By: Sarah Miller
As a therapist, the word "codependent" comes up a lot in the work that I do. It seems that the word itself has infiltrated our everyday language to describe relationships negatively. It has been applied to a wide range of relationships: parents/children, siblings, friends, significant others, and even co-workers. But, what is codependency?
Originally, codependency referred to: "to a complex emotional and behavioral condition that affects a person’s ability to have a healthy and mutually satisfying relationship." It was often characterized as "abusive, one-sided or emotionally destructive."
However, it seems people have more commonly come to understand it as: "when one partner depends so much on the other that it causes anxiety, exhaustion and results in confusion and unhappiness."
Many take this to understand that dependency is wrong and bad for relationships.
This is where myself, and maybe you as well, feel lost...aren't we supposed to be able to depend on people? On our family? On our friends? Especially...on our partners? The answer is YES.
This isn't to say that there aren't unhealthy, ineffective, or maladaptive ways to attach or be in a relationship. But what people call codependency, I call enmeshment or anxious attachment. These represent the experience of losing oneself in a relationship or blurring boundaries to the point where there's no "I" or "me" and only "we." As a couples and family therapist, I encourage healthy and effective dependency. In fact, it's critical for our health and well-being. Let me explain.
Humans need connection. We need others.
Having connection and close ties to others is VITAL in every aspect of health- mental, emotional, and even physical. Research shows that isolation is more dangerous for human beings than smoking, high blood pressure or obesity and that "loneliness raises blood pressure to the point where the risk of heart attack and stroke is doubled."
John Bowlby, who is often seen as a founder in attachment theory, believed there was no such thing as complete independence from others OR over-dependency. There is only "effective or ineffective dependency." What might be surprising, is that secure dependency will actually "foster autonomy and self-confidence."
Many couples begin couples counseling wanting relief from stress, disappointment, arguments, frustration, and loneliness. Successful counseling will provide you with the tools and understanding to be effectively dependent or securely attached to your loved ones.
Research and studies continue to show how much people need other people to help regulate big emotions. Contact with a loving partner can literally act as a buffer against shock, stress, and pain.So is codependency the problem, or is it our distorted understanding of what dependency and relationships should look like?
If you're interested in learning more, or are ready to start counseling, Sarah Miller is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed addiction counselor in the state of Colorado with advanced training in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Reach out to Sarah Miller Counseling to schedule an appointment today by clicking the button below.
*Additional references throughout the article was provided by the books: Hold Me Tight and The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy by Susan Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT).