What Are Codependent Relationships

This question is often asked now, as the term has become more widely recognised amongst the general population. Originally, codependency was identified in the literature as based on alcohol dependency within the family of origin, or within an intimate relationship.  As with Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12 Step Programme was encouraged in releasing the dependency, which was also identified as a need to rescue or change ‘the other person’.  

There are many identifiable symptoms of this dysfunctional relationship style, however, many of those symptoms may also be common to other types of relationships, which may be ‘struggling’, but are not codependent. Talking with a Couples Counsellor will help to identify what is not working within your relationship.

Here I am going to try and simplify what is a very complex system of relating:

Codependency thrives on negative attributes, such relationships are often based on high emotion, which may translate into 

•Strong sexual chemistry 

•Imbalanced power and control

•Narcissism in one partner

•Overpowering need to be in a relationship, fear of being alone/unloved

•A lack of self-esteem 

•A denial about the need for intimacy

•A sense of helplessness to resist continuing or returning, to the relationship.  

You may recognise some of those attributes as belonging to dependency on harmful activities such as alcohol abuse, pokies gambling, illegal and legal drug dependency etc.

Narcissistic personalities are often found in codependent relationships – meaning someone who derives gratification from the adoration of his/her physical or mental attributes (sometimes compared to a baby who has a naturally egotistical level of personality development).  A narcissist is likely to be highly involved with him/herself, until they feel threatened by their partner’s interest in someone else, they may then exhibit possessive and jealous behaviour for fear of the loss of adoration.

Codependent relationships reflect an ever fluctuating balance of power, one may be a pleaser, in effect constantly looking for approval, one may be a rescuer, convinced he or she can change the partner or help the partner beat their own dependencies.  The power base of such a relationship shifts between blurred boundaries – they can feel responsible for the other person, even to the point of blaming themselves for abuses that they may receive.  They can sometimes be very closed off from their partner, unable or unwilling to share feelings, this can sometimes be used as punishment for unspoken, perceived offences. 

Codependents usually have problems in sharing their feelings, because they cannot open themselves to own their thoughts and feelings.  Confusions and miscommunications can occur.  Codependents are shy of the truths about themselves since they may reveal imperfections which are not acceptable.

There is often an obsessional quality about these relationships, based on fear of loss even though the relationship is less than satisfactory. Many codependents have a very strong fear of rejection or abandonment and this fear may well stem from a childhood with an addictive parent (alcohol, other drugs), or a chronically ill parent.  The child identifies a lack of attention and approval from a very young age and experiences deep emotional neglect due to the attention given to the addiction or the illness.

A further, obsessional quality refers to a belief that the other partner does not understand how important their relationship is, so if it is threatened by a third party, stalking and obsessing can become another dysfunctional feature.

Codependent relationships are abusive.  The problem however, is that  codependents don’t usually understand this without a lot of help and support to leave the relationship, and then therapy/counselling to help them build self-esteem and self-worth.  Once a codependent is able to function entirely well independently, they will come to recognise that the most important relationship is with themselves first. 

After all, if you don’t love and respect yourself, how can you ask someone to do itfor you.   And that applies to all intimate relationships.


Some further reading:

•P. Mellody et al., Facing Codependence, (1989).

•Wyn Bramley, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered: How Couples Really Work  (London 2008) 

•Simon Crompton, All About Me: Loving a Narcissist (London 2007)

•Melody Beattie,  Codependent No More  (2nd ed. 1992)

•Birgit Weber,  Love is Not For Cowards    (2007)