Lesson 4 of 7  - optimize your relationships

Options for Reducing Codependence

End Relationship Addiction

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/relate/codep.htm

Updated 02-07-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 4 in this Web site - optimize  your relationships.

      This YouTube video previews key ideas in this article:

      This article provides...

  • perspective on codependence (relationship addiction)

  • a way to assess for codependence, from Codependents Anonymous (CoDA)

  • options if you, your mate, and/or someone else have too many symptoms of relationship addiction.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • The intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it 

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4

  • this article on addictions and families

  • this article on attaining personal sobriety 


      The word codependence evolved in the 1980’s from co-alcoholic, which mental-health workers use to describe someone who is compulsively enmeshed with an active alcoholic.

      Codependence is one of four types of addiction which all seek to self-medicate unbearable "inner pain" - shame + guilt + anxiety" + sadness +  emptiness + hurt + loneliness + despair. Codependents typically over-focus on the current welfare and activities of another person, and lose sight of their own needs, feelings, and lives. They lose healthy me/you boundaries and their own personal integrity, identity, friends, and life goals - despite consistently painful outcomes. Westerners first learned of this widespread toxic dynamic in the 1980s from books by Anne Wilson Schaef and Melody Beattie. 

      Many human-service professionals and the public have been taught to view addiction as a disease. I disagree, because diseases are caused by germs and/or organic malfunctions. I propose that any addiction (toxic compulsion) comes from an unconscious psychological reflex to numb or distract from (i.e. self-medicate) significant inner pain.

      Believing "I have a disease" can promote feeling defective, "sick," anxious, and inferior to "healthy" people. This increases the psychological wound of excessive shame. Thinking "I've inherited psychological wounds from my ancestors" feels and sounds different. Do you agree?

      The public and many health professionals see addictions as a personal pathology. As family-system dynamics become better understood and accepted, that is gradually changing to seeing any addiction as a symptom of early-childhood trauma and a low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") family. 

      Premise - early-childhood abandonment, neglect, and abuse (trauma)  promotes developing a fragmented personality composed of ''subselves'' or "parts". Most "mental health problems" - including codependence - are symptoms of a disabled true Self. This implies that reducing any psychological problem requires...

  • identifying the subselves comprising your personality

  • gradually harmonizing your subselves under the leadership of your wise resident true Self; and...

  • intentionally choosing high-nurturance (vs. toxic) social environments - e.g. home, family, friends, church, neighborhood, and school or workplace.

      Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site provides practical guidance and resources for doing these things.

        You may be wondering "How do I tell if someone is a codependent?" Here's how to answer that question:

Typical Traits of Codependents

      The two sets of traits below are adapted from Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) addiction-recovery materials. The more traits you check, the more likely that the person you're rating has (a) inherited significant psychological wounds and (b) has a relationship addiction. CoDA and other 12-step organizations do not yet acknowledge low-nurturance families, psychological wounds, and inner pain as major causes of addictions.


      Do this worksheet by yourself to avoid skewing the results to please or impress another person. Print out one or more copies.

      Choose an undistracted, comfortable setting to do this worksheet - i.e. no phones, kids, pets, TV, or other disturbances. Allow at least 30" - or more, if you want to journal about the experience. Have extra paper and colored pens or markers for highlighting handy.

      Check to see who's guiding your personality - i.e. do a Self-check:  If you can honestly say "I feel a mix of grounded, centered, peaceful alert, awake, "up," "light," focused, purposeful, resilient, confident, compassionate, serene, calm, strong, and clear, your true Self (capital "S") is probably guiding your other subselves now. If you can't say this, expect skewed results from this worksheet.

      Put other concerns aside for now. Adopt the attitudes that ...

  • This investigation is not about blaming anyone, including yourself;

  • This is a win-win experience: you'll find you don't have many traits of codependence; or if you do, you've discovered a reason to break old denials and start healing; and...

  • Doing this worksheet thoughtfully and honestly will strengthen your odds of making healthy relationship choices.

Reassure yourself that codependence is a normal (widespread!) condition that can be reduced. It is not a sign of craziness, badness, failure, weirdness, or a disease, illness, or character defect! It is a significantly-harmful condition that deserves serious attention, awareness, and patient, corrective action. There is a lot of effective help available!

      Mentally focus on your relationship with your present partner, a former partner, or a parent, sibling, relative, child, co-worker, or friend. With that focus in mind, fill out the two tables below slowly and thoughtfully. If you're unsure about an item, use "?"

      Ask yourself whether each trait usually or generally applies to (a) you and (b) your chosen other. Try not to focus on what others may think of your answers. You don't have to show them to anyone - and it may be helpful to do so.

       As you do this worksheet, nonjudgmentally notice your thoughts, images, and feelings or their absence. Your reactions are clues to "the truth." They're important learnings just as your check-box responses are.

      If it feels right, change the wording of any item, and/or add items.

      Pause, breathe, and answer this: "I believe now that...

_ I don't have the condition of codependence;

_ I'm not sure if I do;

_ I do have this condition.

      To assess another person, substitute her or his name for "I".

      The symptoms below are (a) relationship traits and (b) general traits.

A)  About Our Relationship...

me you other
1)  My good feelings about who I am depend on being liked by you;      
2)  My good feelings about who I am depend on getting approval from you;      
3) Your struggle affects my serenity. My mental attention focuses on solving your problems, or relieving your pain;      
4)  My mental attention is usually focused on _ pleasing you, and _ protecting you      
5)  My self-esteem is bolstered by _ solving your problems, and _ relieving your pain      
6)  My hobbies and interests are put aside. My time is spent sharing your hobbies and interests      
7)  Your _ clothing, _ personal appearance, and _ behavior follow my desires, as I feel you are a reflection of me      
8)  I’m seldom aware of how I feel - I’m mainly aware of how you feel      
9)  I’m seldom aware of what I want - I ask or assume what you want      
10)  My dreams of the future are mainly linked to you;      
11)  My fears of your _ rejection and _ anger strongly shape what I say and do      
12)  I use giving as a key way of feeling safe in our relationship      
13)  My own social circle diminishes as I involve myself with you      
14)  I put many of my values aside in order to stay in relationship with you      
15)  I value your opinions and ways of doing most things more than mine      
16)  The quality of my life hinges largely on the quality of yours      

B) General Traits of Codependents

me you other
1)  We automatically assume responsibility for others’ feelings and/or behaviors      
2)  We have trouble identifying our feelings; invalidate them; and/or often feel confused, guilty, or ashamed of them      
3)  We have trouble freely expressing feelings: i.e. "I’m happy / sad / joyful / hurt / confused / enraged / scared / anxious / numb / ..."      
4)  We often fear or worry about how others may respond to our feelings and behaviors      
5)  We can’t firmly say what we need, and/or we feel very guilty and anxious if we do      
6)  We automatically equate love with pain, anxiety or fear, and/or pity      
7)  We generally have trouble making and keeping close relationships      
8)  We greatly fear being hurt and/or being rejected or abandoned by others - and often expect these, despite all reassurances      
9)  We often have trouble making firm decisions      
10)  We often  minimize, alter, and/or deny the truth about how we really feel      
11)  We typically react to others’ actions and attitudes, rather than act on our own      
12)  We usually put other people’s needs and wants well before our own - automatically (a 1-down attitude)      
13)  Our fears of others’ feelings (e.g. anger, indifference, disapproval) largely determine what we say and do      
14)  We question or ignore our own values in order to be accepted and liked  by significant others. We often value others’ opinions more than ours      
15)  We often feel empty, indifferent, sad, and/or depressed "for no reason"      
16)  Our self-esteem is bolstered by events outside of us. We have great trouble acknowledging good things about ourselves.      
17)  Our serenity and mental attention (focus) is determined by how others are feeling or acting      
18)  We tend to judge everything we do, think, or say, harshly, by someone else’s standards. Few things we do, say, or think are "good enough." Perfectionism feels normal to us      
19)  We don’t know or believe that being vulnerable and asking for help is OK and normal      
20)  We don’t know that it’s OK to talk about personal problems outside the family, or that feelings just are, and that it’s better to share them than to deny, minimize, or justify them      
22)  We’re steadfastly loyal, even when we’re repeatedly discounted, shamed, neglected, or used      
23)  We have to feel clearly and steadily needed to have an OK relationship with others.      

      Pause, breathe, and notice your thoughts and feelings.

  If you checked many of these traits for yourself, then...

  • Work patiently at online lesson 1, parts 1 and 2 to assess yourself for inherited psychological wounds and learn about your personality,

  • Learn about addiction basics and options for personal addiction-recovery.

  • Check for symptoms of other addictions ("co-addiction") like comfort foods, nicotine, alcohol, and compulsive working out, cleaning, shopping, gambling, sexual arousal. praying, and/or working.

  • Use online lesson 1, part 3 to (a) learn about personality subselves and "parts work" - internal family systems (IFS therapy. Work at this strategy to reduce your inner pain and toxic compulsions (addictions).

  • Get help from a professional clinician who is trained and experienced in working with relationship-addiction management. Ideally, s/he will know about inner-family therapy;

  • Locate one or more local Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) meetings, and attend several to get a feel for what they do, how, and why. If you can't find a physical meeting, there are "virtual" CoDA groups on the Internet;

  • Search the Web for information about healing codependence. There's a LOT of help available!

  • Teach other people what you're learning about codependence and what it means - in general, and in your life (the symptoms above). Stay aware that addiction is a symptom of the real problem: psychological wounds + unawareness.

  • Be alert for stories of people who have progressed at reducing (vs. "curing") codependence, and how that has affected them and their families.

        Postpone any serious relationship commitments until you make unmistakable  progress healing the toxic shame and fear of abandonment promoting your condition. Needy, unrecovering GWCs are at high risk of mistakenly believing that getting married, cohabiting, and/or having a child will heal the discomforts they've been self-medicating. Guarantee: they won't. Reality-check this with people in true (vs. pseudo) recovery for five or more years. I've been recovering since 1986...

If you checked many traits for your current partner ...

  • Study these addiction basics, and this article on relating to a psychologically-wounded person.

  • Show this article to your mate, discuss it, and recommend these same actions to them. Option: patiently work at Lesson 1 together!

  • Beware feeling anxious about and/or responsible for your partner's  discomforts, reactions, and decisions. The most effective way to help, long-term, is...

    • set a worthy (recovery) example for them, with your true Self in charge,

    • make frequent use of the Serenity Prayer, and...

    • compassionately help by not helping - i.e. by not enabling your partner (taking responsibility for what s/he must do);

  • If relevant, evaluate getting couples-counseling on managing codependence. Avoid doing this for your partner's sake (rescuing) no matter how seductive it feels!

If you checked many traits for someone else - e.g. a parent, friend, sibling, or former partner...

  • Use your new awarenesses to grow compassion for them. If you've blamed and resented them for past hurts and insults, don't give up your feelings - and consider seeing him or her as majorly wounded survivor of a low-nurturance childhood, vs. a "bad" person. Some healing forgiveness may grow from such a new view, which helps all of you.

  • If s/he's open to it, consider making this worksheet and the Lesson-1 study guide available to the other person without expectations. Beware trying to save or fix others who aren't looking for help: that's a classic codependent urge! .

Signs of Progress

      In what follows, "partner" means the person you're over-focused on.

      Generally, symptoms of true (vs. pseudo) recovery progress include an unmistakable reduction in codependent behaviors and attitudes like those in the table above. Some changes to note include...

  • participating regularly in one or more Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) meetings for several months; enjoying friendships with other people beside your partner - even if s/he complains;

  • asserting your own opinions, needs, and boundaries without significant anxiety or guilt;

  • resuming activities you enjoy even if your partner isn't interested in them;

  • feeling increasing comfort in letting your partner be responsible for his/her own life, and no longer seeking to "rescue" him or her from discomfort;

  • apologizing much less to your partner, without guilt or anxiety;

  • feeling comfortable not seeing or communicating with your partner for periods;

  • setting and enforcing behavioral limits with (confronting) your partner without guilt or anxiety;

  • not activating another addiction to compensate for giving up codependence;

  • feeling notably calmer, centered and less anxious, more often; and...

  • resuming genuine interest in your own life purpose - even if it doesn't involve your partner.

      The ultimate signs of progress are deciding to end a codependent relationship, and enjoying being alone for awhile, and/or choosing a new partner who is often guided by her or his true Self.

      Changes like these occur gradually over time. One way of noticing and validating them is to keep a personal log or journal of your feelings and activities


      This is one of a series of Lesson-4 articles on optimizing your relationships. It provides

  • perspective on the common condition of codependence (relationship addiction),

  • a two-part self-assessment worksheet of codependence traits from Codependents Anonymous (CoDA)

  • options if you feel you, your mate, and/or someone else has too many of these traits; and...

  • options for measuring your progress at reducing codependence.

      Reducing any addiction is part of the larger goal of freeing your wise true Self to guide your personality in all situations.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or someone else?

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