5 Qualities of Codependency: Living in Abusive-Addiction Relationships


We will begin this examination of the impact of living in abusive-addiction relationships with a summary of five qualities that begin to emerge in the life of someone who relates codependently. All of these may not be present in every case. In the sections that follow you will see how the prolonged accommodation of dysfunctional relationships produces these qualities.

1. Inability or Unwillingness to Rightly Allocate Responsibility

A primary skill of overcoming codependency is learning to accurately assess what you are and are not responsible for. A primary impact of dysfunctional relationships is transferring of responsibility.

  • The alcoholic relies on you to ensure they do not get fired or look bad to their children.
  • The drug addict blames you when they get in trouble with the law.
  • The physical abuser tries to teach you how not to upset them.
  • The manipulator redefines their over-reach as a form of love and concern.

However, these are not our problems, they are theirs. It is them who should take the responsibility to get checked into a rehabilitation center like Innovative Health Systems or similar others and get their life on track. If they get in trouble with the law, or their boss, it is neither our responsibility nor something that we should fix. If we play along with these assumptions and accusations, we begin to live as if we are responsible for things we cannot control. This is the centerpiece for the emotional and relational chaos that ensues. Go back to the responsibility charts you began to keep in Step One. Reflect the patterns that have emerged as you tracked the situations where responsibility-allocation was confused or wrongly assigned.

  • Who are the people from whom you expect too little? Too much?
  • Who are the people who expect too much from you? Too little?
  • What responsibilities (i.e., tasks or emotional weights) have you taken on which are not yours?
  • What life systems or patterns have emerged around these wrongly allocated responsibilities?
  • What responsibilities, that should be yours, get neglected to take care of the tasks that aren’t yours?
  • How has taking care of responsibilities that aren’t yours built a sense of entitlement in others?
  • What conflicts are frequently repeated around these wrongly allocated responsibilities?

Read Ezekiel 18:1-4. In this passage God is confronting a culture-wide responsibility-attribution error that had emerged amongst the Children of Israel. They believed – so strongly that it became an accepted proverb of their day (v. 2) – that children were punished by God (that is, responsible) for the sins of their parents. Children felt “cursed” because of their parent’s poor choices. God was very bold in his condemnation of this mindset. God wanted his people to know that each person is responsible for his or her own choices (v. 4). We honor and emulate God when we create a relational context that mirrors this principle.

2. Overly Involved in the Lives of Others

Inaccurate responsibility-attributions lead to exaggerated relational patterns. When you believe (or accept because it is impressed upon you) that you are responsible for more than you should be, you will begin to do more than you should do.

This leads to one or both of the twin patterns of being controlling and reactionary. When people surrender responsibility for key components of their life to us and we accept, the result is that we become controlling whether that was our intent or not. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that being controlling requires “malice aforethought.” In reality it only requires mutually accepted, errant responsibility-attribution.

The other effect is being reactionary. Usually people who relate codependently care deeply; or they would have walked away early in the dysfunction. Because they care, they don’t want to fail or disappoint the person they love. However, because the responsibility-attribution is off, failure is inevitable; there is no way to succeed.

When we fail at someone we care deeply about and that affects someone we love, we react strongly. As a pattern of failure emerges and becomes predictable more and more of our life begins to be marked by these strong reactions.

  • Based on this reflection, how does being overly-involved in others’ lives results in you being controlling?
  • Based on this reflection, how does being overly-involved in others’ lives results in you being reactionary?

Read Romans 12:18: This quality of codependency emerges from the neglect of Romans 12:18. When we accommodate unhealthy responsibility-attributions we are going beyond “so far as it depends on you.” We are trying to do more than depends on us to “live peaceably with all.” Overcoming codependency requires us to come to peace with our limits to create peace in a context where responsibility-attribution is askew.

3. Relational Style Impairs Ability to Regulate and Moderate Emotions

The reactionary portion of the previous quality creates a turbulent internal emotional atmosphere. We lose a sense that consequences can be “a little bad.” The drama of addiction and abuse leads us to believe that “any bad” must be “real bad.”

When abuse and addiction become chronic we lose any sense that things will get better. When we lose a sense that things are going to get better our ability to recover from an emotional upset is impaired. With married couples, if therapy doesn’t work, divorce might become the last resort. Legal professionals like Jennifer Croker also understand how different personality traits (narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, and so on) lead to family problems, both between the partners as well as children. In a chronically unhealthy relational environment, every event that breaks from expectation feels like the latter.

Consider the child who grows up in an abusive home. She fails to put away her socks and she gets beat. She fails a test and her parents do nothing. She runs away and her parents play the victim. What in this child’s world teaches her to proportionally regulate her emotions? Responses are not correlated to outcomes and consequences. This is the emotionally turbulent world of addiction and abuse.

4. Perpetual Sense of Failure with Unwillingness to Give Up

Living in an emotionally and relationally impossible environment creates a perpetual sense of failure. When relationships matter as much as they do to those who relate codependently, the weight of feeling like you’re failing in what matters most to you is crushing.

This sense of failure is often called low self-esteem and the subsequent solution is to elevate one’s sense of self. However, thinking more highly of one’s self seems to treat the symptom more than the cause. In a dysfunctional environment, thinking rightly about what is and is not your responsibility (cause) is the first steps towards alleviating a sense of failure (symptom).

The purpose of placing this reflection at this point in the sequence is to help you begin to doubt the sense of failure that emerges when you’ve been placed in an impossible situation. No one is “dumb” because they can’t solve an unsolvable puzzle.

Your task in this study is to (a) recognize the codependent pattern of relating and its consequences so that you can (b) identify healthier ways of relating in broken relationships, (c) engage the interests and purposes for which God created you, (d) offer others the opportunity to be in relationship with a healthier person and embrace a healthier life, in order that (e) the highest possible quality of life is available to everyone… to the degree they will embrace it.

Exercise: Reflect on this “A” to “E” journey. Does the logic and sequence make sense to you? You are currently in phases A-C. Phase D will begin in Step Seven. Begin to ask yourself, “Can I be at peace if key people in my life do not make the choices necessary for a high quality of life, or will I continue to live in bondage to their choices?”

5. Care for Others Resulting in Perpetual Neglect of Self-Care

This takes us back to Step One; not as a relapse, but as a reminder. You cannot give too much energy to some things without giving too little attention to other things.

It would be easy to think that your response should be to over-compensate for the years of neglect. But distorting priorities in an opposite direction does not create balance. It creates equal-but-opposite imbalance.

Hopefully, seeing the neglect of self-care as a cumulative effect of relating codependently allows you to see how a proper focus on self-care is actually a blessing for everyone in your life.

  • Healthy self-care buffers against over-extending to accommodate unhealthy responsibility attributions.
  • Healthy self-care provides you with the emotional margin to withstand drama from other people.
  • Healthy self-care models that a God-honoring life is desirable and worth pursuing by those around you.

Healthy self-care is not a reaction against or revenge for the unhealthy relational patterns that have existed. Both of these ascribe a punitive motive to self-care. Instead, healthy self-care is part of God’s design to give our lives buoyancy as we do life in a broken world.

Review: Go back to your self-care plan you created in Step One. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Which of these practices have created the greatest emotional return?
  • Has any sense of guilt or rebelliousness begun to dissipate about these practices?
  • What changes would I like to make in order for my self-care plan to better fit me or my life?
Brad Hambrick
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