Codependency and Codependent Relationships

Codependent Relationship
R. Skip Johnson

Sandra C. Anderson, Ph.D., Emerita Professor at Portland State University, describes "codependency" as a pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.

Shawn Meghan Burn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the California Polytechnic State University, says “Codependent relationships are a specific type of dysfunctional helping relationship." Burn defines a codependent relationships as a dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables the other person’s addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement.

People with a predisposition to be a codependent enabler often find themselves in relationships where their primary role is that of rescuer, supporter, and confidante. These helper types are often dependent on the other person's poor functioning to satisfy their own emotional needs.

Codependent relationships are where one person supports or enables another person's addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency, the most common theme is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity.

For the enabler a codependent relationship fulfills a strong drive to feel needed. Some enablers always need to be in a relationship because they feel lost or lonely when they’re by themselves.  Codependents are often inherently afraid of being rejected or abandoned, even if they can function on their own, and in these cases the enabling behavior is a way to mitigate fears of abandonment.  Codependent enablers often lack in self-worth and define their worth through another's eyes, thoughts, or views of them. They need other people to validate them to feel okay about themselves and without this, they are unable to find their own worth or identity.  For some, the codependent relationship will satisfy the need to feel competent and low self-esteem is boosted by comparing oneself to the dysfunctional partner. 

For the enabled person the dependence on the enabler is equally profound. In a codependent relationship, their poor functioning essentially brings them much needed love, care, and concern from an enabler and they are accepted as they are with their addiction, or poor mental or physical health.  The enabler's consistent support reduces the outside pressures on the enabled person to mature, or advance their life skills or confidence.  And, due to their below average functioning, the enabled person may have few relationships as close as their relationship with the enabler. This makes them highly dependent on the enabler to satisfy needs normally met by multiple close relationships.

It is this high degree of mutual, unhealthy dependence on the part of both the enabler and the enabled that makes the relationship codependent and resistant to change. It is often very hard for either person to end a relationship even when the relationship is painful or abusive. It is not unusual for one or both to feel trapped.

Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, founding chairperson of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, describes codependency as "a specific condition that is characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence — emotionally, socially and sometimes physically — on another person".

This type and degree of dependency on another person is destructive to both parties. Codependence is a quite different matter from interdependence.


Codependent Relationships are One-sided

Family therapist and WebMD contributor Tina Tessina, PhD, LMFT says, "It's kind of a weird term [codependent], and it doesn't sound like it means a one-sided relationship, but often that's what it becomes. The codependent enabler often finds themselves trying to make their relationship work with someone else who's not."

When the relationship starts breaking down,  the codependent enabler will sacrifice their own emotional needs in order to keep the relationship going. At this point, he or she starts to lose themselves.  The mantra of a typical enabler is, "I do everything for her in the relationship.  It's not because of me that we have problems."

"I do everything for her in the relationship.  It's not because of me that we have problems." 

These imbalanced relationships can go on for some time, however, they are ultimately unsustainable due to their consumption of the enabler's emotional, financial or physical resources, and because they lead to resentment and relationship strain for both participants.


Symptoms of Codependency

Daniel Harkness, Ph.D., LCSW, professor at Boise State University says that some of the most commonly cited symptoms of codependency are:

  1. intense and unstable interpersonal relationships,
  2. inability to tolerate being alone, accompanied by frantic efforts to avoid being alone,
  3. chronic feelings of boredom and emptiness,
  4. subordinating one's own needs to those of the person with whom one is involved,
  5. overwhelming desire for acceptance and affection,
  6. external referencing,
  7. dishonesty and denial, and
  8. low self-worth.

The Opposite of Codependency is a Well Differentiated Self

According to Bowen's Family Theory, families and other social groups tremendously affect how people think, feel, and act, and individuals vary in their susceptibility to, and dependence on how others think. These differences are based on the differences in people's levels of "differentiation of self". The less developed a person's "self," the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control, actively or passively, the functioning of others. Every human society has its well-differentiated people, poorly-differentiated people, and people at many gradations between these extremes.

The basic building blocks of a "self" are inborn, but an individual's family relationships during childhood and adolescence primarily determine how much "self" he develops. Once established, the level of "self" rarely changes unless a person makes a structured and long-term effort to change it.

A person with a well-differentiated "self" recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making him less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What he decides and what he says matches what he does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can either support another's view without being a disciple or reject another view without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.

People with a poorly-differentiated "self" depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others.  It’s normal to want to please someone you care about, but when someone has a poorly-differentiated "self", they usually don’t think they have a choice. Saying “No” causes anxiety and they sacrifice their own needs to accommodate other people.  This is generally where codependents get into trouble.  They have blurry boundaries. They feel responsible for other people’s feelings and problems or blame their own problems on others.


The Behaviors and Internal Struggles of Codependent Enablers

Our culture portrays romantic love, in songs, television, and movies, as being a relationship in which the partners are inseparable, are nothing without each other, and one in which each partner derives her/his very sense of self from the other.  While portrayed as the ideal, this is actually a model of a very unhealthy relationship. 

Behavior of Codependent Enablers

The precise definition of codependency varies based on the source but can be generally characterized as a subclinical and situational or episodic behavior similar to that of dependent personality disorder. The behavior of codependent enablers can be described as focused on others, excessively compliant, self-sacrificing, overly reactive, and having problems with openness and intimacy.  Codependent enablers often become controlling and manipulative over time.

  1. Focused on others  Codependents tend to deny their own feelings and needs. Often, they don’t know what they’re feeling because they are so focused on what someone else is feeling. The same thing goes for their needs. They pay attention to other people’s needs and not their own. Some enablers will seem needy. Other enablers will act very self-sufficient when it comes to needing help and won’t reach out. Enablers are generally in denial of their own vulnerability and need for love and intimacy.
  1. Excessively compliant  A codependent can become excessively compliant and yielding to their partner all the way to the point of losing touch with what they need, want, like, and prefer.  This often results in frustration, denial of negative feelings, stress and even depression.
  1. Self-sacrificing  A codependent enabler focuses on the needs of their partner to the point that they can neglect their own needs. While it’s natural to feel empathy and sympathy for someone, enablers take it too far. They need to help their partner. They might feel rejected if the other person doesn’t want their help. They may even keep trying to help and fix the person when that person isn’t wanting or taking their advice.
  1. Reactive  A consequence of having a poorly differentiated "self", is that the enablers react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings. If someone says something they disagree with, they either embrace it and replace their own belief or they become defensive. They absorb the words of others with no filter. With a better differentiated "self", they’d accept that others have opinions and not feel threatened by them or by disagreements. 
  1. Problems with openness and intimacy  Problems with openness and intimacy  Enablers often have trouble when it comes to communicating their thoughts, feelings and needs in an intimate relationship. An enabler may feel shame or fear that if they are "exposed" they will be judged, rejected, or left behind.  Enablers may be afraid to be truthful, because they don’t want to upset someone else. Instead of saying, "I don’t like that," they might pretend that it’s okay. Communication becomes dishonest and confusing when inhibited by fear.
  1. Controlling  Control helps enablers feel safe and secure - both self-control and the controlling of others. Everyone needs some control over events in their life as no one wants to live in constant uncertainty and chaos, but for enablers, control is a emotional shield.  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 about themselves.
  1. Manipulative enablers often feel over-giving and under-appreciated.  In time, when their needs are not being met by their partners, resentments build and enablers can become manipulative. In fact, people-pleasing and care-taking can become tools to manipulate the partner.  Enablers can become bossy and tell others what they should or shouldn’t do.   There can also be a lot of "self-pity" and a lot of "guilting". Enablers may start distancing themselves and emotionally withdrawing from those around them, by being wrapped up their own feelings of injustice. Enablers become, in many ways, very poor givers.

Internal Struggles of Codependent Enablers

According to Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT, the behavior of c says that enablers often struggle with obsessing and often experience painful emotions or feelings of low self esteem.

  1. Obsessing  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." Sometimes they can lapse into fantasy about how they would like things to be or about someone they love as a way to avoid the pain of the present.
  1. Painful emotions  Codependency creates stress and leads to 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, the enabler can feel numb.  Feeling that they are not good enough or comparing themselves 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. If everything is perfect, you don’t feel bad about yourself.

Here is a codependency enabler checklist developed by Robert H. Albers, Ph.D. How many of these statements describe you or your partner?

  1. My good feelings about who I am stem from being liked by my partner.
  2. My good feelings about who I am stem from receiving approval from my partner.
  3. My partner's struggles affect my serenity. My mental attention focuses on solving my partner's problems or relieving my partner's pain.
  4. My mental attention is focused on pleasing my partner.
  5. My mental attention is focused on protecting my partner.
  6. My mental attention is focused on manipulating my partner "to do it my way."
  7. My self-esteem is bolstered by solving my partner's problems.
  8. My self-esteem is bolstered by relieving my partner's pain.
  9. My own hobbies and interests are put aside. My time is spent sharing my partner's interests and hobbies.
  10. My partner's clothing and personal appearance is dictated by my desires as I feel my partner is a reflection of me.
  11. My partner's behavior is dictated by my desires, as I feel my partner is a reflection of me.
  12. When I am not aware of how I feel, I am aware of how my partner feels. I am not aware of what I want, I ask my partner what I want.
  13. The dreams I have for my future are linked to my partner.
  14. My fear of rejection determines what I say or do.
  15. My fear of my partner's anger determines what I say or do.
  16. I use giving as a way of feeling safe in the relationship.
  17. My social circle diminishes as I involve myself with my partner.
  18. I put my values aside in order to connect with my partner.
  19. I value my partner's opinion and way of doing things more than my own.
  20. The quality of my life is in relation to the quality of my partners.

If the section above describes your relationship, it's time to rethink your approach.


Codependency is Recoverable, Denial is Not

The greatest problem people face in getting help for codependency is a lack of self-awareness; simply not seeing their role in the relationship dysfunction. Codependents instinctually know that the relationship is unhealthy but they are convinced that the problem lies with the other person or that the problem is situational. They keep complaining about and trying to fix the other person.

The concept of codependency provides a useful framework for examining how healthy our interactions are in relationships with others.  Becoming aware of your codependent traits is the first, and most important step in dealing with them.  With awareness comes the opportunity for change.  The fact is that codependency is learned - and as such, it can be unlearned. 

Codependence may, however, arise from some deeper issues or personality traits.  


Caution to Readers

Timmen Cermak, M.D., proposed a definition for codependency and petitioned the American Psychiatric Association to list it as a personality disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R; American Psychiatric Association, 1987). The APA did not act on this proposal and therefore codependency does not have a medical consensus definition. In the absense of a DSM definition, many amateur definitions have emerged in self-help books. As a result, the use of this term is discouraged by some as it is too amorphic to be useful. This is a valid criticism. Anyone who is seriously looking into this is encouraged to consult the Cermak definition as a reference (Cermak M.D., Timmen L. (1986). "Diagnostic Criteria for Codependency". Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 18 (1): 15–20. doi:10.1080/02791072.1986.10524475. PMID 3701499).



Codependency Discussion

Last modified: 
May 16, 2019