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Codependency – When Caring Becomes Self-Destructive

Codependent No More Workbook by Melody Beattie

Don't we all know someone in a codependent relationship? Your best friend who has to help get her new boyfriend back on his feet (six months later!). Your aunt who stays with an abusive, alcoholic third husband. Your colleague who "takes care" of his supervisor who insists his staff work 80-hour weeks.

Many of the characteristics of codependency sound like good qualities – caring, nurturing, unselfish and devoted. Some codependent behaviors are well-intentioned. But people in codependent relationships can quickly spiral into destructive, dysfunctional patterns of behavior.

What is Codependency?
Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Daniel Flavin, M.D. says, “The term "codependency" was coined more than 20 years ago by authors who studied the negative impact of drug and alcohol use on families. Since then, use of the term has been expanded to include a pattern of psychologically unhealthy behaviors that are learned by individuals as a way of coping with a family environment marked by ignored or denied emotional turmoil.”

In the addiction context, the “codependent” is the person – spouse, partner or family member who is in a relationship with someone who is abusing alcohol and/or drugs. This person is often in the role of “enabler.” Enabling behavior includes making excuses for the substance abuser - often to work or extended family members, indirectly (or sometimes overtly) making alcohol or drugs available and complicitly allowing that person to remain in the cycle of destructive behavior. For years in the addiction treatment field, the focus was on how the codependent affected the quality of the addict’s recovery. As Dr. Flavin stated above, now the definition of codependency has broadened to include the often self-destructive behaviors involved in any significant relationship, not just those with substance abusers

Codependent No More by Melody Beattie
How Do People Develop Codependency?
Most often codependency begins in dysfunctional families. Dysfunctional families may have a member(s) with addiction problems, but there could also be chronic mental or physical illness or physical, emotional or sexual abuse. The dysfunction often develops when family members are suffering from anxiety, anger, emotional/physical pain or shame that is denied or not acknowledged by the family.

In these situations, the codependent behavior is learned and adaptive. Codependents learn to suppress and ignore their feelings and focus on the more “deserving” family member. It is not hard to see how this behavior translates to relationships outside the family. Often afflicted with very low self-esteem and self-worth, codependents enter into one-sided, sometimes abusive relationships.

In 1987, Melody Beattie wrote a ground-breaking book, Codependent No More. In it, she advocated for the codependent in a relationship with a substance abuser to focus on their own health and well-being. Her belief was that the codependent “deserved” and had as much right as the addict to get into recovery get better. She has since written many books on the subject.

What are some of the Characteristics of Codependency?
  • A need to control others
  • Problems with intimacy and boundaries
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • An unhealthy dependence on relationships
  • An exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others

For a more of this list, see Mental Health America’s (formerly National Mental Health Association) pages on codependency.

Are You Codependent?
Here’s a quick Codependency Test. An important aspect of codependency is the severity or frequency of the accompanying behaviors. I often ask my own patients this question,
“Is what you're doing impeding your normal functioning: are you able to work, interact in a healthy way with people you care about, attend to your physical and emotional needs, etc.?”

If your functioning is sub-par and/or if you identified with the majority of questions on the test, you might consider getting professional help from a trained therapist who treats codependency issues.

Codependents' Guide to the Twelve Steps by Melody Beattie

What other help is available?
Long associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step, self-help groups, Al-anon focuses on recovery for people in relationships with substance abusers, including addressing codependency. More specifically, Codependency Anonymous focuses on help for codependents.So educate yourself about codependency and how destructive it can be. There is help available through trained therapists, books and self-help groups.


  1. My bright, gorgeous neice recently confided in me -- after I had to promise not to say anything -- that she was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend of 4 yrs. The guy drinks too much, and the abuse had escalated from verbal and emotional to physical. At her recent college graduation, she had a bruise on her neck which turned out to be from him chocking her. About a week before that, he threw her into the street when they were coming home from a party. She broke up with him, but now he's being charming and nice and trying to get back with her. ... When she told me I advised her not to have anything to do with him. Now she seems embarrassed and upset with me and says she wishes she never said anything. I think SHE thinks SHE has done something wrong. I wonder if it would be helpful if I went to one of those meetings to try and get an idea of how to help her. She would not be interested in going. She says she loves the guy and that he is "perfect" for her and that it is hard to just walk away. ... I find this tragic. My neice needs to take care of herself.

  2. While it is admirable to help others, you can't do so at the expense of yourself or your self worth.

  3. Hi Anonymous:

    Although very difficult to watch, the behavior you're seeing in your niece is faily classic. But the fact that she confided in you is very hopeful.

    While I can't endorse any particular self-help group, you might try a local Alanon meeting and see if that is helpful to you.

    She knows you are a caring, concerned aunt who has opened the door to offer help when she needs it.


  4. Hi Patti:

    You are absolutely right! Thank you for your comment.


  5. I remember when Melody Beatty's book first came out. It was so very exciting. It was the first book to deal with the entire phenomena and had real suggestions; it didn't just make you feel awful and unsalvagable. No more feeling it was just -- oh my go! - ANOTHER label.

    I have often thought when looking back that the most valuable thing I carried away from reading, working and using that book to help others, was the chapter on the rescuer/ victim/ persecutor triangle. It is so classic and you begin to see it in so many situations.

    If addiction is cunning, baffling and powerful, then codependency is all that PLUS being insidious.

    Thanks Nancy it was so good to see this posted on here!

    Cheers, peace AND Joy,

  6. I think codependency is so common these days that people think it's normal! They don't have models for healthy relationships because codependency is everywhere.

    We need to redefine selfishness. There's a good kind of selfish (knowing when to say no, setting boundaries, etc) that seems to have gotten lost in the mix. If we work on being the good kind of selfish more, I think we can get a good way down the road toward recognizing and restructuring codependent relationships and developing self-confidence and self-sufficiency.


  7. Hi. I noticed your post about relationships and personal health,so I thought you might want to know about this: a BYU professor has a study that shows ambivalent relationships can raise blood pressure. To read more: http://news.byu.edu/archive07-Jun-AmbivalentFriends.aspx For more news coverage: http://www.sltrib.com/ci_6222732 and http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,680193740,00.html
    Elizabeth Bowman Cramer
    University Communications Intern
    Brigham Young University

  8. I want to clarify if or not I show signs of codependency:

    -Feelings alternate drastically between good days and bad days
    -Setting personal problems aside, or keeping them inside, in order to better focus on someone else with problem
    -Showing external comfort of one's life, but doubting and disagreeing with everything internally
    -Given up on getting the needed sexual attention from a loved one; instead gives more than receives
    -Unable to decide to leave a loved one or not
    -Unable to keep a steady lifestyle/routine outside of work
    -Unable to put-to-words real feelings about life and situations because of possible negative reactions from others around

    Is this codendency, or something else? I've read almost all well-known sites about this disorder.

  9. Lucretia:

    I have to state the usual disclaimer that I can't diagnose or treat you withinn this format. But that said, as you describe it, I definitely see signs of codependency. But I would also suggest you be evaluated for depression, as you mention some depressive feelings/signs, too.

    It's great that you are very self-aware and have already pinpointed many of your concerns/symptoms. If you decide to seek counseling, that will be invaluable to any treater. When people know what they're issues are, that's about 50% of the process as I see it.

    Good luck and take care,

  10. Great, Nancy. Tell readers to read more about dependency and those who love dependents)at the carnival of all substances, http://EveryoneNeedsTherapy.blogspot.com

    You're in it, of course.

  11. My husband is a severe abuser. He is impossible to please and has tormented me to the point that I had to go to a domestic violence shelter. But, HE is the codependent one. He waits on me hand and foot then turns and abuses me because he can't control me and force me to do what he wants. I hate how "codependence" assumes that the partner must be an abuser. In my case, my husband is a cruelly abusive co-dependent. He goes to therapy, and instead of learning to NOT abuse me, he comes home saying that I am abusing him by making him unhappy when I don't change to be like he wants me to be. I feel like I'm living in a nightmare. Because he's decided that I'm the problem, he's even further from taking responsibility for the abuse! Things have gotten worse since he was "diagnosed" because he now assumes I am the corresponding abuser and he says his only mistake was to marry me. No, his mistake was to verbally, emotionally and physically abuse me! This co-dependence advice may work for some people, but in our case, it's given my husband the "okay" to find himself "innocent" and have more reasons to abuse me. Yes, I have escaped, but I'm still getting hateful e-mails that blame me for his problems.

  12. i am trying to decide whether or not i am co-dependent relationship. From what i have been reading some co dependency is ok, but how much I am not sure.

    A couple of months ago, i was laid off from job due to a reorganization. When i found out that i was getting laid off, i went to one of my former supervisor to get advice, which i know is ok because i need to found out some information and make some decisions for myself.

    Since then i have been in contact with her and give her updates. The only thing i have asked her for was a letter of reference. When did ask her for the letter of reference, she asked for the job description and she made a comment that job looked stressful, but i did not remember ask her advice about the job. Since then she has not said anything or offered in any advice. She asked me to please keep in contact and let her how it goes. I am not rely on her to solve this problem of me find another job.

    Is a sign of co-dependency to keep her updated what is going on or she just caring about the situation of what happen.

    Please let me know what you think about this situation. Some advice would be good.


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