Family codependency is an unhealthy pattern of behaviors shown by family members to a dependent member. You might notice this pattern in the families of someone who has alcohol problems or other substance use.
Their parents, spouses, siblings, and/or children would lovingly pour their attention and energy into helping a dependent family member recover. However, the caring family members might get too preoccupied for a while, and they might start to neglect their own needs and lose their sense of self.
The constant emotion and thought poured onto the dependent member is oftentimes a result of downplaying your own. This leads to a blurred boundary between you and the dependent member, in which you constantly affirm their needs without tending to your own. When the other family members are walking the same path, ultimately, the codependent family dynamics would cause your family to become dysfunctional.
To regain a healthy functioning family, your family needs to recognize and address the presence of codependent family dynamics. This article will help you identify the signs of family codependency and guide you through the steps needed to break free from it.
Signs of family codependency
Codependency in itself is a situation where two or more individuals are dependent on each other. On some occasions, it might also involve two or more groups of people.
In codependency, the relationships are inherently unhealthy and characterized by a pattern of dysfunctional behaviors. An example is the dynamics between an addict-alcoholic and another important adult in their life, such as a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend. When applied in family groups, these kinds of situations create codependent family systems.
Some signs of codependency in family groups are noticeable in how your family members behave. You might want to look at whether there is anyone who:
- Attempts to control every situation in the family
- Tends to blame themselves if something goes wrong
- Puts unrealistic responsibilities on themselves (whether at home or at work)
- Has an obsession with maintaining a good relationship with the dependent member
Your family members might also experience covert or psychological signs of codependency, such as feeling stressed, depressed, ashamed, guilty, or having a strong need to control other family members. Occasionally, these signs might manifest themselves as anger and self-neglect.
As an illustration, let’s take a look at a case study of a 15-year-old female named Ashley, who has excellent grades and is well-liked by her peers. However, one day, she was referred to treatment by her school counselor. It turns out Ashley is the daughter of an alcohol-dependent mother.
Her mother would go home intoxicated after working evening shifts. So, Ashley started caring for her mother in addition to caregiving for her younger brother. At night, she would clean up her mother’s vomit and wipe her face, and in the morning, she would make her brother breakfast and help him get ready for school. In this case, Ashley becomes the overly functional, co-dependent member of her dependent mother.
Impact on family dynamics
As family codependency emerges, family members might take different reactions to adjust to the dependent member. More or less, members would assume one of these five common dysfunctional roles and sometimes change from one role to another.
This member often protects the dependent member from bad consequences. The more the dependency worsens, the more he/she steps in. Hence, this member is actually enabling the dependent behavior.
This member is helpful in the family and appears to have made it in school or work. However, deep inside, he/she feels miserable, too, because of the family.
This member feels angry with the family however he/she withdraws and instead acts out his/her frustrations outside the family.
The Lost Child
This member also feels angry, but unlike the role of the Scapegoat, he/she becomes a loner and tries to find comfort in privacy.
This member is often kept away from the real problem that the family has. The family consciously withholds or misleads information from him/her. This makes him/her make jokes or “clown” a lot, even when the family is facing difficulties.
Although it seems to maintain stability in the family, assuming dysfunctional roles would not ease the codependency in family systems. Instead, they bring about damaging emotional and psychological consequences. Individuals might regularly feel worried, anxious, angry, and frightened. Moreover, they might feel guilty, desperate, helpless, and alone. This could create a flawed image of themselves and their family.
Breaking free from codependency
Amidst the complexity, codependency is a breakable pattern. Once you recognize the signs, you can change how your family communicates, relates, and expresses emotions to each other for the better. This will equip your family to adjust better and help the dependent family member. Here are some steps you can take to break your family free from codependency.
Self-awareness and acceptance
The first step in breaking codependency is being aware of the signs. You need to recognize if any codependency signs are apparent in you or your family. For this, you can start by reflecting on your own behavior and observing other members’ behavior.
If you have noticed some signs of codependency in family relationships, the next step is to accept that your family is having a dysfunctional relationship at the moment. It is, of course, easier said than done; however, acknowledging it signals the start of healing your family.
Clear boundaries are essential for family members to sustain their own self-concept. Having a distinct role from each other would help members in determining how they would define themselves. Being in a codependent family dynamic often means members must sacrifice their own thoughts and emotions to ease the dependent member. Sometimes, they might also need to assume other members’ roles to sustain the family.
Communication is the key here. Setting up and maintaining boundaries with family members is achievable when you and your family openly communicate each other’s thoughts. Some strategies you can use are relaying how you would be able to help and how you would not. Also, say no if the dependent member asks for things outside your boundary.
Maintaining boundaries is not the finish line in breaking free from codependency. The next step is to focus more on yourself. Being a codependent family member, you might have neglected your own needs for some time; hence, you can now start to nurture yourself.
You might want to pick up your old hobbies, start over your once-abandoned daily routines, or discover new things that you would enjoy. Encourage your family members to do so as well. This way, your family would also grow individually.
Seeking professional help
As family codependency involves different family members with different feelings and behaviors, it can be too complicated for your family to overcome by yourselves. It is okay to navigate through the situation with the help of a professional. You can come together for family therapy with mental health professionals.
Family therapy involves the whole system of the family — parents, spouses, and children — working together towards healing. Some examples of therapeutic processes your family might go through are balancing the relationships between the members or reorganizing the roles in your family.
Although you might see this as purely a family problem, remember that you have other support systems outside the family that you can reach out to. You can confide in your extended family members or seek support from your friends. A strong support system is another resource for breaking free from codependency.
Other families have gone through what your family is going through. You can find them in support groups, such as Co-Dependents Anonymous, Al-Anon, or Adult Children of Alcoholics & Dysfunctional Families, where you can participate.
Family codependency looks like a pattern that will keep your family solid. However, it is an unhealthy relationship for any of you to be in.
Recognizing the signs, acknowledging the problems, setting up boundaries, and nurturing individual growth will liberate your family into a healthy, loving relationship. Your family will benefit from better physical and psychological health by breaking free from codependent family dynamics.
If you would like to see more resources on family codependency, check out the Family Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Family Science Labs today.
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