A buzzword of modern psychology, codependent behavior may be one of the most easily misunderstood terms in existence. According to some mental health experts, codependency is a psychological issue where one person sacrifices his or her health or well-being to suit the needs of another person. Examples of codependent behavior are often found in abusive relationships, in which the codependent person submits to poor treatment regardless of the implicit danger or harm.
Almost all healthy relationships involve a measure of self-sacrifice or what is referred to as “caretaking” behavior. Seeing a movie a person doesn't want to see in order to please his or her partner, or helping a work or school friend finish a project instead of going on a fun outing are examples of what may be completely normal and healthy caring actions. If the partner or friend never returns the favor, or is abusive and mean in spite of caretaking actions, this can quickly become a pattern of codependent behavior.
The idea of codependency grows out of the concept that healthy relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or business-related, have a fair balance of power. While each person in the relationship may not have exactly the same responsibilities or requirements, the effort put in by both parties is equal overall. When one person constantly accepts less than he or she offers, it is often considered a sign of codependent behavior.
Codependent behavior is often related to low self-esteem. People that feel they deserve abuse or to be treated poorly often find relationships that fulfill that unhealthy need. Some codependent people live under a crushing veil of hope, believing that the other person will change and become kind and responsible if the codependent person loves them enough. Not unsurprisingly, people with codependency issues are often the product of an abusive home or one where there was a codependent structure in place. Additionally, codependent people are considered highly likely to stay with and enable substance abusing partners.
Often, the term is linked almost exclusively to women in relationships. Many mental health experts feel this may be a somewhat unfair charge, as women are more psychologically inclined to become caretakers in a relationship, which is often perfectly healthy. In many parts of the world, however, women have long been subject to social standards and laws that standardize inequality in relationships; until the late 20th century in the United States, some regions would not allow a woman to accuse her husband of rape. In some other countries, women are not permitted to attend school, and may have no legal recourse against physical or verbal abuse by a husband or male family member. With such long-standing codifications of inequality, it is far from outrageous to suggest that woman may have historically developed codependent behavior as a means of surviving inescapable abuse.