Codependency describes a dysfunctional pattern of responses and behaviors of individuals in relationships or system (e.g., family systems). The person has developed a pattern of living and problem-solving during her lifetime, usually beginning in childhood as a result of family rules. Codependency is referred to as maladaptive. The person is unable to develop alternative behaviors to get his or her needs met. It is also referred to as compulsive (i.e., addictive), and the person acts against his own will or conscious desires when demonstrating some codependent behaviors. The compulsive behaviors of codependency are often learned as survival mechanisms in unhealthy childhood families. Such homes, often including alcoholic, drug-addicted, physically abusive,or sexually abusive parents, are unstable and unsafe. Family members must learn coping skills to survive the emotional pain and stress.
Adults with codependent tendencies are more likely to become involved in destructive relationships, with people who do not have healthy boundaries and coping skills. He or she may care so much for another person that she is unable to respond appropriately in solving problems or making decisions. In doing so, the person may fail to hold the person accountable for their behaviors. A codependent person often demonstrates hypervigilance in attempting to control the other person's behaviors, rescues them from consequences for their behaviors, and enables them to continue in unhealthy patterns of behaviors. A codependent person may define her identity by the other person's evaluation and feelings are controlled by that person (e.g., he feels bad -> she feels bad). Depression and anxiety are common in individuals acting in codependent manner.
Mothers of sexually abused children and non-offending spouses of abusers may sometimes be labeled as codependent. Wiklund (1995) gives two criteria for codependency:
- Externalizing blame and attaching responsibility for problems to someone outside yourself.
- Trying to control that person's behavior.
A codependent is viewed as a person who bases her emotions on the emotions of another person and views her worth as it is viewed by another. She is a reactor rather than an initiator.
Some of the characteristics of codependency include:
- Caretaking, enabling, and rescuing
- Inadequate or inappropriate boundaries
- Inability to trust
- Carrying guilt and shame for self and others
- Experiences high level of ambivalence
A mother whose primary role is protection will, of necessity, take a controlling role in the home if sexual abuse has occurred. It is self-defeating and immobilizing during the time following disclosure for her to focus on her internal inadequacies and tendency towards codependency. Carried to the extreme, the concept of codependency can be a blaming label used against mothers.
If an adult has made a decision to abuse a child, asking the child's mother to evaluate her behaviors of codependence is taking a portion of responsibility away from the abuser and assigning it to the mother. This may sabotage the abilities of mothers to increase self-esteem, develop resilience, survive, and support the victim.
If you are married to the abuser, it is possible that some of the basic tenets of codependency will undermine your strengths and coping skills. These include:
- Acknowledgement that codependency is an addiction and out of your control.
- Admission that you brought this on yourself by your choices.
- Prediction that you will always be sick because codependency is a disease.
These are negative, self-defeating views. Disclosure of sexual abuse initiates a stress response that may become chronic over time. The immune system is compromised due to your body's hormonal response to the stress. positive attitude, hope, and optimism have been shown to reverse negative stress effects and boost the immune system. It is important for mothers to focus on building positive self-esteem and efficacy, a self-view that honors your competence and ability to do and be what is necessary during this time.