Codependency & Power Issues: The Struggle for Control

The idea of codependency got its name only about 40 years ago and at that time was largely used to describe the connection between two parties in a relationship that was centered around alcohol abuse. One person, who was addicted to alcohol, became dependent on someone else to take care of them physically and emotionally. The other person’s life became centered around and dependent on helping the addicted person. The two dependencies compounded each other and led to behaviors that were mutually destructive. Codependency has since evolved to describe any relationship one person has with another that manifests in a dysfunctional helping dynamic. Some mental health professionals define a dysfunctional helping relationship as one where the helper enables the person being helped in their addiction, underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity or poor physical and mental health. Enabling takes place by engaging in activities like rescuing the person being helped from dilemmas they created themselves, accommodating their irresponsible and/or unhealthy behaviors, shouldering negative consequences for their behavior or choices and otherwise caring for the person in a manner that prevents them from developing and/or using skills other people of the same age and abilities possess. Codependent partners often have difficulty setting appropriate boundaries, have low self-esteem, poor emotional control and engage in self-blame, which can lead to power imbalances in the relationship. While all relationships have a power structure, usually one that fluctuates depending on the situation, severe power imbalances can lead to a feeling of powerlessness or loss of control for one person and thus, a need to regain that power. Struggling for Power and Control Power is generally defined as the ability to get other people to do what you want them to do despite their initial resistance. Unbalanced power and control structures are a predominate symptom of codependency. Generally, people in a codependent relationship give control to the other person and subsequently desire to get that control back. The person being helped feels no control over their own life, so exerts power over the helper by making demands on their time and energy. And the helper is controlled by the behavior of the person being helped, which leads to a need to re-exert power and control over them. The struggle for power and control in relationships was previously viewed as a predominately female issue. But research about codependency has since revealed that both men and women engage in the struggle for control in relationships. The primary difference seems to be the strategy used to acquire power and is related to the availability of structural resources, such as age, income, education and appearance. Research indicates that the person with fewer structural resources tends to use more indirect passive strategies to gain power such as manipulation, supplication and disengagement. Those with more structural resources tend to use more direct, explicit and overt strategies, such as outright demands, in the acquisition of power. An example of this power dynamic is apparent when the person in control wields power over the subordinate partner, usually the helper, by making unreasonable demands on their time and energy. The helper in the relationship feels a loss of self and control and attempts to regain power through manipulation or withholding emotional or financial support. And then the roles reverse. Codependency tends to focus on the external, the need to help or be helped in order to be happy. Similarly, the notion of power is often focused on the external, the ability to get others to submit to one’s desires. Neither focuses on the internal, on self, for happiness and empowerment. As a result, people in codependent relationships often feel that happiness and empowerment can only come through manipulating or changing the other’s behavior. If you or a loved one is in a codependent relationship, it is important to obtain support and guidance to break deeply ingrained behaviors and change the downward spiral of mutually destructive conduct and power struggles. Additionally, people in codependent relationships can begin to break the cycle by focusing on self, and taking responsibility for their own choices and behavior.   Sources: – Power, Control & Codependency – Family functioning and health issues associated with codependency in families of drug users – Are You In a Codependent Relationship? A few things to think about before making your declaration of codependence – What type of communication during conflict is beneficial for intimate relationships?

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