By Dana Morningstar

This term originated in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous and was initially used to describe the excessive emotional reliance a spouse of an alcoholic has on their alcoholic partner. So the alcoholic is excessively reliant on alcohol, and the spouse is excessively reliant on the alcoholic. These relationships are one-sided; the alcoholic spouse is continually having destructive behavior, and the codependent spouse is forever busy picking up the pieces, doing damage control, and trying to make things work.


The term “codependency” has grown over the past few decades to not just reference the dynamic in an alcoholic relationship, but to include any type of one-sided dynamic where one person has an excessive emotional reliance on another—no matter how destructive or dangerous they might be.


The concept of codependency is often viewed as victim-blaming, as many feel that it shares the burden of the abusive behavior of the destructive person on both people involved, and doesn’t take into account that the “codependent” partner is being actively manipulated or is staying due to religious, financial, or other reasons. Those who feel that way often point out that had the person realized they were being manipulated and that their partner wouldn’t or couldn’t change, they wouldn’t have stayed for as long as they did.


Because the word codependency can feel re-victimizing or victim blaming, many people shut down or get defensive if it’s even mentioned as an issue. But because there are many of the elements within the concept of codependency that are often critical to healing, it can be helpful to put aside the word “codependency” and think about the concept in terms of “over-giving.” Over-givers tend to be out of alignment with their authentic self, putting everyone else’s wants, needs, and feelings first and theirs last. This is not healthy. A person who is in healthy alignment is in balance with giving and receiving. They are able to assert themselves, and they are in tune with how they feel—and they have deal breakers and boundaries for how they expect to be treated. They know it’s not healthy for them to sink themselves in order to save someone else or to save a relationship.


Not everyone who gets taken in by a narcissist is codependent, but they did have some sort of vulnerability that the narcissist was able to exploit early on. Whether that vulnerability was feeling lonely, scared, unloved or perhaps they were recently widowed or even new to town, whichever way, it’s worth examining both your vulnerabilities as well as your “programming” about love, friendships, relationships, boundaries, and deal breakers—because you aren’t cursed, or unlucky, or somehow attract all the wrong people…there is more going on here, and it’s most likely on a subconscious level. In order to tell if codependency is a problem in your life, or if it was only an issue in this relationship, it’s helpful to look back at other significant relationships in your life to determine if there is a pattern. If you’ve had several relationships or friendships that were toxic, then this isn’t a coincidence, and no, you aren’t cursed. The good news is that once you start examining your boundaries and vulnerabilities you become conscious of them, and can then start working towards getting more in alignment with what is healthiest for you.


Some common feelings and actions that “over-givers” have are:


  • Continually making justifications for being treated in an emotionally or physically harmful way, but would be horrified if their child or someone they loved was treated in the same way.



  • Trouble telling the difference between a healthy relationship and a dysfunctional one.



  • Feeling resentful at having to be the one to continually fix the relationship after being lied to, cheated on, stolen from, used in some way, manipulated, or from the other person being controlling and/or abusive.



  • Feeling like a parent, teacher, caregiver, or therapist to others (especially to the problematic person in their life).



  • Trouble saying no or setting and enforcing boundaries with others.



  • Difficulty being assertive and instead being passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive. Staying in friendships, jobs, or relationships that are toxic, draining or one-sided until the situation becomes unbearable.


  • Feeling guilty for setting boundaries, and saying yes when they mean no.



  • Feeling guilty for cutting off contact with controlling, crazy-making, destructive, disempowering, dangerous, or overall difficult people.



  • Continually thinking that other people are kind, compassionate, considerate, faithful, or loyal at their core, or have the capacity to be like that—if they could just get through to them, or if they give them enough love, therapy, rehab, time, understanding, or church—instead of seeing other people’s behavior for what it is.



  • Not setting the line in the sand when it comes to the actions of others or thinking that everything is fixable and workable and that improved communication solves everything.



  • Continually trusting people who are untrustworthy.

Dana Morningstar is a former psychiatric nurse turned domestic violence educator who specializes in abuse awareness and prevention. Her passion is working with survivors of abuse to reclaim and rebuild their self-esteem, boundaries, confidence, and identity. She is an author of multiple books on the subject, and also has a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel, as well as several online support groups, all of which you can find under the name “Thrive After Abuse.”

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