How Does Co-Dependency Affect Adults?

Article by Joyce McLeod Henley

How does growing up in a dysfunctional family affect us as adults? The same behaviors and beliefs that we thought enabled us to survive as children now cause us a myriad of problems in adulthood. These are so ingrained and automatic, that we do them without even realizing it. Changing any of these behaviors provokes anxiety and fear in us, because we think they were a lifeline.

In adulthood, they become an albatross around our necks.

The degree to which we are affected depends on the level of dysfunction in the sicker parent, and the other parent’s ability or inability to protect us. Some addicts are better parents than others. Some addicts may be able to function as a parent some of the time, and even when drinking may try to show an interest in their children. Others may be gone most of the time and mean or even violent when they are home. A minority of the non-addicted parents may seek help and be honest with us about what is happening in our home. They may be mature enough to put their own feelings aside to do what is best for us. Other parents may deny what is happening and try to put us in an adult role, which adds to our harm.

The majority of adults from dysfunctional families find it difficult to impossible to trust people, especially in close relationships. Since they were usually abandoned emotionally by one or both parents, they are terrified of being abandoned. Loving someone makes them feel vulnerable, which is very frightening. To avoid this fear and anxiety they often keep their feelings inside and don’t share who they really are with their partner. IF there is a problem or conflict they don’t talk about it. WHY WOULD THEY? They have never seen two mature adults fight fair, so they don’t believe that it is possible. If they make it to therapy, they are often dragged in by their partner. Due to their fear of abandonment, they question their partner constantly about fidelity, even when they have no reason to. This often drives the partner away.

Most adult children have very lopsided relationships. They tend to attract friends and lovers who under function. Co-dependents feel responsible for everyone who needs help. They are totally focused on everybody else’s needs. They work very hard and then are hurt, resentful and feel used. Their focus on others keeps them from knowing themselves and what they need and want. Self-care is a foreign language.

Codependents constantly question their own judgment. Some may check frequently with others. In therapy, they tend to ask me often if certain behaviors are normal. This lack of confidence in their judgment comes from the hideous scenes that happened in their family. When a parent is on a drunk, has had a manic episode, or similar incident, the next day the family behaves as though it never happened.

Co-dependents struggle with self esteem and feel chronically inadequate. They set impossible goals for themselves, and then refuse help, which they see as weak or shameful. Often, they feel overwhelmed, but they keep this a secret. Nobody knows that they are suffering until they burst at the seams. Often, this is the crisis that first gets them to a therapist. They may be trying to juggle a ridiculously impossible schedule. They may work full time, go to school full time, have several children, and a dysfunctional partner to take care of. Often, they don’t realize how hectic their own life is, because they never think about it. They are too preoccupied with other people’s lives.

Now that you understand co-dependency, how do you heal from it. Any efforts to change these behaviors are likely to result in some anxiety. Therefore, the first step to take is to learn to manage anxiety in healthier ways. My next article will address this.


Top Ten Signs That CoDependency is Sabotaging Your Relationships

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