Defining Codependency

July 22, 2011 By A.Arneson

What is codependency?

How do people recover from codependency?

The term “codependent” originally referred to a person who is inextricably and pathologically associated with another person who is a substance addict. Over the last three decades, enormous popularity and careless use of the term have rendered its definition basically equivalent to relationship anxiety or conflict of any sort. Driven by the need to understand plus a tendency to worry, millions obsess over the term, often using it as a tool for self-harm. In the interest of healing and peace of mind, we need the term’s current meaning to be defined and demystified.

Melody Beattie, author of several books on the subject, concedes that codependency is difficult to define, and that the word is frequently misunderstood after decades of mainstream use. These challenges are symptoms of an information void, both popular and professional, namely a lack of detailed knowledge about human emotional functioning. The key that unravels codependency is knowing exactly what people are trying to accomplish with their dysfunctional behavior, and how that behavior is driven by healthy motivations. From this understanding, we can extract a precise and functional definition of codependency, in all its variations.

Codependency can be defined as an interlocking of two ineffective patterns of behavior, an interlocking that prevents emotional needs from being satisfied. The dovetailing of emotional problems keeps the partners bound together, or “entangled,” but denies them the deep satisfaction that they should be getting from the relationship. Both partners try to meet their own and the partner’s needs, as all living organisms do, but the attempts are converted to ineffective, destructive behavior before needs can be satisfied. Both partners require a constant state of disappointment because childhood pain is stirred up when emotional needs are met in depth. Codependent partners typically do not realize their own roles in creating relationship problems because their childhood pain and ineffective attempts to meet healthy needs (a.k.a. defenses) are unconscious.

The two emotional needs that suffer most in a codependent relationship are separation and emotional contact, as defined in the Impulse Model classification system. Everyone needs both, but those in codependent relationship experience very little relief in either area.

Examined in the context of codependency (versus countless other contexts), separation is the need to not lose oneself in the relationship—i.e. to avoid letting all of one’s attention, thoughts, feelings, energy, effort, and goals in life revolve around the relationship. This aspect of separation has been described as “detachment.” Another, equally relevant aspect of separation is the need to keep one’s dysfunctional (ineffective) behavior out of the relationship, and also to put distance between oneself and the partner’s dysfunctional behavior. This second aspect is often referred to as “boundaries.” Insufficient separation often leads to explosive relationship ruin, followed by perhaps years of emotional entanglement, even without communication—yet another aspect of separation.

Without adequate separation, there can be no emotional contact, i.e. genuine connection, which both partners crave but cannot tolerate beyond a certain threshold that defines their level of health. Despite their need for connection, they are compelled by pain and anxiety to avoid it. They sabotage their connection with destructive behavior, which in turn leads to more entanglement and less connection. Emotional connection cannot be forced; it emerges spontaneously after the supporting emotional needs are met sufficiently.

A trap into which countless people fall (often before divorcing) is the attempt to force a relationship improvement after reading the strategies recommended in self-help books. Such strategies sound good, but are useless if the reader is 1) unable to tolerate more relationship satisfaction, and therefore 2) cannot interpret or follow the strategies properly. Followed incorrectly, self-help strategies lead to deeper entanglement, disconnection, and erosion. The codependent becomes more sophisticated at being dysfunctional, and now with written justification for destructive actions.

The only cure for codependency is healthy relationships. A book cannot download a new capacity for healthy relating to the reader. One always functions from one’s existing level of health, no matter how good the book’s information is. Thus, if one is currently unable to implement better behavior strategies—a fact often indicated by poor responses from one’s partner—it simply means that a healthy relationship must be provided by others outside the codependent partnership. One must live through the ensuing healing discomfort until a new level of health is attained.

Meanwhile, in a comprehensive recovery strategy, one must insist on doing a better job in one’s codependent relationship, which means to meet the partner’s emotional needs more effectively. Mechanically speaking, one’s own needs will be met automatically as one embraces the relationship properly. This strategy helps the partner to heal also, if he or she is capable of healing. If not, the healthier partner will eventually outgrow the relationship.

Far more important is to define what codependency is not. It’s not the anxiety engendered by relationship intimacy or conflicts. It’s not giving or receiving urgent nurturing. It’s not the sense of desperation or neediness that inexorably accompany one into adulthood, following dysfunctional childhood. It’s not the frustration or disappointment one feels after the partner fails to meet one’s needs. It’s not the expectation that one’s partner should handle the relationship maturely and responsibly. Nor is it one’s general feelings of misery, depression, or self-loathing.

Following a dysfunctional childhood, certain feelings can be expected that are intensely uncomfortable, especially loneliness, anxiety, and neediness. No matter how acute such feelings become, they never equal codependency; they are the predictable, unavoidable responses to deprivation. One should not expect to think or wish the feelings away, nor should they be an excuse for self-punishment when they continue unabated and dominate one’s life. Prolonged nurturing from other people is essential for recovery from childhood pain; this is a mechanical fact, not spiritual daydreaming. If one attempts to improve a relationship without the necessities, and fails, self-criticism is pointless, unwarranted, and serves only to hinder recovery.

Self-help readers again are especially vulnerable to self-punishment, as they actively seek answers to their problems—including diagnoses, such as “codependent.” Without guided interpretation (and scrutiny) of self-help books, such people devise their own private justice system and use it against themselves. The word “codependent” becomes a whip for justice. Their most common mistake is their deep belief that pain should be punished. Naturally, this conviction does not work as a remedy. The only effective remedy for pain is the immediate relief that comes with addressing the needs behind the pain.

For example, detachment can be effortless when one receives adequate emotional contact and/or safety—two basic needs in the Impulse Model. Attempting to force detachment by thinking about it is a futile exercise, at best, when the other needs are desperate for attention. Contact could be sought from a friend or professional, while safety can be experienced alone (in a pinch) with the right technique.

As with detachment, genuine boundaries must be provided from outside oneself when boundaries were absent from childhood. Otherwise, when working alone from inside the codependent relationship, the real thing will be foreign and almost impossible to achieve. Slamming doors, for example, is often an attempt to create boundaries, but fails and adds to entanglement due to the sense of danger (lack of safety) and loss of emotional contact.

If one succeeds in living through painful feelings without contaminating the relationship with dysfunctional behavior, then one is no longer in a codependent relationship. A relationship is a space between two people, a field of activity, into which the partners introduce those elements that define the relationship. As long as that space is kept clean, the relationship remains healthy, even if the partners are still struggling individually. This is what it means to have real boundaries; they are real and effective when they protect the relationship from ineffective behavior on both sides. One’s own boundaries contain oneself, but also ward off a partner’s imperfections, and quickly restore the relationship space if it’s distorted. This ideal state implies that one is finally tackling both intimacy anxiety and childhood pain, neither of which should be equated with codependency.

It is helpful to note that dysfunction is not a natural state. Deep down, as all living organisms naturally do, we demand that our friends and family be absolutely healthy, the way that nature intended us to be. Anger at their emotional unavailability or other failure is normal, to be expected. It is not a symptom of codependency, and should not be yet another excuse for self-punishment.

However, once one realizes that dysfunction is a reality, one must accept one’s duty of being a source of remedial nurturing for significant others. There is such a thing as healthy dependency; it’s a condition of life and an honorable goal. It exists where boundaries and connection are genuine. And what a relief to know that it’s OK to actually need another person, in a world where codependency is our moral, mortal enemy. One must embrace one’s duty gratefully and responsibly, and persist despite discomfort until both partners are happy and satisfied.


  1. 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 aroundIs this codendency, or something else? I’ve read almost all well-known sites about this disorder.

    • I completely agree with your stemetant that codependency is just normal behavior taken to extremes . When I first came to Al-Anon, I was the poster-girl for codependency (and still fight it daily two years later). Recognizing my own insanity, at first, made me feel like a nut. But I came to look at it differently in Al-Anon. I realized that my character defects were simply defense mechanisms, learned at a very young age, that simply didn’t work for me anymore. They were just habit and breaking the habitual behaviour was the only way to move back to a sane and serene life. Thank you for your post!

  2. I remember when Melody Beatty’s book first came out. It was so very exinticg. 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.

Speak Your Mind