What Causes Codependency? How To Create A Codependent Relationship

Monday, January 13, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

There was a time when individuals within groups had to be dependent on one another for survival. As reciprocal altruism evolved, we developed the drive both to give and to repay debts to even out overages and shortages within groups, thereby ensuring higher rates of survival for all members.This mutual assistance was not a disorder. Relying on others was just what you did to not fucking die. 

But, then and now, there was probably room to get carried away. Pathological altruism is a pattern of nurturing that, instead of helping the giver or the group, has unsuccessful outcomes1

AKA: the "My Bad, It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time" response.

Where Does Codependency Come From?

Pathological Altruism, Codependency and Altruism Bias

The fact that we feel good when we do nice things may be one part of pathological altruism, or sharing to the detriment of the self or others. 

Pathological = extreme in an abnormal way
Altruism = giving to others, or concern for the well-being of others

 According to researcher Barbara Oakley, codependency may be an offshoot of pathological altruism, and results from a divide between the expected outcomes of altruistic behavior and the reality of the situation. That whole evening out overages and shortages thing matters, and being unable to tell whether you're getting a good deal lends itself to a host of problems. 

Pretend you ate all the chocolate in the house without regard for the fact that later you would be (gasp) out of chocolate, because it didn't occur to you. Now imagine that instead of eating it yourself, you gave it to someone else because you assumed that they would replace it by the end of the day. But they just said "Thanks," and fucking left for home still smelling like your deep, dark, delicious cocoa. Shit just got real in here, thanks to a misunderstanding of the actual outcome.  

Outcome misunderstandings happen either because of incomplete access to outcome information, the inability to process this information in a meaningful way or the tendency to misinterpret relevant information1. Those predisposed to pathological altruism ignore certain things and focus on others, often discounting long-term consequences in light of short-term rewards.

Because of the divide between actual consequences and the expected consequences of the action, one of four things may occur1:

1. Individuals engage in altruistic behaviors but misinterpret consequences and harm the one they are trying to help
"I know it's really hard for you to handle stress without alcohol, so let's hit the bar! I'll totally take you to the emergency room if you pass out and crack your head like you did last time."

2. Individuals hurt others in the course of trying to help a codependent partner
"Just go to your room, kid. I have to focus on your father."
3. Individuals end up being hurt by their own altruistic behavior by giving too much
"Sure, I will buy you dinner with my very last five dollars. I'm not that hungry anyway, and don't expect to be in the next day or so."

4. Individuals may benefit their immediate group at the detriment of outside groups
(In Oakley's research, social programs that ignore large-scale financial detriment for all in favor of short-term benefit for certain groups, or programs that take from some groups to give to others, may qualify.)
Within this framework, there is obviously a great deal of interpretation, which may be the very problem that the pathologically altruistic face: that their altruism biases--or focus on only certain information--may be setting them up for failure. According to Oakley, this is especially true in cases where moral judgement is allowed to gain a foothold, because moral judgements can deeply skew costs and benefits of any situation.

Say I have a partner who is unable to control their emotions. I might tiptoe around him to avoid setting him off, and ignore my own feelings and desires in order to make him more comfortable. When I get a hug or see him calm down, I feel righteous about helping my partner to hold himself together, maybe even powerful or happy. 

Translation: I give him my chocolate because he smiles nice when I do, and that makes me feel good enough to ignore the fact that I don't get to enjoy the chocolate myself.

I'm ignoring my needs and the long-term detriment to my family, myself and my partner, who will likely end up with more severe (non-chocolate related) issues in the future. But, right now it feels good, so I'm going with it. While most people could see that the outcome is reasonably expected to be hurtful to me in the long run, based on my bias towards altruism, and the good feelings that come with it, I keep doing what I'm doing. My internal reality is not congruent with actual benefits and losses.

Will I recognize it as an error? Maybe not. Whether or not I call it a mistake will depend on how deeply that bias towards altruism is held, how justified I feel doing it, how normal it feels and how much my sense of self is wrapped up in someone else's opinion of me. 

So, how do you create someone who has trouble determining real consequences? How do you make someone so generous that they hurt themselves or those around them? 

And really, how do you get someone to give up their chocolate? 'Cause I'm out. 

How To Create A Codependent Individual (...or someone who loves giving more than chocolate)

Early experience may play a significant role in the development of codependent traits. Researchers, including Dr. Janet Surrey, note that women function primarily within a framework called "the relational self", a model which emphasizes early mother-daughter relationships as central to core development4. According to Surrey, this early connection and attachment is a tool women use to create their core self as opposed to disconnect and independence. 

I would argue that it doesn't necessarily have to be the mother, and that attachment security could well take place with another caretaker. Regardless of the attachment partner, the idea that early connections are what allow later psychological growth mesh with the findings of other publications, including the book Pathological Altruism3,which notes that codependency may be rooted in the inability of individuals to handle their own emotions. 

Research published in "The Psychoanalytic Review"2 takes this one step further, noting that pathological forms of generosity are the result of a complex interaction between the following:

1. Genetically predisposed drives for altruism and concern (that "caring about others" thing present in most of us)
2. The gratification of altruistic behaviors in infancy (high rewards for giving behaviors)
3. Parental modeling during childhood and the teenage years leading to identification with those behaviors (children see these behaviors as normal because they saw their parents engage in them)

Let's put that all together.

Say I'm a child with a mother who spends her time focused on my alcoholic father instead of caring for my needs. I don't learn that  the world is safe or that others will assist me when something bad happens--the base of attachment--so I repress my feelings and start to focus on what else may lead to security.  

As I grow up, I learn that when I help my father by bringing him another beer or staying out of his way, I get praised. Ignoring my feelings--and focusing on him--makes people happy and deepens my sense of security, since they might not sell me to the circus if I can behave. In this way, not only are the behaviors themselves gratifying because it makes those around me happy, but I may start to feel more emotionally secure myself by engaging in them. And over time, ignoring my needs for someone else's sticks, until how I feel about me depends on how they feel about me.

In essence, kids become highly sensitive to others because it is the only way to get their needs met, which reinforces the idea that their own emotions are irrelevent to security and to life.

AKA: I give up my chocolate, and eventually fail to see that I even crave it because I never recognized it as mine to begin with. Seeing someone else enjoy it becomes the only way I get satisfaction from cocoa.

After growing up this way, my later relationships may exist in this chocolate void too. When I get reinforcement from helping a partner, I am deepening my sense of normalcy (from early modeling) and safety (because it's how I learned to calm myself down and control my world). I also get the innate moral jolt of doing something good for someone else (altruism bias). Plus, I don't want my partner to look down on me....because then I have to feel bad about myself too (emotional regulation/self in relation issues).

So again...will I recognize this as an error in judgement? How long does it take someone without chocolate experience to know they are missing it?

It's a tricky question to answer because the way codependency plays out may be more or less detrimental depending on the partner one ends up with. To make it trickier, the behaviors themselves may or may not show maladaptive codependency at all. While it's easier to see behaviors as pathologically altruistic in relation to, say, starving because you gave away your last dollar, it's a little harder when the currency is emotional.This is just one reason researchers stress that codependency is more accurately described on a continuum, as a set of behaviors as opposed to a diagnosis3

So, how do we develop within relationships, but somehow manage to maintain enough independence to avoid becoming pathologically generous, especially if it's hard to gauge future outcomes because of past experience?

Girl's gotta have standards about what she lets into her emotional circle...and what she doesn't. Not everybody is worthy of chocolate, and boundaries may play a role in how psychologically damaging the behaviors themselves are, separating working relationships from unhealthy codependent behaviors.

Codependency and Boundaries 

Relationship expert, and author of Boundary Issues, Dr. Jane Adams, cautions that when the boundary between the self and others is blurred, individuals may allow the feelings of the other to overwhelm them5. Individuals in codependent situations can become so overwhelmed that they are unable to even identify feelings that are not connected to another person, hence that feeling of emptiness without someone else to tell them how they feel (discussed above). 

Obviously, this is maladaptive.  But, this doesn't mean that all people require some specific level of autonomy to function and develop into the person they want to be. Thicker psychological boundaries, and a healthier sense of self, can be protective for individuals engaging in what appear to be pathologically generous behaviors. Cultural and generational differences complicate matters as well, because what is normal in one region may be considered dysfunctional in others.  

Is your tiny Polish grandmother codependent because she dotes on your grandfather, and doesn't allow him to lift a finger to help? Or is it a function of a culture and an age where certain things were accepted in a way they aren't now? She seems pretty happy, but it appears to be connected to grandpa's happiness, something that you wouldn't put up with. But, unless you know what's going on inside her head and how thick her boundaries are, you'd be hard pressed to tell whether she's in a codependent relationship or a healthy one. 

The point is, as affected as we would be in certain relationships, this doesn't mean that the one in the relationship is overwhelmed. We all come with different boundaries, and as such, have very different models that dictate when generosity becomes detrimental. 

If you're on the fence, there are a few concrete ways to tell how hard you are toeing the line between maladaptive codependency and a healthy relationship. Check out the next post: What Is Codependency? Narcissism, Flexibility and The Definition of Modern Codependent Relationships.


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690610/
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/23126410/
3. http://www.amazon.com/Pathological-Altruism-Barbara-Oakley/dp/0199738572
4. http://www.wcwonline.org/pdf/previews/preview_13sc.pdf
5. http://www.amazon.com/Boundary-Issues-Intelligence-Intimacy-Independence/dp/0471660450


Topic-Relevant Resources

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.

Pathological Altruism
Insight into unhealthy forms of generosity

Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, & Other Toxic People
A guide to overcoming abusive relationships with narcissistic or psychopathic individuals

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the complex relationships between two people and how personal assessments of situations may lead to better overall functioning within couples...or the drive to separate.

Famished: An Ash Park Novel
Everyone's hungry for something. Some are more famished than others.