he’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.)
The Seeds of Codependence
Codependent patterns and behaviors typically take root early in a person’s life.
Expert Pia Mellody explains that children who receive “less than nurturing,” shaming, or traumatic experiences from parents (whether intentional or not) learn dysfunctional survival traits that form the core symptoms of adult codependence.
What does “less than nurturing” parenting involve?
Mellody theorizes that children have five natural characteristics: They are valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, dependent (needing/wanting), and immature. Parenting that’s dysfunctional, “less than nurturing,” or abusive does not let children experience these very healthy characteristics, and the children subsequently become unbalanced in their emotional development in these key areas. For example, children forced to be “little adults” too early learn that they’re either “good/perfect” or “bad/rebellious,” and grow up to become either perfectionists or rebels — and then codependents.
Codependents aren’t always needy and clingy, adds Mellody. They may go to the opposite extreme, demonstrating superiority, perfectionism, overmaturity, and antidependence. “Though they may seem well-adjusted, their pain from unfulfilling relationships, dissatisfying careers, and depression indicates the opposite,” she writes.
In her many years of marriage and family therapy, Teaneck psychotherapist Dr. Rachel Sarna has come across both the product and the cause of codependency — the codependent parent who plants the seeds for the next generation of codependent adults. Sarna points out that overindulgent parents are just as likely to foster codependency in their children as critical or neglectful parents. It’s easy to see how codependency stems from the latter: the child who’s constantly rebuked feels he doesn’t meet his parents’ expectations. He can’t do anything right, he is told — and he learns to believe it. This child, adds Dr. Sarna, will always feel inadequate, becoming a codependent adult who perpetually seeks validation. Oftentimes these codependent adults are very sensitive: If a spouse or friend gets upset for any reason, they’ll automatically assume it’s because of them.
Pia Mellody — a recovered codependent, like many codependency experts — offers a personal example: As a newlywed, she immediately thought her husband wanted a divorce the first time he asked her not to wash his coffee cup before he finished drinking the coffee.
But what about the overindulgent parent who gives the child anything he wants — toys, time, etc. — without enforcing disciplinary boundaries like bedtime, rules, or manners, because she’s afraid that “No” will turn the child against her? “She gets upset if the other parent wants to reinforce discipline,” says Dr. Sarna, “and makes him do it, if he insists. This can be a really wonderful mother — everyone loves her, she does it all. I call her the ‘kol yachol woman.’ But she has a problem: When the parent is so concerned about overprotecting the child, the child cannot build his own resilience.
“The overindulgent parent will do the child’s homework because she doesn’t want the child to work so hard or go to sleep too late. She thinks she’s showing the child love, but the subliminal message is that he can’t do difficult things by himself. So when he grows up, he doesn’t trust himself to write a good enough essay, prepare a simple meal, or buy a sweater on his own. This adult will constantly second-guess himself — he’ll depend on someone else to make decisions, and in marriage, will need constant validation from his spouse and will think life is unfair when others won’t cater to him as his parents did. These are all elements of codependency.”
How can parents strike the balance between giving too much — or too little? Dr. Sarna has her own take on the popular parenting mantra. “While you give them the roots, help them sprout wings. Grant them their needs while helping them develop tools to take care of their own needs in the future.”
Are Jews Too Giving?
Codependency runs on a continuum, asserts Dr. Sarna. “Each of us has a little bit of codependency inside. We all want to be needed, loved, and cared for.”
Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LSCW-R, who serves as director of operations for Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, and the president of Nefesh, the International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals, concurs. “Just like we can all have a bit of paranoia at times, or sometimes behave compulsively, we can all be a little bit codependent, too.”
Some professionals believe 80 to 90 percent of people in Western society have “low-level” codependency. In fact, one research study (Prest, Benson, Protinsky, 1998) shows that the very traits that professionals identify as codependent in clinical populations are associated with favorable characteristics of family functioning in nonclinical populations.
How, then, can codependent behaviors be harmful? “What makes it unhealthy,” continues Dr. Sarna, “is the extreme. Are we so anti-dependent that we’re scared to ask for help? Are we compulsively codependent, where every little decision needs to be validated?”
Discovering codependence can be complicated in the frum community because many cultural values — vatranus, mesirus nefesh, lifnim mishuras hadin — seem like extreme levels of self-sacrifice.
Frum Jews are actually more prone to codependency, says Simcha Feuerman. “We have an ethos of chesed — we often don’t turn down anything — so it’s hard to realize when one is in a codependent relationship. It’s hard to draw the line between being an ‘enabler’ and doing chesed. It’s difficult to understand when withholding involvement is the right thing. And it’s harder for codependents to draw these boundaries, because they have an extreme need for approval.”
This, says Rabbi Feuerman, is a central challenge in dealing with frum codependency. “Many people believe giving is always the right thing, but Chazal have a lot to say about misplaced chesed,” he emphasizes. “For example, the foundational rabbinic statement about codependence is in Koheles Rabbah [7:16]: ‘Whoever is [inappropriately] merciful when he should be cruel will ultimately be cruel when he should be merciful.’ And Berachos 33a warns us not to ‘have mercy on a foolish person.’
“We see from here that there are limits. And when we have difficulty comprehending these limits, we may be suffering from codependency.”
But Rabbi Leib Kelemen — who founded an international network of self-help groups dedicated to character development — cautions against over-diagnosing codependency among frum people. The veteran author and educator maintains that context is vital to determining whether a behavior or relationship is unhealthy.
“Every situation is nuanced,” he says, warily. “People mean different things when they label behaviors as codependent, some of which are genuinely pathological, but some of which are perfectly healthy or even admirable. That’s why it’s important never to diagnose without knowing the story. Acts of extreme, outlandish giving in a friendship may be signs of codependence, whereas those same giving acts may be completely acceptable in a healthy, loving relationship between husband and wife.
“There’s nothing wrong with loving someone so much that the person becomes the focus of your life. That’s called ahavah,” he continues, citing the well-known tale of Rav Aryeh Levin who told the doctor, “My wife’s foot hurts us.” “There’s nothing wrong with letting go of what you want for the sake of someone else. That’s called chesed. There is, however, something unhealthy about enabling another person’s addiction, irresponsibility, or under-achievement, or needing a person’s approval more than Hashem’s.”
Los Angeles–based clinical psychologist Rabbi Dr. Dovid Fox, director of clinical interventions and community education for Project CHAI of Chai Lifeline, has another way to clarify the difference between healthy chesed and codependency.
“Codependents have an essentially good quality of wanting to please others, but they do so excessively. When someone becomes clingy and merges with another’s demands/whims, we call it codependency because they’ve submerged their own sense of self with that of the stronger or needier individual. The codependent has an underdeveloped and undefined sense of personal identity, and is driven to morph within whatever they attribute to that other person so as to somehow find worth, when in fact they have merely become a shadow of the person they’re helping.
“Even Chazal instruct us, ‘Bear the burden with another’ — nosei b’ol im chaveiro — which means: Lend assistance but don’t forget that you are still you, and he is still him,” continues Dr. Fox. “The Torah commands us, ‘Love your friend as yourself,’ which presupposes self-care, not self-abnegation.”
Unfortunately, says parenting expert Dr. Miriam Adahan, high schools and seminaries may indirectly encourage codependency by promoting the idea of giving 24/7, without boundaries.
“Women are expected to perform endless social obligations, while keeping a house spotless, making gourmet meals, working full-time, and being a good mother. Unrealistic demands are harmful to a person’s physical and emotional well-being,” she says. “In our attempt to make sure our children don’t become narcissistic and selfish, we sometimes go to the opposite extreme, making children give so much that they lose their sense of identity and their ability to make choices based on what’s best for them.”
Schools can unwittingly create codependent children, says Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerski, who has been working with addicts and codependents for over 30 years. “Our yeshivos are failing significantly in providing the kind of education that covers emotional issues like boundaries, self-esteem, and managing healthy relationships. The deficiencies are staggering.
“Most frum Jews don’t think these emotional dysfunctions apply to them. But they do. There’s no shortage of frum people at 12-step meetings. And schools don’t want to discuss these things because they expect parents to. But parents have no idea that they need to — let alone how or when.”
Simcha Feuerman has some advice for parents, though: Use teachable moments — everyday opportunities to train kids on healthy giving. “For example, if your child’s classmate constantly asks for snacks, what will you tell your child to do? Where do your child’s needs end, and another’s begin? If you aren’t sure, ask a rav.”
This is critical, he states, because a child who has self-respect will be prevented from accepting abuse — of any kind.
“Although as frum Jews we have three foundational middos of sympathy, humility, and chesed, a younger person has a hard time distinguishing when to be a bayshan and when to tell the other person that something is unacceptable, which leads them to give consent to things they’re not comfortable with.
“We need to teach kids they don’t have to accept unacceptable behaviors, that being liked by someone else is not the goal — they can be wholesome without feeling attached to someone else.”
Mechaneches Mrs. Rivka Yudin ardently advocates this message. As a former high school teacher, women’s lecturer, longtime seminary teacher, and coordinator of a counseling line on dating, marriage, and shalom bayis, Mrs. Yudin has been raising awareness of codependency among her students and women from various backgrounds.
In her annual Yemei Iyun in various seminaries, she now spends an equal amount of time speaking about codependency among friends as she does on dating and marriage. “There’s not one person in the room who isn’t nodding her head,” she says. “Everyone knows someone involved in an unhealthy friendship.”
Noted educator Dina Schoonmaker says codependent friendships have elements similar to addictions: “the highs, the lows, the crashes, the quick fixes, and even sometimes the physical elements. When the boundaries aren’t there, and the relationship gets very intense, even the physical lines can get crossed.” Her litmus test? “In healthy relationships people choose to spend time with each other. In unhealthy relationships people need to be with each other.”
“There’s usually one friend displaying more neediness, but even the one who seems less needy and more confident, in fact, needs to be needed,” adds Mrs. Yudin.
“These codependent young women can get married and go on to lead normal lives, but sometimes they need therapy to identify why they engaged in the codependent relationship in the first place,” Mrs. Schoonmaker says.
But it’s not just friendships that are of concern. As director of NCSY Michlelet, a summer program in Israel for high school girls, Mrs. Rivka Yudin trains her madrichot — and students entering chinuch — on the importance of creating healthy boundaries.
“While the goal in chinuch is to care about, encourage, build up, and love our students/campers, the ultimate goal is to help each one stand on her own two feet. Sometimes a mentor thinks she’s helping the child by constantly being there, when in reality she may be creating an unhealthy codependency.”
To the codependent, the source of his issues seems to be the “other” person. But, stresses Melody Beattie, “The heart of the definition and recovery [of codependency] lies not in the other person… It lies in ourselves — in the ways we’ve let other people’s behavior affect us and in the ways we try to affect them.” Which brings us to the first step of recovery: recognizing the core symptoms of codependency in ourselves.
“Recovery calls for a fundamental shift in one’s personality, attitude, coping mechanisms, and behavior in all interactions, even with yourself,” writes codependency expert Darlene Lancer. According to her, recovery involves developing one’s self-esteem (not other-esteem), learning to be realistic with oneself and others, and communicating assertively. In the process, the codependent works on making his own decisions, taking responsibility for mistakes without feeling deep shame, and practicing self-care, among other healthy behaviors.
None of this is easy. Confronting the consequences of codependency often causes pain and fear, but this is normal — and expected. The pain, says Lancer, is necessary to engage in successful recovery work.
Nor will progress be quick. “Codependent behaviors are deeply engrained… it takes patience, strength, and perseverance to unlearn and replace bad habits and attitudes,” she continues, which brings to mind the famous quote from Rav Yisrael Salanter that it takes a lifetime to change a middah.
According to Pia Mellody, as codependents work the recovery process, they start learning these healthy characteristics: Healthy people are able to esteem themselves from within to be intimate and vulnerable with protective boundaries; to be responsible for their self-care and to be interdependent; and are able to experience reality moderately as well as maintain a sense of spontaneity.
Several tools are available to treat codependency. Professionals advise combining the options for best results.
Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) meetings, modeled after AA meetings, are safe places to gain information, encouragement, validation, empowerment, and insight from others struggling with codependency. The only membership requirement is “a desire for healthy and loving relationships.” Similar to CoDA, Al-Anon groups are geared towards relatives and close friends of alcoholics or addicts. Visit CoDA.org to find a meeting in your area or learn more.
Well-researched self-help material can further one’s understanding of codependency and offer recovery tools. Rabbi Twerski recommends the following:
- Facing Codependence: What It Is, Where It Comes From, How It Sabotages Our Lives by Pia Mellody. (Several women interviewed for this article mentioned that this book has changed their lives.)
- Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself; The Language of Letting Go: Daily Meditations on Codependency; Stop Being Mean to Yourself — all by Melody Beattie.
- Codependency for Dummies by Darlene Lancer, MFT.
- Women Who Love Too Much: When You Keep Wishing and Hoping He’ll Change by Robin Norwood.
Therapy uncovers the source of one’s codependent behaviors to allow one to work through them and move forward. Sometimes this means tracing codependency back to childhood; other times, says Dr. Fox, the past is less involved.
“For some low-level codependents, we’re helping them step away from their relationships, take a moment to reflect and ask, Who am I? And where are my daled amos? This is a somewhat shorter-term study of your bedrock, which will shift and solidify precisely because, for the first time, you identify the strata of identity which is self, and you examine its material.”
But Rabbi Dr. Benzion Twerksi advises people to certainly seek therapy if they suspect they’re involved in a serious codependent relationship. “Sometimes, one can reorganize the dynamics and patterns of the relationship through therapy by setting proper boundaries. Other times, however, the codependency has become too intense to split hairs between the person and the unhealthy behaviors. In these cases, one cannot extricate himself — we call this detaching with love — unless one completely breaks contact with the other party. This decision, though, can only be made with the help of psychologists and daas Torah.”
Dr. Fox mentions additional benefits of therapy. “Therapy can also help someone clarify the differences between healthy giving and codependency in the specifics of his life,” he says. “Clients get to know themselves with greater depth and clarity. Even with therapy, the recovering codependent may still tend to be the ‘giver,’ but he’ll recognize it within himself and reduce the conflict surrounding those situations. And he may discover that self-respect doesn’t hinge on what he does for others or what others think about him.”
Ultimately, therapy is more about self-awareness than about stopping codependents from doing nice things for others — although this certainly plays a role. When Shifra first started working on boundaries and self-care as part of her codependency recovery, she felt selfish as she refused inappropriate requests for her time and energy. But she slowly began to realize that she was simply being responsible for herself.
Recovery will always feel extreme to the codependent, says Pia Mellody, because he’s been entrenched in those patterns for so long. The process is like a seesaw — for years, the codependent weighed down one end. In recovery, he may take drastic measures and swing to the opposite extreme. But after some time, he’ll figure out a steady medium — that sweet spot between self and others, between chesed and limited boundaries, between control and letting go.
Remember, though: Life isn’t about dangling perfectly in midair in every situation. It’s about finding that balance more often than not. Moreover, part of recovery is realizing that recovery is not about perfection, it’s about progress.
Dr. Fox — echoing every other codependency expert — stresses how important it is for codependents to remember G-d (or, as the non-Jewish experts call it, the Higher Power), not just in their recovery process, but during their daily struggles. “The codependent wrongfully believes that they and only they can manage the situations in which they burrow themselves, and Hashem is sadly relegated to some nonexistent place in outer space. In recovery, the codependent needs to work on his faith, and realize that only Hashem determines outcomes. We shouldn’t err in believing that we can rely on our own efforts to make things happen. Having faith in Hashem is extremely important.”
And there’s hope at the end of the long road. “As difficult as it is,” says Dr. Sarna, “when codependents work on learning how to live without codependency, it gives them an amazing sense of freedom and relief.”
What does codependency look like?
Unsure whether you’re in a codependent relationship? Here are some examples of common codependent thought patterns, excerpted with permission from Codependents Anonymous.
- Denial patterns
I minimize, alter, or deny how I truly feel. I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others.
I express negativity or aggression in indirect and passive ways.
- Low Self-Esteem Patterns
I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings, and behavior over my own.
I need to appear to be right in the eyes of others and will even lie to look good. I constantly seek recognition that I think I deserve.
I have trouble setting healthy boundaries.
- Compliance Patterns
I am extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger.
I am hyper-vigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings.
- Control Patterns
I attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel.
I have to be needed in order to have a relationship with others.
I adopt an attitude of indifference, helplessness, authority, or rage to manipulate outcomes.
- Avoidance Patterns
I judge harshly what others think, say, or do.
I suppress my feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.
I pull people toward me, but when they get close, I push them away.
(Originally featured in Family First Issue 443)
Nechama H. Raphaelson is working on a book about frum codependency. She welcomes your thoughts, comments, and stories. She can be contacted confidentially through Mishpacha.