Codependency: It May Not Be What You Think

By Dr. KJ Foster, LMHC, CAP

mother comforting upset daughter

Codependency is an issue that is often misunderstood. I know this to be true because of all the individuals and family members I’ve worked with over the years, and their responses when I present and discuss codependency. Many have told me that what I describe to them is not what they originally believed about codependency.  I’ve found most people get stuck on the “dependent” part of the word codependent. They attribute it to someone who is a weak or dependent person themselves. The fact is the person who is suffering from codependency may or may not be a dependent personality type themselves. The more common characteristic is being in a relationship with someone else who is troubled, needy, or dependent. In fact, I would consider many of the individuals I’ve met who struggle with codependency to be some of the strongest people I know.  It takes a very strong-willed person to take on the responsibilities of someone else’s life.  

Yet, that’s not the whole of it. Codependency characteristics are comprised of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors that exist on a spectrum. Just as substance use disorders are diagnosed on a spectrum of mild, moderate, and severe, I believe the same to be true for codependency. An individual can be on the low end of the codependent spectrum, with only a few characteristics. Or, one can be somewhere in the middle, with a moderate level of characteristics.  And then there are those with severe codependency who will identify with the more progressive symptoms.  Codependency can become more severe in response to the progression of the problems and issues of the people around us. As the people we are engaged with become more troubled, we may begin to react more intensely. Codependent behaviors are habits that can ultimately become self-destructive. In severe cases of codependency, we will frequently respond to people who are destroying themselves by acting out in unhealthy ways that can become self-destructive.   

Melody Beattie defines codependency as “a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior.”  This is definitely what happened with me. In retrospect, I realized I had been codependent most of my life, with my codependency escalating when I started trying to control my ex-husband’s drinking and culminating with trying to control my son’s drug addiction.  I thought I could fix them. I took it on as my own personal responsibility to fix them. In the process, however, my helping became pathological.  My codependency became so severe, I quite literally became addicted to meeting the needs of my loved ones (and others). In the process, I reached a point where I started to ignore and betray my own needs.  

A main challenge, however, in addressing codependency, is that one doesn’t realize the nature of their own behavior. There’s an element of denial.  Many who suffer from codependency often spend years having no awareness of their codependency. I, myself, spent a majority of my life having absolutely no clue. Unfortunately, it’s also a behavior that can contribute to keeping our loved ones sick. It wasn’t until I became aware of my codependency and began to focus on myself that life started to become more manageable. Paradoxically, it was by focusing on my own change that my son was finally able to recover.

I believe one of the reasons people resist the idea that they may be suffering from codependency, is because of the origin of the word and the associated stigma. There’s some debate as to its true beginnings, but it seems to have first appeared in the 1970’s at the same time private treatment centers began to emerge. Treatment providers began to realize the need and importance of a program for families. Originally, the term “codependent” was used to describe the person or persons whose lives were affected as a result of being involved with someone chemically dependent. People whose lives had become unmanageable as a result of living in a committed relationship with someone battling alcoholism or drug addiction. The definition has since expanded to include people who are not engaged in a relationship with someone suffering from chemical dependency or addiction issues. As you’ll note, nowhere in the definition by Melody Beattie does it mention substance use or addiction.

What we know to be evident and true about codependency has changed over the years. Just as what we know to be true about substance use disorders has changed over time. The problem is that the labels and associated stigma remain. I don’t particularly like labels, although I accept and understand they are a necessary evil. However, one of the problems with labels is that they put people in a box.  A box that often leaves no room for movement. The implication in anything that comes after the words “a” or “an,” such as you are “a (insert the label)” drug addict, codependent, jerk or saint OR you are “an (insert the label)” alcoholic, ass, amazing person, is that this is who you are and always will be. Thus, making it more of a personal identity than a condition (set of behaviors) that can change. We make it difficult for people to break free from the box, the label, the identity of being “a (fill in the blank).”  

So as not to further confuse the issue, it’s important to note that codependency is not an official disorder, in that it’s not currently included in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), yet it’s a disorder none-the-less. A disorder (condition or dysfunction, if you prefer those words) that creates unmanageability in the life of the sufferer. Unfortunately, there’s presently no scientific research to support codependency, which is why it’s not currently categorized in the DSM-V.  Yet, there are numerous personal lived experiences (including mine) that support it.

Listed below are some common characteristics of codependency:

A need to control and fix others; difficulty expressing true feelings or needs; weak or non-existent boundaries; wanting to be liked by others (if not, everyone); anger; caretaking; low self-worth; denial; dependency; poor communication; repression; obsession; lack of trust; sex problems.

Listed below are some common progressive symptoms that represent more severe codependency:

Feeling lethargic or depressed; becoming withdrawn or isolating; a complete loss of daily routine or structure; abuse or neglect of children and/or responsibilities; feeling hopeless; feeling trapped in a relationship; beginning to plan your escape from a relationship; thoughts of suicide; becoming violent; becoming seriously emotionally, mentally or physically ill; experiencing an eating disorder (over or under eating); becoming addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs.

Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list of characteristics and certainly all the characteristics may not be present. However, if you identify with any of them, especially the more progressive characteristics, you’ll want to take action. Healing from codependency is a process and takes practicing new behaviors, such as detachment, not enabling, learning to respond rather than react, and focusing on you and your own recovery. (See next month for Part II of this Series)

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Dr. KJ Foster is Founder of Fostering Resilience, LLC, Co-Founder of the Center for Sobriety, Spirituality & Healing and Family Program Director at the Beachcomber Family Center for Addiction Recovery. She is a Mental Health Expert, Educator, Entrepreneur, Public Speaker, YouTube Creator, and Author of The Warrior’s Guide to Successful Sobriety, available at