All addictions involve a relationship; one that holds out the promise of changing the way a person feels. This promise is temporarily fulfilled and reinforced by the mood-altering experience. Thus arises the urge to repeat it.
Addictive relationships may involve alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography or other potentially mood-altering behaviours but relationships with other people can fit this pattern too. These are the ones frequently described as co-dependent. Co-dependency is based on two — usually unconscious — aims which, in the attempt to regulate felt experience, work hand in hand.
Generally topping the list of negative feelings is anxiety. Such anxiety may be triggered in various ways during the relationship and, in particular, through the other person’s approach to it. The closer the relationship is or the more riding on it emotionally, the greater the potential for anxiety. Anxiety arises from fear of loss, which may come in the form of rejection, abandonment, abuse, punishment, indifference, neglect, withholding or betrayal; even death. The positive feelings sought will include love, acceptance, approval, reassurance, relief, comfort and even simply, presence. The present-day relationship may re-enact the formative (or deforming) ones of childhood.
The co-dependent person tends to relate almost exclusively to the other person as the potential source of both negative and positive feelings. They “manage” themselves in the relationship accordingly. This self-management is often driven by an unmet primal need and, therefore, by a degree of desperation, especially at times when the chance of good feelings seems increasingly remote and the threat of negative ones constant.
Like people with other addictions, the co-dependent person struggles to gain control over the “drug”, in this case the other person. As their dependence deepens and while at the same time control almost invariably eludes them, they resort to all manner of devices to secure what they need and to avoid what they fear. This will include a range of manipulations, including the suppression, distortion, compromising and ultimately loss, of their true self. There is an underlying assumption, belief and ultimately, hope that the way they behave in the relationship will determine whether they succeed in the struggle for control.
As with other addictive modes, preoccupation with the drug of choice increases, in this case with the other person’s moods and behaviours. A person’s own needs, likes and interests are neglected or subordinated. Co-dependent relationships typically involve one participant trying to control while the other endeavours to resist or escape control, including in the latter instance, through an addictive relationship with a mood-altering substance or behaviour.
Recovery begins by openly acknowledging the existence of a problem, being willing to understand it and to take responsibility for facing up to doing what is necessary to change. It means the individual taking the emotional risks involved in becoming their own, self-directed person.