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Reflections

Co-Dependence: Characteristics and a Checklist

“When you give another person the power to define you, then you also give them the power to control you.” Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It. 

Simply said, co-dependence is losing our identity to another person. We accommodate ourselves to another’s needs so much that we trade our true self. Here are some questions that characterize co-dependence. Do you:

  • Excessively take care of the needs of others at the expense of your own? 
  • Constantly worry about other’s opinions about you?
  • Keep quiet to avoid arguments? 
  • Hold on to unhealthy relationships that are unequal and not reciprocal? 
  • Struggle with setting limits and saying no? 
  • Confuse love with pity and rescue the people you pity? 
  • Have trouble admitting a need and asking for help?
  • Not know what you think, feel and need?


 If you said yes to the majority of the questions you may well be struggling with co-dependency. While this is not listed in the diagnostic manual for mental disorders (DSM V), co-dependence is a serious set of learned behaviors. It can compromise your capacity for satisfying relationships and seriously sabotage your life. 

Historically, the concept of co-dependence comes from Alcoholics Anonymous (Davis,L: 2008. Obsession: A History; p.178). Overlapping with the psychoanalytic theory of a “passive-dependent personality,” a co-dependent attaches to a “stronger personality" and loses their identity to another (Berne,E: 2006. A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis; pp. 64 & 241). Currently, co-dependency is considered a set of learned behaviors learned in our family of origin. We re-enact in the present what we've experienced as normal from our past. Because dysfunctional systems disallow any disagreement, we become compliant, avoid anger and can't engage conflict. We lose our voice and the capacity to stand up or speak out for ourselves. This seriously compromises our relationships. Rather then having reciprocal relationships with equal partners, co-dependents can be magnets for narcissists. Often they overfunction and go 95% of the way across the bridge forming one-sided relationships. This takes enormous energy that leads to festering resentments, passive aggression, burnout and breakdowns. Finally forced to take care of themselves, they often check out emotionally or cut off relationally. 

Here are some common characteristics of codependents:
  • Excessive Care-taking: Codependents feel responsible for others actions, choices and emotional well-being. They anticipate another’s needs and get angry when others don’t do the same for them. 
  • Fear of Anger: Despite feelings of resentment and anger they don’t show it because they’re so focused on another they deny their own thoughts, feelings and needs. 
  • Frozen Feelings: Much of treatment begins with accessing feelings and giving them names so that ownership can be taken and choices made.
  • Denial: Co-dependents routinely ignore, minimize or rationalize problems in their relationships believing “it will get better” or, if they can do better in the relationship the other person will “automatically change.” 
  • Health Problems: The stress and emotional energy of living life this way often results in headaches, stomach problems, ulcers, or event accidents; as the only way to address one’s own needs is to become ill.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Co-dependents lose their identity in others and have no solid sense of self. This leads to confusion about the present and a lack of vision for the future.  
  • Compulsions/Obsessions/Addictions: Because co-dependents often intellectualize/compartmentalize their feelings. This unfinished business forms painful triggers from the past that informs future relationships. Self medicating with obsessive/compulsive behaviors or alcohol and drugs often accompanies these patterns.


Because co-dependence is a coping mechanism to survive a chaotic family system, treatment requires understanding how these reactive patterns were formed in the context of our past. Detailing the relational dynamics in our family of origin to the second and third generation can crystalize patterns from the past that give insight into relationships in the present. I use a tool called a genogram to do this work. Rather than naval gazing, it offers an objective approach that analyzes dynamics without judging people. When a client can connect the dots between repetitive cycles from the past to painful reactivity in the present, we've succeded in targeting triggers. Our second step is to learn skills to step back, calm down and detach. Detachment isn't from people. But from the agony of involvement with people that keeps us from feeling personal pain. Here, spiritual practices are not only sacred but healing. Evidence based research confirms that centering prayer and mindfulness calm anxiety, enable us to let go and teaches us to trust God. This sacred practice gives perspective to new options and are empowers us to make better choices. Gradually our confidence grows and we find our voice and speak our truth. Rather than collapsing into the needs of others, we begin to live into the unique call of God. 


To learn more about co-dependence take a look at this checklist and consider your responses. If you would like information on a 6 week educational group for codependents beginning in January 2014, please email me at [email protected]. If you would like to make a personal appointment please call me at (502) 409-7331.
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