January 30, 2024

Jewish Matchmaker Journal: Compassion and Codependency

In the intricate dance of human relationships, the line between healthy and dysfunctional behaviors can often blur. Showing compassion and extending a helping hand to those in need, is considered a mitzvah, but altruism can mask codependency. Genuine concern for another can become a desire to “rescue” someone (usually from themselves) and mask an underlying tendency for co-dependent behavior. As a Jewish matchmaker, I’ve seen all sorts of self-sabotaging and relationship sabotaging behaviors in singles who sincerely desire a healthy, long-term relationship. Such a relationship requires self-awareness and the ability to recognize and heal our own dysfunctional tendencies. How to know if your behavior is compassion or codependency? This article will explore a few ways to distinguish the difference.

The Desire to Rescue:

The desire to rescue someone is deeply rooted in human nature. It stems from empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When we see someone struggling or in pain, our instinctive response is to alleviate their suffering. This can manifest in various forms, from offering a listening ear to providing tangible support. In healthy relationships, the desire to rescue fosters connection, builds trust, and reinforces the bonds that hold us together.

One distinguishing difference between compassion and codependency  is an unhealthy reliance on the rescue dynamic. It indicates codependency when the supporter becomes excessively entangled in the well-being of the other, often to the detriment of their own needs and identity. Codependents can easily put their needs and wants to the side, in order to focus on the needs of their partner. They become enmeshed, intertwined in the chaos of the other and “fixing” or “helping” their partner becomes a primary focus or task of their own life.

Codependents sacrifice their own well-being, neglecting personal boundaries and needs under the guise of fulfilling their role as a rescuer and “good person”. The desire to rescue, when driven by codependency, is a coping mechanism for the rescuer's own insecurities and fears. This compromises the autonomy of the person being rescued and perpetuates an unhealthy cycle of dependency.

Enabling vs. Empowering:

Another facet that distinguishes compassion from codependency is the fine line between enabling and empowering. Enabling involves supporting someone's destructive behavior under the guise of helping. This way of helping actually fosters dependence. Codependent individuals can struggle to distinguish the difference between genuinely empowering someone to overcome challenges on their own, and perpetuating self-destructive patterns by being the savior in the relationship and always stepping in to “help”. The codependent might take on the tasks that are stressful to the partner under the misconception that they are making the partner’s life easier, when they are actually inhibiting the partner’s growth and making themselves feel indispensable.

Rescuers with codependent tendencies may find themselves caught in a loop of repeated rescue attempts, never allowing their partner to develop their own coping mechanisms. This creates dependency, as the partner becomes reliant on the rescuer's interventions rather than cultivating resilience and self-sufficiency. This reliance creates that feeling of being needed, which the codependent so desperately craves.

Codependency and Control:

Codependency can hide a need for control. Codependents often unconsciously believe that by rescuing others, they can control and  influence external circumstances in the relationship that make them feel uncomfortable. This is a way to control their own emotional state. If your partner literally needs you and you fulfill a crucial and desperately needed role, they are less likely to cheat or leave you, right? This illusion of control becomes a driving force that compels one to overextend themselves in their quest to fix, save, or rescue a partner.

Being attracted to someone because they “need” you, or seeking out a partner based on their level of need in the relationship is a good indication that your altruism masks codependency. Codependents often have the underlying belief that they are unlovable. They don’t trust love - likely because they didn’t get a safe and secure love in childhood. Codependents feel they must “do” for a partner in order for the partner to want to keep them around. Being the caregiver and gaining the partner’s dependence on them, is a way of controlling their level of importance in the partner’s life. For a codependent, love isn’t enough reason for their partner to remain faithful or to continue the relationship. They feel more secure when they are fulfilling a specific need in their partner’s life. Being “needed” feels more stable than simply being “loved”.

Breaking the Cycle:

Recognizing codependency in yourself is essential for breaking the cycle of unhealthy relationships. Knowing the difference between compassion and codependency is part of the path to personal growth. When you are able to distinguish between compassion and codependency, you can set and maintain boundaries. Healthy boundaries are key to recognizing healthy and unhealthy relationship dynamics. Setting boundaries creates the space for genuine support that doesn’t degenerate into codependency.

Self-reflection is crucial for recognizing codependence in your own behavior. Self-reflection enables you to gain insight into your motivations and triggers, fostering personal growth and resilience. Therapy might also be necessary. A therapist can help reveal the root causes of your codependence, and provide you with tools to develop healthier relationship dynamics.

The desire to rescue someone is a powerful manifestation of human compassion, but when entangled with codependency, it becomes dysfunctional and chaotic for everyone involved. Understanding the delicate balance between genuine support and unhealthy attachment is crucial for maintaining healthy relationships and for personal growth. By recognizing compassion and codependency, we transform our personal relationships and ourselves.