More Than Love: Recognizing Codependency When Your Loved One Has Mental Illness

The human capacity for love is truly remarkable. Love is not something extra like icing on a cake, but a fundamental human need that courses through us, demanding to express itself. However, for people who grew up in dysfunctional family environments and were not given the opportunity to develop a healthy and authentic understanding of how to give and receive love, sometimes what looks and feels like love may actually be codependency. When you’re codependent on a person with mental illness, the damage of codependency can be particularly acute as well as uniquely difficult to recognize.

What is Codependency?

Codependency describes a relationship dynamic in which the codependent person enables the self-destructive, maladaptive, of otherwise dysfunctional behavior of their loved one. Driven by an overwhelming need for approval and fear of rejection, the codependent person seeks to satisfy their partner or family member’s needs in over-involved, exaggerated, and counterproductive ways, subsuming their own needs and desires in the process. Without a stable sense of your own identity, your sense of self becomes deeply and inextricably linked to caring for your loved one. While the term was originally used with the context of partners or family members of people with substance addiction issues, today we recognize that codependency can occur within contexts of mental illness as well. In these scenarios, codependents may go to extreme lengths to compensate for their loved one’s real or imagined functional challenges, hindering the healing and wellbeing of both themselves and the person they’re trying to help.

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The Origins and Symptoms of Codependency

Codependents typically grew up in households marked by shaming, silence, and unrealistic expectations. Without early and consistent nurturing to help you form a cohesive sense of self and recognize your own self worth, you were left struggling to find your place in the world and quickly learned to attach your sense of self to the approval of others. As a result of these childhood wounds, you live in desperate fear of abandonment, as abandonment would explosively disrupt your understanding of yourself. In order to guard against this, you seek to make yourself indispensable to your loved one. Common symptoms of codependency include:

  • Internalized shame
  • A need to control situations and people
  • Overwhelming feelings of responsibility for others
  • A strong sense of guilt
  • Feeling that you do not deserve happiness
  • Conflict avoidance and sensitivity to criticism
  • Your happiness is dependent on your loved one
  • Difficulty identifying your feelings and those of others
  • Poor communication skills

One of the most disturbing characteristics of codependency is that it can be extraordinarily difficult for codependents to recognize the nature of their own behavior. Rather than understanding your behavior and the psychological motivation behind it as dysfunctional, you see your actions as expressions of deep love.

Codependency and Mental Illness

When the person on whom you dependent has a mental illness, codependency can be particularly difficult to parse. Many people with mental health disorders do indeed have challenges that interfere with their ability to function and recognizing where compassionate caring and accommodation end and where codependency begins is not always easy. For example, if your partner has depression and can’t get out of bed, it is can be a normal and loving act to care for them, make them food, make sure they take their medication, and drive them to doctor’s appointments. However, in a codependent relationship, you do those things not simply because your partner needs them, but because you need to them to fulfill your own emotional needs. In other scenarios, your overwhelming desire to please and protect your loved one may actually serve to interfere with their ability to heal and grow. You may hide the damage their mental illness is causing, keeping them from seeing the reality of their own psychological state and recognizing the need for treatment. You may underestimate your loved one’s abilities and compensate for their perceived lacks in ways that prevent them from acting autonomously or building new skills. For example, you may support them financially or take care of basic tasks of living based on the assumption that they are incapable of working or performing household tasks. In response, your loved one may assume a kind of learned helplessness that does not reflect the reality of their abilities, leaving them without the motivation or ability to test their own potential. As a result, the codependent relationship dynamic can prevent recovery and improved functioning.

The Damaging Impact on the Codependent

However, codependency is not only damaging for your loved one, it is also a fundamentally self-destructive behavior. Many codependents make tremendous sacrifices in order to please, care for, and protect their loved one; you may take on a disproportionate share of financial responsibilities and stop caring for your own physical and emotional health in order to focus on your partner or family member. Your own needs no longer matter and perhaps you don’t even know what those needs are. Worse still, you remain trapped in a psychologically damaged state, your early experiences of emotional neglect and trauma remaining open wounds with which you are constantly struggling to cope. Many codependent people experience their own mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety that often originate from the same seed as the codependency itself and too often go unnoticed and untreated. However, no amount of codependent behavior is going to alleviate your suffering; in fact, participating in the dysfunction of codependency keeps you from uncovering your authentic self and engaging in the vital work of healing.

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Towards Recovery

Too often it takes the disintegration of the relationship to make you recognize your codependency. That was the case for Jennifer Kass, who describes her own moment of clarity:

I was living in codependent relationships for two decades and didn’t even know it. When I hit a rock-bottom in a breakup a few years ago, it was all revealed to me; my fears came rushing in and my patterns rose to the surface for me to finally see them clearly. My fears of being alone, my deep longing for the love and attention outside of me, the fact that I had placed my power in another person making them the source of my love and happiness, all came into my awareness and there was no turning back.

However, this awareness can be reached without the loss of a relationship with someone you love. If you are struggling with codependency, there are specialized resources available to help you break free from the pattern of dysfunction and begin healing. By working with trained experts who understand the challenges faced by codependents and their loved ones, you can not only begin to recover from the pain of your early childhood experiences and form a renewed sense of identity and self-worth, you can improve the quality your relationships and allow you to experience healthy, satisfying giving and receiving of love.

Bridges to Recovery offers the highest standard of care for people struggling with codependency as the result of childhood trauma. With compassion, empathy, and respect, we can help you safely explore painful experiences and understand your codependent drive while guiding you towards healthier coping mechanisms and increased self-awareness. We understand the unique needs of codependents in relationships with someone who has a mental illness and help you to form a new emotional and behavioral framework that that will encourage both of you to flourish. Meanwhile, if you suffer from a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, our clinical team will use the most sophisticated treatments available to alleviate symptoms and improve your quality of life. Together, we can help you create a more fulfilling life where you have the freedom to experience great joy and love without the damage of codependency.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people suffering from emotional and behavioral issues as the result of childhood trauma as well as other mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to recovery.