Codependency Definitions

Ross Rosenberg Codependency Expert

Definitions of Codependency

From chapter 10 of the Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us

Since the understanding and treatment of codependency has evolved over the last 30 years, it may be helpful to understand the problem from other perspectives. The following are a handful of definitions that are consistent with my own experiences with codependency.

To start, the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines codependency as:  …a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled by another who is affected with a pathological condition (as in an addiction to alcohol or heroin); and in broader terms, it refers to the dependence on the needs of or control of another.

In Clark & Stoffel’s 1992 research article entitled, “Assessment of Codependency Behavior in Two Health Student Groups,” they described codependency as:  “A pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and others’ approval in an attempt to find safety, self-worth, and identity.”

“…a progressive process whereby self-denial and concomitant caring for other family members is based on the assumption that doing so will foster love, closeness, acceptance, and security in the family.”

“…an extreme sense of responsibility to others, inability to appropriately care for the self, increased focus on others’ needs, decreased focus on needs of the self, overreaction to things external to the self, under-reaction to things internal to the self, low self-esteem, low self-concept, high external locus of control, and denial”   (p. 822).

“(A willingness) to sacrifice so much of themselves that they set aside their own physical, emotional, and psychological needs for the sake of others.  They are detrimentally selfless” (p. 823).

According to Melody Beattie’s landmark book Codependent No More (1986):

“A codependent person is one who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior”  (p.34).

“Codependency involves a habitual system of thinking, feeling, and behaving toward ourselves and others that can cause us pain. Codependent behaviors or habits are self-destructive” (p. 37).

“We (codependents) frequently react to people who are destroying themselves; we react by learning to destroy ourselves. These habits can lead us into, or keep us in, destructive relationships, relationships that don’t work. These behaviors can sabotage relationships that may otherwise have worked. These behaviors can prevent us from finding peace and happiness with the most important person in our lives – ourselves. These behaviors belong to the only person each of us can control – the only person we can change – ourselves” (p. 37).

“Codependency is many things. It is a dependency on people – on their moods, behaviors, sickness or well-being, and their love. It is a paradoxical dependency. Codependents appear to be depended upon, but they are dependent. They look strong but feel helpless. They appear controlling, but in reality are controlled themselves, sometimes by an illness such as alcoholism”  (pp. 51-52).

According to this author, codependency is a problematic relationship orientation which involves the relinquishing of power and control to individuals who are either addicted or who have one of the three emotional manipulation personality disorders. In other words, codependents habitually find themselves in relationships with egotistic, self-centered, selfish, and/or addicted individuals. Codependents are habitually and magnetically attracted to people who neither seem interested nor motivated to participate in mutual or reciprocal relationships. Additionally, codependents willingly participate in relationships in which there is an unfair distribution of love, respect, and care, both given and received. By habitually choosing narcissistic or addicted friends or romantic partners, codependents consistently feel unfulfilled, disrespected and undervalued. As much as they resent and complain about the inequity in their relationships, codependents feel powerless to change them.

Codependency Subtypes: Passive Versus Active

There are two subtypes of codependency: passive and active. Although all codependents are habitually and instinctively attracted (and later bonded) to severely narcissistic partners, one is more active in their perpetual but unsuccessful attempts to obtain their emotional manipulator’s love, respect and care (LRC), while the other is more passive. Although both try to control and manipulate their narcissistic partners into meeting their LRC needs, they go about it differently.

Passive codependents are more fearful and avoidant of conflict. For complicated reasons, mostly related to their extremely low self-esteem, fear of being alone and tendency to be in relationships with controlling, dangerous and/or abusive emotional manipulators, the passive codependent attempts to control or influence their narcissistic partner through carefully, if not meticulously, executed control strategies – most of which are intended to fall under their emotional manipulator’s radar (awareness). Because of the secret and hidden nature of their control strategies, passive codependents are perceived as more manipulative (than active codependents).

Active codependents, on the other hand, more boldly and overtly attempt to manipulate their narcissistic partner into meeting their LRC needs. Being less afraid of conflict and subsequent harm, they are prone to initiate arguments and confrontations with emotional manipulators. Active codependents are often mistaken for narcissists because of their more openly controlling demeanor. Even though they are caught in a never winning cycle of trying to control someone who is neither interested nor capable of meeting their LRC needs, they are typically not able or motivated to end the relationship. Like the passive codependent, they believe that “one day” their pathologically narcissistic partner will realize their mistakes and wrong-doings and finally give them the love, respect and care they so desperately want and need. It just never happens…

Although different “on the outside,” both the passive and active codependent share the pathological “others” self-orientation. They both remain with pathologically narcissistic partners while being unhappy, angry and resentful at the lack of reciprocity, mutuality and fairness in their relationship. While the active codependent may seem stronger, more in control and more confident, both share the same deeply imbedded insecurities and feelings of powerlessness. Both are unable to break free from their dysfunctional relationship.

Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed.,  LCPC, CADC

Author of the Human Magnet Syndrome