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Codependency and Relationships

We have all heard the word codependency tossed around for years. Some of us have even done research and personal reflection regarding codependency. To take it further, codependency is being directly addressed in individual therapy, and introduced in couples therapy. The therapy objectives usually include a balance between: taking personal responsibility for codependency, and learning to cope with loved ones.

So let’s just put it out there...there is a connection between codependency and relationship discord. Is this a cause and effect thing? Does it mean that one person is the “problem” focus during therapy? It’s not that simple. First, I will address the definitions of codependency; how the concept began; and where the treatment trends are now. Next, I will identify the applications of codependency traits to relationships...what does that look like? I will to show you what codependency looks like in different relationships. And finally, I will provide some helpful tools for overcoming it.

The disorder was first identified about ten years ago as the result of years of studying interpersonal relationships in families of alcoholics. Originally, codependent was a term used to describe partners in chemical dependency, persons living with, or in a relationship with an addicted person. Similar patterns have been seen in people in relationships with chronically or mentally ill individuals, so the definition has expanded.

It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive. We now know that codependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship.

The term has definitely broadened to describe any codependent person from any dysfunctional family, rather than limiting the circumstances families of alcohol addiction. .

The issue is that dysfunctional families do not acknowledge that problems exist (denial). They don’t talk about them or confront them. As a result, family members learn to repress emotions and disregard their own needs. So, the implication is that this happens regardless of the family dysfunction label (alcohol or drug addiction, domestic violence, mental illness, etc.). .

The “survivors”or codependent persons develop behaviors that help them deny, ignore, or avoid difficult emotions. They detach themselves. They don’t talk. They don’t touch. They don’t confront. They don’t feel. They don’t trust. This is codependent. Of course, they have good intentions. They try to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking becomes compulsive and defeating. Codependents often take on a martyr’s role and become “benefactors” to an individual in need. They also have low self-esteem and look for anything outside of themselves to make them feel better. They find it hard to be themselves. Some try to feel better through alcohol, drugs or nicotine , and become addicted. Others may develop compulsive behaviors like workaholism, gambling, or indiscriminate sexual activity. Codependent people engage in repeated rescue attempts that allow the needy individual to continue on a destructive course, and to become even more dependent on the unhealthy caretaking behaviors. As this reliance increases, the codependent develops a sense of reward and satisfaction from “being needed”.

More characteristics of codependents and codependency:

  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others*

  • A tendency to confuse love and pity, with the tendency to “love” people they can pity and rescue

  • A tendency to do more than their share, all of the time

  • A tendency to become hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts

  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships. The co-dependent will do anything to hold on to a relationship; to avoid the feeling of abandonment*

  • An extreme need for approval and recognition*

  • A sense of guilt when asserting themselves*

  • A compelling need to control others

  • Lack of trust in self and/or others*

  • Fear of being abandoned or alone*

  • Difficulty identifying feelings

  • Rigidity/difficulty adjusting to change

  • Problems with intimacy/boundaries*

  • Chronic anger

  • Lying/dishonesty

  • Poor communications*

  • Difficulty making decisions

*What I see most often

also known as “relationship addiction” . . . relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive

Let’s take a look at a few of the traits in more detail. A person does not have to exhibit all of the traits; you can do your own self-exploration with the assistance of a mental health professional.

Poor self-esteem: Feeling that you’re not good enough or comparing yourself to others are signs of low self-esteem. The tricky thing about self-esteem is that some people think highly of themselves, but it’s only a disguise — they actually feel unlovable or inadequate. Underneath, usually hidden from consciousness, are feelings of shame. Guilt and perfectionism often go along with low self-esteem.

People-pleasing: It’s fine to want to please someone you care about, but codependents usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes them anxiety. Some codependents have a hard time saying “No” to anyone. They go out of their way and sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.

Poor boundaries: Boundaries are sort of an imaginary line between you and others. It divides up what’s yours and somebody else’s, and that applies not only to your body, money, and belongings, but also to your feelings, thoughts and needs. That’s especially where codependents get into trouble. They have blurry or weak boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own on someone else.

Overreaction: A consequence of poor boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something you disagree with, you either believe it or become defensive. You absorb their words, because there’s no boundary.

Excessive caretaking: Another effect of poor boundaries is that if someone else has a problem, you want to help them to the point that you give up yourself. It’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, but codependents start putting other people ahead of themselves. In fact, they need to help and might feel rejected if another person doesn’t want help.

Control: helps codependents feel safe and secure. Everyone needs some control over events in their life. Sometimes they have an addiction that either helps them loosen up, like alcoholism, or helps them hold their feelings down, like workaholism, so that they don’t feel out of control.Codependents also need to control those close to them, because they need other people to behave in a certain way to feel okay. People-pleasing and care-taking can be used to control and manipulate people. Alternatively, codependents are bossy and tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. This is a violation of someone else’s boundary.

Poor communication: Codependents have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs. You’re afraid to be truthful, because you don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, “I don’t like that,” you might pretend that it’s okay or tell someone what to do. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when you try to manipulate the other person out of fear.

Obsessive thoughts: Codependents have a tendency to spend their time thinking about other people or relationships. This is caused by their dependency and anxieties and fears. They can also become obsessed when they think they’ve made or might make a “mistake.” This is one way to stay in denial.

Dependency: Codependents need other people to like them to feel okay about themselves. They’re afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own. Others need always to be in a relationship, because they feel depressed or lonely when they’re by themselves for too long. This trait makes it hard for them to end a relationship, even when the relationship is painful or abusive. They end up feeling trapped.

Denial: One of the problems people face in getting help for codependency is that they’re in denial about it, meaning that they don’t face their problem. Usually they think the problem is someone else or the situation. They either keep complaining or trying to fix the other person, or go from one relationship or job to another and never own up the fact that they have a problem.Codependents also deny their feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling and are instead focused on what others are feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own.

Lack of intimacy: This does not mean sex, although sexual dysfunction often is a reflection of an intimacy problem. This refers to being open and close with someone in an intimate relationship. Because of the shame and weak boundaries, you might fear that you’ll be judged, rejected, or left. On the other hand, you may fear being smothered in a relationship and losing your autonomy. You might deny your need for closeness and feel that your partner wants too much of your time; your partner complains that you’re unavailable, but he or she is denying his or her need for separateness.

Painful emotions: Shame and low self-esteem create anxiety and fear about being judged, rejected or abandoned; making mistakes; being a failure; feeling trapped by being close or being alone. The other symptoms lead to feelings of anger and resentment, depression, hopelessness, and despair. When the feelings are too much, you can feel numb.

Codependent Relationship Dynamics:

  • caregiver + person with addiction

  • caregiver + person with mental illness

  • Person with mental illness +person with mental illness

  • Person with addiction + person with addiction

  • Person with addiction +person with mental illness

  • caregiver + abuser

  • person not in relationship

  • caregiver + other person with issues


  • CEO of a company works 65 hours a week and carries on an affair. He pays $$$ annually for wife to unsuccessfully complete alcohol treatment programs (caregiver/addiction)

  • Career woman has turned down several potential opportunities because she is the primary contact for her father who has a mental illness (caregiver/mental illness)

  • A mother in a domestic violence situation repeatedly rescues her teens from school disciplinary consequences (caregiver/abuser)

  • A single person goes from relationship to relationship because he/she does not want to be alone (person not in a relationship or ???)

  • An employee always takes it personally when his/her evaluations note need for improvement in certain areas (???)

So now, what can you do if you believe you are in this situation and it’s having an impact on your relationships?

These symptoms are deeply ingrained habits and difficult to identify and change on your own. Join a 12-Step program, such as Codependents Anonymous AND seek counseling. Work on becoming more assertive and building your self-esteem.

And what about my partner, you ask? Your partner has to also get professional help for whatever his/her issues are (addictions, mental illness, domestic violence, or whatever is the problem...some type of dysfunction).

Each of you has to work your own program then at the right time, come together in couples therapy.

This is essential for things to get better...turn the focus on YOU!

Focusing on someone else is a real problem for codependents. Letting go isn’t easy. Turning that around so that your focus is on you doesn’t make you selfish in a bad way; in fact, it’s showing respect for someone else’s autonomy and boundaries.

Here are some practical things you can do to:

  • When you’re together, remember not to watch the other person.

  • Don’t obsess or worry about him or her. Imagine putting the person in God’s hands or surrounded by healing light. Send them love.

  • Don’t judge others, just as you don’t want to be judged.

  • Don’t have expectations of others; instead, meet expectations of yourself.

  • You didn’t cause someone else’s behavior. Others are responsible for their behavior, and you’re only responsible for yours.

  • Write about your feelings in a journal. Read it to someone close to you or a therapist.

  • Practice meditation or spirituality.

  • Pursue your own interests and have fun.

  • Remember you cannot change or “fix” someone else. Only he or she has the power to do so.

  • Take a time out. If you’re starting to react to someone or are in an argument, it’s a good idea to step away and take some time to think things over. A good idea is to write in your journal.

  • Write positive things about yourself in your journal every day. Look for things you did well or like about yourself, and write them down.

  • Take the labels off. Sometimes, you can have expectations and make assumptions about someone very close to you which you wouldn’t of a friend. Ask yourself how you would treat the other person if he or she wasn’t your partner or parent.

In a nutshell, Let go of control and the need to manage other people. Remember the saying, “Live and let live.” Accept yourself, so you don’t have to be perfect.


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