Codependence - filling emptiness inside with other people
See also Soulbonds & Codependency especially for an otherkin &/or spiritual perspective on the topic.
Codependency refers to a pattern of behaviors in which a person becomes excessively preoccupied with another person's needs, often to the detriment of their own. It's associated with the fawning panic reaction New, and also often has components of carried shame New involved.
All kinds of relationships are potentially subject to issues of codependency, including romantic, polyamorous, familial and platonic. Codependent relationships can be especially damaging for plural and DID systems, as we have already been chronically disempowered and controlled in our life. When we are codependent on others, we are actively handing them our power & control, abandoning our autonomy, and putting ourselves into a servile position in a way that can undermine our own health.
There's a difference between codependence and dependence (such as a child being dependent on caregivers) or assistance given by a partner or family member due to a disability. For example, a partner taking your wheelchair out for you to transfer from car to wheelchair is not codependency. However, a partner withholding assistance with transfer as emotional blackmail is abuse, and if you're with an abuser, the relationship may very well also be codependent.
So please adjust everything said below for the particulars of your situation, but without making excuses for toxic behaviors, emotional blackmail, manipulative behaviors, etc.
This is a complex topic, so let's touch on what codependency looks like in general as well as in plurals and DID systems, the effects it can have on individual system members, and how systems can identify and address codependency.
Codependency in the Wild
Codependent behaviors often go unrecognized — there are cultural expectations for being kind to partners, giving them nice gifts, and thinking of them when they're not there. So when is it being loving and nice versus being codependent?
Codependent relationships are commonly recognized in the addiction & recovery field — one person has a substance use disorder that's out of control, and the people around them find themselves anticipating the needs and moods of the addict. They avoid certain topics, tip-toe around the person, they may prepare in advance for good and bad moments, obsess about how to placate the addict, and self-edit or constrict their own behavior and needs so as to not upset the addict.
This is not limited to addiction scenarios. Any person who is emotionally disregulated can trigger the fawning behaviors of those around them. Thus folks with DID may find that they've caused their own partners (whether singular or plural) to fall into codependent patterns.
One way to spot issues around codependence is to look at the power & control of a relationship. If there's an imbalance, such as one partner relying on another for emotional and physical well-being, then that relationship may be at risk. Or when keeping one partner from getting upset or angry becomes a focal point in one's behavior.
Codependent relationships can look different in different situations. A codependent person may be:
- over-controlling, manipulative, or possessive
- overly accommodating and willing to put up with bad behavior from the other person
- passive and submissive, not speaking up for themselves and allowing their partner to take advantage of them
In any case, codependent relationships can be damaging for all parties involved. The codependent person often loses or sidelines their sense of identity and self-worth as they become overly dependent on their partner for their happiness. On the other hand, a partner may take advantage of the codependent person's need for them, and — by taking advantage of the power & control imbalance — become abusive in the relationship.
It's important to seek help if you are in a codependent relationship as it can be emotionally draining and damaging to all parties, so it is important to take steps to make sure that all partners are respected and supported.
Codependency & Plural or DID Systems
Due to both emotional dysregulation issues, attachment difficulties, and fawning behaviors, codependent relationships are common in the plural and DID community. This can manifest internally or externally — for example one individual in a plural system can take on the burden of all the responsibilities in the system, or bend over backwards to keep from triggering volatile headmates — or one system member can exert excessive control over or manipulate the other system members.
These types of relationships can be difficult to identify, as they can pass as normal behavior to the external world, or be mistaken for "supportive" behavior. It is important for individuals in plural and DID systems to be aware of the signs of codependency so that they can recognize it if it arises in their own relationships.
Common warning signs of codependent relationships include: one person taking on too much responsibility for the system; one person dominating conversations and decisions; one person becoming overly dependent on the other; one person feeling obligated to help or care for the other; one person feeling resentful or taken advantage of; or one person feeling like they have to put the other’s needs before their own.
Note that this doesn't apply to many system kids who actually are dependent on caregivers in the system. See our re-parenting materials for more information. What's an important difference is where caring for someone is fostering their growth rather than suffocating and stifling it.
Codependent relationships can exacerbate trauma for the individuals involved and can hold the system as a whole back from growth & recovery. It is important for members of the plural and DID communities to be aware of the risks of codependency and to urge community members to seek help if they feel like they are in an unhealthy relationship.
Self-Help for Codependency
There are a lot of complicating factors that go into creating codependency in relationships, and some of these factors can make it extraordinarily difficult (but not impossible) to dig out of these issues and maintain the relationship at the same time.
If all parties are aware that there's a problem, and sincerely want to work on them while preserving the relationship, there is hope. It's important to be vigilant and learn to take turns leaning on each other, so that over a wide view there's balance in a relationship. We all have moments where we need help, stumble, fall, get triggered, etc. It's when the pattern doesn't stop, when there's no return to balance and equilibrium, that there's an issue.
Even if you choose to end a codependent relationship, you might bring this pattern or proclivity to future relationships, so it's important to recognize that you have a problem, and work on shame, self-esteem, self-care, boundaries, etc. so that you bring a healthier you to future relationships rather than falling back into old patterns.
- Acknowledge and Accept the Problem: The first step in making changes to any behavior is to acknowledge and accept that there's a problem and that you want to change it. We'd suggest having an internal discussion in a way that documents problem behaviors y'all have noticed, and to share information with each other internally that may help with the resolve to change as a whole system. It will also give y'all a touchpoint to check back to when you're uncertain about progress made. Be honest amongst yourselves about your observations, thoughts, feelings and the behaviors y'all have been exhibiting.
- Establish System Safety New: A safety plan includes y'all creating customized tips for your own self-regulation and self-care. On the other hand, if there's any chance that pulling back your codependent support from an unhealthy relationship may cause problems, escalate abuse, etc. please seek domestic violence supports, and exit the situation safely.
- It's important to understand panic reactions New and shame New to work on codependency issues. These are extremely complicated topics. Understanding how we get triggered, what types of panic reactions each system member tends toward, and recognizing what shame reactions we have is fundamental to begin to regulate and correct our own behaviors. Our article on Gaslighting New discusses a lot of active mental & emotional abuse issues, and talks more about the possibility of a situation escalating from mental or emotional abuse into physical abuse. It's worth a read in case there's more going on than codependency.
- Set Healthy Boundaries: Establishing internal & external boundaries can help to create a healthy relationship dynamic. Identify what behaviors you will and won’t accept in yourself and with others, and communicate those boundaries clearly. Y'all can have system-wide boundaries regarding what is and is not ok as a whole, and also have individual boundaries for specific system members that accommodate their various relationship types. [See also What are you letting in? and Barbed wire or white picket fence? for more information on boundaries.]
- Reclaim Your Emotions & Energy: If we're working on codependency without our partner's knowledge, they may try to rope us into spending our time & energy meeting their needs instead of our own. Decording can help us to clean up significant energy drains & emotional ties that have become toxic or are pulling on our energy without our consent. Also it's easier to shore up our boundaries if we ourselves have a more firm identity and possess more of our own faculties. Thus we suggest checking out Emotional Fragment Recovery New and Rescue Missions New for working on emotional issues or finding lost & stuck headmates on our own behalf. We bring more of ourselves to our relationships when we reconnect with our lost parts & system members.
- Return to a Practice of Healthy Self-Care: Taking care of yourselves is essential to breaking the cycle of codependency. Make sure to prioritize activities that make you feel good, such as spending time with friends, going for a walk, or engaging in a hobby. If y'all have been delaying your own self-work, mental health, internal system dynamics, etc. then make sure to start to spend more time taking care of each other internally and working on your& recovery as well. [Related are issues of internalized ableism New and working on Re-parenting especially as our first experiences at being parented likely fell well short of the mark, we may be trying to re-create situations and "fix" our need for being taken care of. Also since codependence leaves us so externally-focused, there's a good chance we have not been balancing internal and external life New.]
- Seek assistance: Whether y'all choose to engage in therapy, speak to other professionals, go to a 12-step group, participate in another type self-help group, it can help to talk to others about your codependent behavior and get some help to learn how to manage it. Objectivity about yourself is helpful, and everyone can use a safe space to talk through experiences and practice new behaviors.
- Reach Out for Support: It can be difficult to work through codependency on your own, so don’t be afraid to reach out for support. Seek out the help of friends, family, or a support group to provide encouragement and understanding.
On a very related note…
Role Models as Idols
Another complication for plural & DID systems is idolization of people or notable community members. Whether it's the founder of a specific group or community, a YouTube or TikTok presenter, a Hollywood celebrity, a therapist, or really anyone else.
We do need good "role models" because we likely had really lousy role models as children. Where this approaches the topic of codependency is when a person isn't merely selecting a person as a model of an ideal, but becoming a "fan" and subsuming their own needs, identity, personality, self-worth, etc. in favor of their idol, and confusing parts of their own identity with their experiences of their idolized person's identity.
Role models aren't meant to be perfect people. There are no perfect people. And that's the problem. Folks in the community end up investing too much of themselves in idols, and when notable people in the community encourage raving fans it's a problem on both ends of the equation.
Having been neglected, unloved, abandoned, it's understandable that someone may have a need for adoration.
Thus both the fan and the idol can have issues of a sense of lack and a need to fill, and potentially broken boundaries between them. It becomes a toxic energy exchange between the adorers and the adored. As both ends are flawed people, the chances that these relationships end tragically is very real.
The adored, raised up on their pedestal, has enormous performance pressure. They “don't want to let their fans down” and jump through hoops in an attempt to appear perfect. They mask tightly. They're anxious about their image. They cannot be authentic. Where there are adorers there are critics, and rumors, and trolls. Scrutiny.
Some of these toxic relationships end with the cherished falling from grace, the fans devastated or crushed, much hand-wringing and lamenting the fallen hero, lots of news or posts about it, and the fallen party is disgraced. Fallen idols are at risk of any of a number of shame-related issues New (addiction, self-harm, depression, etc.)
If we go back to “role model” and re-assess what a role-model is and what a healthy role model can be we may be able to address this situation.
A role model is not meant to be placed on a pedestal, this relationship doesn't need or require adoration, nor editing, substituting, or copying an identity from someone else. The model is for inspiration not worship, copying is meant to be a few strengths, not hanging on the person's actions or investing one's self-esteem in their life.
We are each individually responsible to bring our most whole self possible to our relationships, including those who have traits we may admire and wish to emulate. We cannot fill our deficits with another's life & successes.
We have everything we need between our ears. We may need to learn how to use it. We may need to heal. Hanging our hopes, dreams, sense of worth, etc. on someone else is dangerous for both. They (idols) feel responsible for you (fans) & cannot care as well for themself. Their belongingness being constantly under threat, they're subjected to extraordinary shame-triggers.
So if you want to do yourself/ves a favor, and do the people y'all admire a favor, consider your connections. Whose words do you hang on? Who do you need to hear from? Whose experiences have a hold over your moods & how you feel?
It doesn't need to be anyone famous. They may not be aware that you've attached to them. There are ways to disentangle from them safely, and fill your own broken and empty places without needing others to fill them for you.
Healing your own self, you bring more of you (each individually in your system, and your& system as a whole) to all your relationships without leaning on others in a toxic way — so when they stumble, you do not fall. You might be strong enough to help steady them. And that's a much healthier relationship: taking turns supporting each other.
Singular or plural, individuals who need more information on how to heal from these types of issues, please see Emotional Fragment Recovery New.
Please take really good care of yourselves.