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  • Defining Codependency
  • Overview
  • Codependency Character Traits
  • Self Test
  • Causes
  • CoDA: Co-Dependents Anonymous
  • Treatment
  • Twelve-step Groups
  • Final Word of Warning

Defining Codependency

Let us start this complex and contested topic, (the very term itself having  become overused and  generalised)  by attempting to trace the definition and its metamorphosis from a term used only in addiction recovery to a much more general term used to describe maladaptive pathological behavioural patterns.

The original definition related only to people involved with addicts. Let us look at a dictionary definition:-

Codependency: a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (such as an addiction to alcohol or heroin);  Merriam- Webster Online dictionary. The site notes that the first known use of the word was in 1979.

Currently today there are a myriad definitions used to discuss codependency. The original concept as we have said was developed to describe and acknowledge the specific responses and behaviours exhibited by those living with an addict of some type. It was recognised that a number of common behaviours characterised the behaviour patterns of an individual closely linked to the addict and playing a particular role in the life of an addict. Often these maladaptive behaviours actually, although seemingly helpful and doubtless motivated by a desire to "help" actually enabled the addict to continue on their downward spiral. In another part of the Handbook, we will look at enabling as a concept separate from, although often linked to, codependency.

Charles Whitfield the well-known psychologist, who developed the notion of the Inner Child, listed 23 definitions of codependence as early as 1991. He put a positive spin on this with his view that:- "Perhaps the strongest advantage is that having many definitions gives us a broader and deeper understanding of our lives on multiple levels. They also clarify our view of the human condition in all its dimensions."

Generally however over the years, codependency has morphed into a term and concept which describes a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving developed during childhood by family rules.

It generally now describes an addiction to relationships that do not have healthy boundaries and relationships where the codependent is overly attached to another and derives all sense of self from that person. As we shall see however as we progress through this site, it is somewhat self-defeating to any longer look for one single all encompassing one-fits-all definition. So like Charles Whitfield maybe we should adopt a positive attitude to the broad scope of the term. Certainly what we do know is that it no longer refers to individuals in relationships only with addicts!  Below is a good current definition used by Codependents Anonymous.

Codependent or (codependency or codependence) is a tendency to behave in overly passive caretaking ways that negatively impact one's relationships and quality of life. It also often involves putting one's needs at a lower priority than others while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others. Codependency can occur in any type of relationship, including in families, at work, in friendships, and also in romantic, peer or community relationships. Being codependent may also be characterized by denial, low self-esteem, excessive compliance and/or control patterns.

Overview – General

In 1986, Melanie Beatty published a book called "Codependent No More" that altered the addiction recovery landscape. Prior to that as noted, in the late 70’s the original definition of a codependent was people whose lives had become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with an alcoholic.

In her book, Ms Beatty, explains how and why the definition for codependency had expanded since then.

 "Professionals began to better understand the effects of the chemically dependent person on the family, and the effects of the family on the chemically dependent person. Professionals began to identify other problems such as overeating and undereating, gambling and certain sexual behaviors. These compulsive disorders paralleled the compulsive disorder or illness, of alcoholism. Professionals also began to notice many people in close relationships with these compulsive people developed patterns of reacting and coping that resembled the coping patterns of people in relationships with alcoholics. Something peculiar had happened to these families too."

Codependent no more: how to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself pg 132
Hazelden, Minnesota 1986; 1992...

Read this extract from the Palm Beach Post :

Today, Beattie thinks the word (codependency) has been misused.

"It has so much stigma," said Beattie, whose latest book, The New Codependency: Help and Guidance for Today's Generation, was released on Jan. 1. "People think of rabbit-boiling behavior in Fatal Attraction."

Beattie first defined codependent as someone "who has let another person's behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person's behavior."

What exactly does that mean? It is "normal behavior, plus." It can be smothering, clinging and killing with kindness. Or it can be trying to please until no one can stand you or making excuses and apologizing for mistakes that are not yours. It can be saying "yes" when you want to say "no" and feeling "hopelessly entangled in someone else's problems." It is trying to control someone's behavior with "manipulative stabs."

Tuesday January 6 2009

Co-dependency Character Traits

As noted it was observed that there was a nexus or cluster of behaviour patterns in an individual enabling an addict which could be observed in other individuals who came from deeply dysfunctional families. Often the children of addicts or abusers these individuals as children developed a set of responsive re-active behaviours which mitigated against them having fulfilling mature relationships as adults – hence the term adult-child. (Dealt with in a forthcoming part of the Handbook). Often such people have low self esteem and have difficult in knowing what they are actually feeling themselves – all their energy is outer-focused on another individual.

In the broader arena of relationships between intimates, codependency indicates that the enabling or codependent person will do virtually anything to keep their partner with them long after it has become clear that the relationship is not beneficial or good for either partner. A good example would be the woman who is physically and verbally abused by her partner yet will tolerate this abuse out of fear of abandonment or of feeling rejected and becoming isolated.

According to mentalhelpnet, an online psychology site, codependent behaviour describes a person who is suffering from one of many possible personality disorders and low self esteem as well as depression. Their profile often includes a history of having witnessed and experienced abuse while going through childhood and adolescence.

Codependents can have very good intentions. They often are trying to take care of a person who is experiencing difficulty, but the caretaking can become increasingly compulsive and self defeatingly destructive. Such individuals may assume a martyr role (according to Beattie this was a characteristic of post war codepedents who were taught to be selfless and suffer in silence). The codependent sets him or herself up as the ultimate benefactor to an individual in need. This becomes problematic when a vicious cycle is established in which the continual rescuing by the codependent individual allows the needy individual to become increasingly dependent on the smothering "care" of the benefactor and thus increasingly unlikely to change the maladaptive behaviour.

As this reliance on the unhealthy caretaking increases, the codependent in turn experiences a sense of reward and satisfaction from being needed to such a marked degree. Thus the caretaking and caregiving become compulsive and ever cycling in a deeply dysfunctional manner. Even though the codependent may sense the level of dysfunctionality in the relationship they feel powerless to change the dynamic. Codependents generally have a limited range of emotions and experience difficulty with the areas of denial, compliance, boundaries and control, the pattern of behaviour is so ingrained that he or she will feel helplessly trapped and unable to control or alter the pattern.

When we are reacting out of our codependency, unconsciously reacting out of our childhood emotional wounds and programming, then we are not capable of being honest with ourselves or others. A codependent doesn't rescue or try to save someone they "love" for the other persons benefit - they do it for themselves.  A parent who keeps rescuing a child from self destructive behavior is on some level trying to be loving - but at the deepest level they are trying to rescue themselves from the pain of seeing their child destroy themselves. They are being selfish - which is human and normal - but they are doing it dishonestly by telling themselves they are doing it for the other person. This is a set up to feel victimized - and to abuse and shame the child/loved one for their behavior. "How can you do this to me after all I have done for you?"

Codependents generally have a limited range of emotions and experience difficulty with the areas of denial, compliance, self esteem, boundary setting and control. What follows is a self test available on various websites dedicated to helping codependents, to check whether or not one has a high level of codependency traits.

Codependency Self Test

1. Do you keep quiet to avoid arguments?

2. Are you always worried about others' opinions of you?

3. Have you ever lived with someone with an alcohol or drug problem?

4. Have you ever lived with someone who hits or belittles you?

5. Are the opinions of others more important than your own?

6. Do you have difficulty adjusting to changes at work or home?

7. Do you feel rejected when significant others spend time with friends?

8. Do you doubt your ability to be who you want to be?

9. Are you uncomfortable expressing your true feelings to others?

10. Have you ever felt inadequate?

11. Do you feel like a 'bad person' when you make a mistake?

12. Do you have difficulty taking compliments or gifts?

13. Do you feel humiliation when your child or spouse makes a mistake?

14. Do you think people in your life would go downhill without your constant efforts?

15. Do you frequently wish someone could help you get things done?

16. Do you have difficulty talking to people in authority?

17. Are you confused about who you are or where you are going with your life?

18. Do you have trouble saying 'no' when asked for help?

19. Do you have trouble asking for help?

20. Do you have so many things going on at once that you can't do justice to any of them?

If you identify with several of these symptoms or are dissatisfied with yourself or your relationships, you should consider seeking professional help. Arrange for a diagnostic evaluation with a licensed physician or psychologist experienced with treating codependency.

Source: Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association)

Causes of Codependency

Codependency develops in childhood when the child is in a dysfunctional family (often where there is an addict or abusive parent) and survival strategies have to be learnt. The child becomes codependent by living in a system with "rules" that hamper normal development in some manner to a marked degree. The system (usually the family) develops a set of rules developed in response to some issue or problem such as an addicted family member, a mentally ill family member or some other challenge which is viewed as being essential to keep secret.

General rules set-up within families that may cause codependency may include:
  • It's not okay to talk about problems
  • Feelings should not be expressed openly; keep feelings to yourself
  • Communication is best if indirect; one person acts as messenger between two others; known in therapy as triangulation
  • Be strong, good, right, perfect
  • Make us proud beyond realistic expectations
  • Don't be selfish
  • Do as I say not as I do
  • It's not okay to play or be playful
  • Don't rock the boat.

The child is unable to develop in a healthy manner due to the fact that the family problem or issue was not handled appropriately with the child’s needs in mind.  Such a child is left damaged or wounded, denies their own needs and wants and suffers from very low self esteem. Even in later life or when the problem has been resolved he or she is unable to shrug off the survival mechanism, developed early on, in adulthood where it no longer serves any purpose.

Since the development of codependency is an early survival strategy, a codependent personality may appear very in control and not in need of help. Such codependents may be over responsible and/or other focused - and can appear to be very mature and successful, with no need of being rescued.

All of the maladaptive traits displayed by codependents can be traced to early attempts, often extremely successful, to survive in a dysfunctional family.

This is often the adult who as a child was being the parent in the family - rescuing and taking care of their own immature parents from a very young age. Such an individual is often seen as the family hero or caretaker who defines themselves by external accomplishments, popularity, possessions, superiority to others and so on. This person can be a workaholic, or exercise/health fanatic, or religion addict, or a professional caretaker (therapist, nurse, etc.), or "kind hearted" martyr (who is passively controlling by avoiding conflict and thus set up to be the "wronged" victim) - some type of controlling personality who feels superior to others based upon their seeming ability to be in control of their lives according to certain external criteria. The external criteria can range from being financially successful to being successful in never getting angry - and are dysfunctional codependent measures of worth based upon comparison to, upon feeling superior to, other people.
Adapted from:

Before going on to look at what CoDA Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) lists as common character traits let us summarise what we have established thus far about the development of both the concept of codependence in general and its etiology.

Codependence is described as a disease that originates in dysfunctional families where children learn to overcompensate for their parents' disorders and develop an excessive sensitivity to others' needs. The term "dysfunctional family" originally referred only to families with patterns of interaction associated with alcoholism. It is now, however, recognized as a disease occurring in family systems based on "denial" or "shame-based rules." This includes a wide-spectrum of pathological emotional interactions in families, but there is always an avoidance of confrontation and inability to resolve conflict. This is sometimes described in terms like "enmeshment" or "blurred ego boundaries." Adult children of dysfunctional families often suffer from a sense of confusion and deprivation that has continued into their adult life - a feeling of "not knowing what normal is" - that has become an anguished desire to recover something emotionally missing in their upbringing. Co-Dependents Anonymous was formed to help individuals who grew up in all forms of dysfunctional families, not just those involving alcoholism or substance abuse.

CoDA: Codependency Character Traits

Co-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA) is a twelve-step programme for people who share a common desire to develop functional and healthy relationships. CoDA was founded in 1986 in Phoenix, Arizona. CoDA is active in more than 40 countries.

“These patterns and characteristics are offered as a tool to aid in self-evaluation. They may be particularly helpful to newcomers.

Denial Patterns:
I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling.
I minimize, alter, or deny how I truly feel.
I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others.
I lack empathy for the feelings and needs of others.
I label others with my negative traits.
I can take care of myself without any help from others.
I mask my pain in various ways such as anger, humor, or isolation.
I express negativity or aggression in indirect and passive ways.
I do not recognize the unavailability of those people to whom I am attracted.

Low Self Esteem Patterns:
I have difficulty making decisions.
I judge what I think, say, or do harshly, as never good enough.
I am embarrassed to receive recognition, praise, or gifts.
I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings, and behavior over my own.
I do not perceive myself as a lovable or worthwhile person.
I constantly seek recognition that I think I deserve.
I have difficulty admitting that I made a mistake.
I need to appear to be right in the eyes of others and will even lie to look good.
I am unable to ask others to meet my needs or desires.
I perceive myself as superior to others.
I look to others to provide my sense of safety.
I have difficulty getting started, meeting deadlines, and completing projects.
I have trouble setting healthy priorities.

Compliance Patterns:
I am extremely loyal, remaining in harmful situations too long.
I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger.
I put aside my own interests in order to do what others want.
I am hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings.
I am afraid to express my beliefs, opinions, and feelings when they differ from those of others.
I accept sexual attention when I want love.
I make decisions without regard to the consequences.
I give up my truth to gain the approval of others or to avoid change.

Control Patterns:
I believe most people are incapable of taking care of themselves.
I attempt to convince others what to think, do, or feel.
I freely offer advice and direction to others without being asked.
I become resentful when others decline my help or reject my advice.
I lavish gifts and favors on those I want to influence.
I use sexual attention to gain approval and acceptance.
I have to be needed in order to have a relationship with others.
I demand that my needs be met by others.
I use charm and charisma to convince others of my capacity to be caring and compassionate.
I use blame and shame to emotionally exploit others.
I refuse to cooperate, compromise, or negotiate.
I adopt an attitude of indifference, helplessness, authority, or rage to manipulate outcomes.
I use terms of recovery in an attempt to control the behavior of others.
I pretend to agree with others to get what I want.

Avoidance Patterns:
I act in ways that invite others to reject, shame, or express anger toward me.
I judge harshly what others think, say, or do.
I avoid emotional, physical, or sexual intimacy as a means of maintaining distance.
I allow my addictions to people, places, and things to distract me from achieving intimacy in relationships.
I use indirect and evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation.
I diminish my capacity to have healthy relationships by declining to use all the tools of recovery.
I suppress my feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.
I pull people toward me, but when they get close, I push them away.
I refuse to give up my self-will to avoid surrendering to a power that is greater than myself.
I believe displays of emotion are a sign of weakness.
I withhold expressions of appreciation.

As we can see from this list above codependence is seen as an extremely complex set of maladaptive behaviours.

Before going on to look briefly at treatment available for codependency it is interesting to look at some controversial issues and debates in the therapeutic and recovery arena on the issue of codependency. As always when dealing with a psychological "disorder" particularly one that is not identified in the DSM IV TR as a mental illness as such, we are in heavily contested terrain. Below is a list from Wikipedia of what are seen as some of the more contested issues in this field.

Caring for an individual with a physical addiction is not necessarily synonymous with pathology. To name the caregiver as a co-alcoholic responsible for the endurance of their partner's alcoholism for example, pathologizes caring behavior. The caregiver may only require assertiveness skills and the ability to place responsibility for the addiction on the other.

Not all mental health professionals agree about codependence or its standard methods of treatment.  It is not listed in the DSM-IV-TR. Stan Katz & Liu, in "The Codependency Conspiracy: How to Break the Recovery Habit and Take Charge of Your Life", feel that codependence is over-diagnosed, and that many people who could be helped with shorter-term treatments instead become dependent on long-term self-help programs.

Some believe that codependency is not a negative trait, and does not need to be treated, as it is more likely a healthy personality trait taken to excess. Codependency in nonclinical populations has some links with favorable characteristics of family functioning.

The language of symptoms of and treatment for codependence derive from the medical model suggesting a disease process underlies the behavior. There is no evidence that codependence is caused by a disease process, communicable or otherwise.

Some frequent users of the codependency concept use the word as an alternative to use the concept dysfunctional families, without statements that classify it as a disease.

Not everything promoted by recovery agencies is a demonstrable scientific fact; some of it is based on fashion and faith alone.


As we know the concept of codependency evolved from the field of addiction. As early as the 1940’s and 50’s partners of alcoholics whose spouses or family members were attending AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings, realised that they too shared many characteristics in common. As a result the group Al-Anon, a support group for those affected by alcoholism was developed. It is also a Twelve Step Recovery programme as is Nar Anon for those affected by someone’s drug addiction. There is also a Twelve Step Programme for codependents as codependency is viewed by many as a form of addiction.

In general though there is a range of treatment options; individual therapy combined with clinic treatment plus self-help programmes are all options.

For codependent individuals, individual one-on-one therapy or counseling can help develop and model assertiveness, as well as listening and communication skills. Such counseling can assist in developing healthier coping strategies and simultaneously assist the client in becoming aware of maladaptive prior behaviours that characterise codependency.

A critical component of healing, (which can be a lengthy process) a wounded or damaged psyche such as one finds in a codependent is to fundamentally alter the very distorted, and negative perspectives and responses to emotions that result from having grown up in a dysfunctional, emotionally repressive and rule bound, generally hostile environment in which one’s needs as a child were not met.

Most therapists agree that part of this healing process must involve grief. Grieving for the pain that caused the codependence and for the difficulties you suffered is a difficult but rewarding process. Learning to love yourself requires acknowledging your shame, disowning it, grieving the emotional damage you have sustained and healing the emotional wounds.

Twelve-step groups

Many of those in the field view codependency as an addictive behaviour, as already mentioned. For this reason some recommend a typical Twelve Step Programme or Process modeled on AA where similar people can share their thoughts and feelings about their particular addiction.

Such programmes bring codependents together in a safe place where they can discuss their struggles and shared experiences as well as opine on their hopes and fears. CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) like all Twelve Step Programmes is a recovery process which involves sharing and spirituality but is non-denominational.

Obviously such meetings can offer codependents participants with enormous support – both emotional and practical. Recovery in such a programme involves a commitment to acknowledging that one’s life has become unmanageable as a result of one’s codependency. As always it must centre around attempting to change what one can and accepting those things one cannot. Along with other such groups there are the familiar affirmations such as "One day at a time"; "Easy does it" and surrender to a Higher Power (of one’s own choice.

Co-dependents Anonymous is a program of recovery from codependency and is a fellowship of men and women whose common purpose is to develop healthy relationships.

CoDA is a place where each of us may share our experience, strength and hope in our efforts to find freedom where there has been bondage and peace where there has been turmoil in our relationships with others and ourselves. CoDA follows a Twelve Step Program that is a central part of its suggested recovery programme.

The only requirement for membership to CoDA is a desire for healthy and loving relationships. This means that all kinds of people attend meetings. Individual members can and do have differing political, religious and other affiliations, but since these are not relevant to the business of recovery from co-dependency, no comment is made about them.


Final Word of Warning:
Overcoming codependency doesn't mean shutting down emotionally!

Sometimes in recovery there can be a tendency to over-correct - the pendulum swinging too far the other way. Obviously in codependence which is often about boundary-less relationships there can be a tendency to erect such boundaries in recovery that the codependent is "walled in" and unable to form balanced mutually rewarding relationships. In one’s fear of and vigilance against codependency one must avoid this trap.

Recovering codependents may sometimes be afraid of entering into serious, intimate relationships because of the risk they will resume their destructive codependent behavior- but avoiding intimacy because of such fears is a mistake.

The key to a healthy relationship is setting boundaries - knowing when to say "yes" to a loved one's request, and when to say "no."

Beattie, the codependency author, said this to the Palm Beach Post: (cited previously)
"One of the biggest problems I have with the codependent recovery movement is people consider themselves recovered when they don't give to anyone, they're not loving and kind. I have people come up to me so proud that they didn't help somebody who was in dire need. That's not what I'm talking about."

It is worth remembering that according to some of the definitions around, Mother Theresa herself could be defined as the ultimate codependent!