love and affection, you probably began to embody and believe that these statements were true. Parents who scapegoat their children will constantly reinforce false traits by calling names, criticizing, and emotionally neglecting. If you were scapegoated as a child, you may believe at a core level that you are undeserving of authentic love, thus placing yourself in adult relationships that are abusive and unfulfilling.
Healing from Codependency
If you are in fact a codependent, some of these situations will likely sound exceedingly familiar. Unfortunately, all of the dysfunctional and unhealthy relational patterns that you undergo throughout childhood will carry into adulthood if they remain unaddressed, and they will continue to affect adult relationships until they have adequately resolved. Even though these dynamics are dissatisfying, detrimental, and damaging, you will continue to repeat them over and over because they familiar, and because you know no other way to live. You have never experienced a truly healthy relationship – and perhaps you do not feel deserving of one.
You are deserving, and obtaining a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship is entirely possible, regardless of what your past looks like.