“Co-dependency” is a term that was originally used to describe behavior often observed among people who lived with alcoholics or substance abusers. However, once psychologists and counselors got wise to this type of relationship disorder, they could see it sometimes existed in other situations as well. The tricky thing about co-dependency is that it is an extreme form of a healthy behavior.

Well, if you think about it, that’s true of a lot of things! Take something as simple as liking a TV program: you start with making sure you watch it every week; then you might progress to buying all of the DVDs and joining internet forums to talk about it; time spent might start to sneak into time when you should be sleeping or studying or working. But there’s nothing really wrong with any of that — unless your obsession starts to take over your life. But where do you draw the line? We’d probably all agree that stalking an actor is going too far! But there’s a whole grey area in between where different people would declare the person has “flipped” into bona fide obsession.

Okay, that was an analogy I thought a lot of people could relate to (I tend to get a bit obsessive myself when I discover something I really like!). Anyway, co-dependency is a bit like that. Here’s some typical characteristics of co-dependent people (taken from a longer list appearing at

  1. an exaggerated sense of responsibility for the actions of others
  2. an unhealthy dependence on relationships
  3. an extreme need for approval
  4. a fear of being abandoned or being alone
  5. difficulty in making decisions
  6. a compelling need to control others
  7. difficulty in identifying their own feelings

As you can see, these are all simply extreme forms of emotions we all have to some degree or other. Humans are, after all, social animals, and we also have many fears that grow out of the fact that we can imagine. Imagination enables us to plan for the future, to see what is going to happen if we do something, so imagination is vital, and it also brings us a great deal of pleasure. But, of course, it has a downside, and that is that fear is born in imagination. Perhaps fear would be easier to deal with if we thought of it as the price we pay for imagination, but that’s another discussion.

Co-dependency is born in dysfunctional families. The families might be dysfunctional because one member is alcohol or drug dependent, but there are other possibilities: mental illness, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and the hardest one of all to recognize or define: emotional abuse.

How do you tell if someone is being emotionally abusive? For the person being abused, or for people who are close to the abuser, it can be very difficult to identify — particularly if you have grown up with this sort of behavior and regard it as “normal”. For people outside the family, it’s a great deal easier, which is why, of course, dysfunctional families tend to be closed in on themselves. But if you are in this type of family, it is worth heeding the comments of people outside the family. Your own refusal to listen to such comments (“You don’t understand”) should be a signal to you.

You may be wondering why it matters. Co-dependent people set themselves up for unhappiness. They try and control other people, but by putting all their hopes for happiness on the relationship and the other person, they tend to get involved with people who have problems. But regardless of the type of person with whom they’re involved, by so completely ignoring their own needs and desires, they ensure their own unhappiness. We shouldn’t, of course, totally focus on our own wants at the expense of others, but in a healthy relationship, both people should be considered. And, yeah, anyone who says “But it’s enough for me that YOU’RE happy” is setting up themselves, and the other, for eventual problems. It’s not something that works in the long run.


Find out more:

Here’s a couple of good pages defining codependency: — this site also has a questionnaire to help you identify signs of co-dependency — this site also has some personal accounts of co-dependency



Be careful diagnosing yourself or others. Use this information as a guide only, to give you some insight into yourself or someone you care about, or to encourage you to seek help.