What is Codependence?

What is codependence? And for those of us who think we know, are any of us really comfortable with the idea of it? There’s something wrong with the ‘idea’ of codependence; and if we can accept that, maybe there’s a better way of understanding the problem we’re getting into when we start asking … what is codependence?

The problem with asking the question: ‘what is codependence?’
We get into a problem the moment we begin asking what is codependence? Some ideas, for example, gravity are very old and have received a certain amount of thought over time by extraordinary thinkers like Shakespeare 1 , Newton and Einstein. Other ideas, like codependence, are younger, and haven’t been lavished with quite the same kind of intellectual attention.

Codependency arises in people who, as children, were not aren’t lavished in a certain kind of unconditional attention. As an idea, then, codependence has something in common with the people it might represent: codependents.

A good deal of the thinking about codependence has been done by codependents, or former codependents, who  have applied their thinking to their experience. These people tend to be doers (codependents, in recovery or not, tend to be doers). They have a desire to help other individuals with codependence; and their strength is to describe their experience of the condition and its negative effects, and the ways in which they did things to overcome these.

Codependents like to help people. They force their help on people because they get something out of helping. Their way of helping is more a product of their own need than the need of whoever they want to help.

Their assumptions have been limited because of what they don’t challenge: ideology. 2

what is codependence?
Codependence can involve a need to control.

The thinkers that I value, and I’m thinking about people like Freud and Derrida, or less obvious ones such as Elizabeth Bowen and James Baldwin, were never afraid of upsetting people at some deep level. What they did deranged the kinds of implicitly held beliefs, things which make the world feel held together (religious, moral and philosophical beliefs, instincts that influence what we might call things like family values, nature, instinct and sexuality).

And derangement is necessary. It isn’t the same as madness. It doesn’t necessarily lead to incoherence. It’s a kind of shattering that exposes logic, dispels a certain kind of rational thinking (the kind I would describe as thinking as denial or defence), and helps establish the conditions for psychotherapy as a way of liberating disruptive energy.

The answer to asking the question: ‘what is codependence?’
Let’s not ask: ‘what is codependence?’. Let’s ask instead: ‘what does codependence do?’.  Let’s try and steer clear of explanations, recognising codependence not through its causes or as something that can be located in its own right, like a cog in a machine, or a disease in a body, or a misfiring neural network in the brain, but as a dynamic moving force and its effects.

Psychotherapists have always noticed the signs of a compromised childhood: a child who had to parent a parent, for example.  But Freud never set himself the task of categorising and explaining in the way many of us do now, with a view to selling a targeted service. His theory was not for his clients but for his therapists and involved the ways in which all kinds of problems arise in the ways people related to life. He wouldn’t have known the word ‘codependence’ but he’d have recognised straight away the felt experience of codependence, and had a sense of where to look in someone’s life for causes.

If we want to understand codependence in a way that is really helpful 3  we need to look at its effects, not its causes. We must look at experiences of incompletion, unreality and irritation.

If we do this, if we notice these experiences in our lives, we can begin to do things differently. Unlike Freud I don’t believe you always need a therapist to start to sort your life out.  12-step can help. A clear-thinking friend can help. Your partner can help if the two of you want to achieve the ‘shattering’ I’ve described. A psychotherapist, though: you’ll need one, a good one, if you really want your life to change.

So let’s set aside ‘what is codependence?’ and  begin with ‘what does codependence do to me?’, and let’s start with the thought that I might be this thing I’ve heard about … codependent. What would that mean?

I believe it’s unhelpful to invest completely in the thought:  ‘I am codependent’. Codependence is never all of anyone.  It has a narrowing (anxiety provoking) effect, and to narrow myself down to believing I am ever only one thing might be part of the difficulty I am facing: a lack of self-recognition of my multi-faceted, possibility-rich presence in the world. Not recognition from outside me, by other people: all of the things I have been told by other people. If codependence plays a part in my behaviour it’s likely that others will perceive me as flexible, multi-talented, a person worth knowing. I might be a legend in my own lunchtime. A charismatic figurehead of … only here things could start to get murky as it might be hard to work out what I believe in. Yes, ‘what’. I may have a reputation for a way of doing things, a passion for a method, a practice or a process, but why am I so invested in these things?

Where’s the evidence of the effort ‘I believe’ takes? The process of working out where I stand, based on knowing something of myself, especially the aspects of me that you may not be fully aware of (what some might call my unconscious or subconscious self). ‘I believe’ takes time and a lot of energy. ‘I believe’, when it’s done over time, and it is deeply felt and relates clearly to a sense of myself that I feel I can stand by, causes conflicts. Often, while I have been working out ‘I believe’, which is a precondition of truly being able to say ‘I am’, I will come into conflict with others. I will need to make compromises. I will need to collaborate and create things with groups of people.

Codependence will have made the things I have just mentioned very difficult. Something about codependence will leave me feeling there’s something wrong with me, on my own. I might need a reassurance or create a niche in life where I can pretend I don’t care.  I might become the voice of reason, a supreme rationalizer who doesn’t see how easily rationalisation serves denial. If I am codependent I may give the appearance of being highly logical, but something about my logic won’t hold true. Why, in the end, was Spock ever on board the USS Enterprise? What is codependence? A need to never overlook unsafety again.

If I believe I am not the real deal on my own, that I am forever in need of some kind of supplement called … other people, how can I ever negotiate life to the point where ‘I believe’ rings true? ‘I believe’, if something in me is codependent, will probably have an unacknowledged component of ‘you believe’: a secret ingredient that leaves me lacking. Pia Mellody might talk about a ‘developmental immaturity’. On this she’s right. Codependence means there’s still a whole lot of ‘becoming’ for me to do.

What is codependence? In my codependence (nobody is ever wholly so) my life will include unreality. We might call some of these idealisations. If I cannot allow you to know what I believe in, what I really feel and think, then you will never really begin to know me and I will never really begin to know you. We will remain like a couple of ghosts, or actors, acting things out. As a codependent I will be more like a cinema screen for your projections onto me of who I might be, as there will be so little of the real me to interrupt them. The codependence in me, who will not want to conflict with you, will lead me to act accordingly, adapting to your view of me. I will be something of whoever I believe you need me to be, to keep you happy. And when you’re happy, so am I.

If I am with you and your codependence my life will also include unreality. The unreality in our relationship will lead to me having a false sense of what is possible because you will have found way, and I may have let you, of somehow taking my life away from me and making it do more than I ever could. You will have rescued me. My life will not be my own but a thing made possible, as much as possible, by you. I would do well to wonder how incapable of leading my life I am, because without you I might find life very hard indeed. Perhaps I am rude, disorganised, unreliable or difficult. All four of these qualities are a siren call to codependence. So much to do, so much to make you feel worthwhile.

What does codependence do to us? It binds us painfully. It restricts us because would you, or I, in our codependence ever want to share the lovely load of trouble we have found? Codependence can be anorexic. It looks for a closed economy, trying to survive off taking nothing new in (because anything new will weaken its control). Codependence blocks friendship, when codependence finds a couple. Codependence thrives off isolation and struggles in the uncertainty of a group, which is one reason why the best way of treating it is with group therapy.

We’ll be angry, all of us. What does codependence do? Codependence takes us away from ourselves. If I do something  out of my codependence I may find others benefit, and I may most likely stay in control, but it can feel as if everyone else is enjoying themselves on the other side of a thick pane of glass. And if I receive your codependence I may feel smothered. I never asked for this, kind though it may appear to be. Kind it does not feel.

What is codependence? It is a grievance machine. I wrote about this here, in relation to psychotherapy and psychotherapists, and how codependence often plays a part in helping. It was always the question people waited to be asked when they trained: why do you want to do this? If you answered to help people a ripple went round the training room. This isn’t a good thing, to do this out of an urge to help people. But that was codependence: the irresistible urge to control. To lay down what is right. Accepting  a desire to help people, and being conscious of it, does not make anyone a codependent.

  • a capacity to tolerate discomfort developed in early life



  1.  But the strong base and building of my love / Is as the very centre of the earth, / Drawing all things to it. I’ll go in and weep
  2. Perhaps there are things about codependence which make it hard for a former codependent to take on the primary role of a thinker. They possibly wouldn’t have given themselves enough time in their earlier, pre-recovery from co-dependence, life to lay the solid foundation for open and creative thinking. The roots of their early intellectual adventures might have been more in tune with their need to satisfy the needs of others, to keep them happy, than to possibly alienate them.
  3. codependent helping involves control, which is why, I think, many of the proponents of recovery from codependence want to own the intellectual substance ‘behind’ the problem they usually identify with.