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Too Close for Comfort

Nechama H. Raphaelson

We all want to be givers. But the border between healthy giving and unhealthy codependency is easily blurred. Experts define codependency and discuss the price it extracts.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

She’s the high schooler who always says yes, chooses chesed over sleep, and pretends things don’t bother her when they really do. She’s that girl in shidduchim who predicts her date’s reactions and strives to be whoever he wants her to be. The ever-apologetic employee who always stays late, piling ever more responsibility onto her already-full plate… the wife who offers to babysit everyone else’s kids, although she hates the chaos… the woman who never turns down Shabbos guests, even at the expense of her family. Maybe you know her. Maybe she’s you. “She’s sooo nice,” everyone raves. Which is precisely the problem. Because she’s codependent.   What is Codependency? The term “codependent” was coined in the 1980s to describe a person close to an alcoholic — often the spouse, parent, or child — whose life had become unmanageable due to constantly trying to “fix” the addict’s behaviors. This relative often fell into the role of caretaker, neglecting himself to constantly be there for the alcoholic. While the addict was dependent on the substance, the family member was dependent on the addict. However, psychology leaders soon began identifying elements of codependency — low self-esteem, a need to nurture others, etc. — in families unmarred by addiction. These patterns emerged in relationships with individuals who were emotionally unhealthy, irresponsible, or immature, or who struggled with chronic illness or compulsive behavior. They began to apply the term “codependency” to these situations as well. By 1992, Melody Beattie’s classic treatise Codependent No More defined a codependent person as “one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.” Codependents, researchers found, were often people pleasers and over-givers, always ready to “save” someone. Because they invest so much into managing relationships, they often demonstrate a lack of relationship with one’s self. Usually benevolent and perceptive, they often anticipate others’ needs, but have difficulty asserting their own needs or wants. They intrude into other people’s business (for their own good, of course!) and thrive on nurturing relationships at their own expense. One key feature of codependency is that self-worth is contingent on other people’s perceptions, explains Pia Mellody, author of Facing Codependence, rather than coming from within oneself. (To test your self-esteem, ask yourself, “Would I accept and respect myself if this person wasn’t there, or if this person didn’t like me?” If not, you have what Mellody dubs “other-esteem” — esteem dependent on external factors.)

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