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#1: Keeping on the watch for Co-Dependency

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Co-dependency can be like a game – but it is people who are manipulated.Co-dependency can be like a game – but it is people who are manipulated.
So what’s going on with the client who cannot stay focussed on themself in the session but keeps referring to, or talking about, a particular someone else?

Or else there’s the client who readily discounts or dismisses their own feelings but, at the same time, is so acutely aware of the feelings of a particular other person.

There’s also the client who cannot say ‘No’ and is continuously feeling tired or resentful as they run around for other people.

These are the types of experiences therapists are encountering everyday in their practice.

However, from discussions with fellow therapists, it appears that many therapists don’t realise that such behaviours are indicative of the underlying dynamic of ‘co-dependency’ and that the condition is very pervasive. Nor do some therapists appreciate the enormous immediate benefit to the client of having this dependence identified and clarified for them.

In my experience, rapid and sustainable progress can be made in client ‘journeys' once co-dependency is identified, named and understood. However, from discussion with fellow therapists, it appears that even though the condition is actually very pervasive, it is not often recognised as such for the client.

So, through this series of ‘thought snippets’, I’m inviting you, the caring professional, to consider:

  • what exactly is co-dependency?
  • how pervasive is it?
  • how does it typically manifest itself in the lives of your clients?
  • what are the symptoms to look out for?
  • what are the benefits to the client of naming it?
  • what happens when co-dependency becomes an addiction?
  • why does the co-dependent typically end up in a relationship with a narcissistic?

The answers to these questions are worthy of serious and immediate consideration – I hope these ‘‘thought snippets’ make that possible for you.

What is co-dependency?

The term co-dependency is often used in connection with enabling an alcoholic or addict. However, in my experience, there is significant case evidence to show that that co-dependency, and the resultant negative consequences for the co-dependent, is much more common in everyday life than is commonly thought.

Robert Subby 1 describes co-dependency as an “An emotional, psychological and behavioural condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules – rules which prevent the open expression of feelings, as well as the direct discussion of personal and interpersonal problems”

Melody Beattie’s2 simple definition is “A co-dependent is one who has let another person’s behaviour affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour”.

However, these definitions fall a little short in that the former is too suggestive of a formal set of rules while the latter would be too inclusive if applied loosely.

The description which my clients and I find most helpful is one which focusses on the loss of choice or personal power in relationships. This loss of choice or personal power occurs when we (unknowingly) look for external approval from others. By seeking another person’s love, acceptance or validation of us at all costs to ourselves, we end up giving that person power and control over us. Thus, we become co-dependent on them to approve of and validate us as worthwhile people.

With this description of co-dependency, it becomes apparent that many of our clients are likely to be affected – not just those dealing with addicted persons as is commonly thought. Even better, when we as helping professionals recognise this, we can more easily help our clients understand the dynamic that is in place and are then better placed to help them take back control of their relationships.

The pervasiveness of co-dependence

Co-dependency is a complex and growing issue. It affects families, businesses, organisations and schools. Indeed, in my experience, it lies behind most of the communications and co-operation difficulties experienced in these environments. However, for the purposes of this ‘thought snippet', I will focus on how co-dependency affects the individual.

It is my experience that a great many of the clients who enter the therapy process have co-dependency issues. How often have you heard your clients say “I don’t know who I am any more, and I am not sure that I ever did”?

The typical path that leads a client to becoming co-dependent is one where, from a young age, their need for normal, human validation and approval is not met. So, in search of that validation or approval, the client has become much more aware of, and connected to, another ‘significant’ person’s needs and feelings. The underlying dynamic is that the client is unconsciously trying to satisfy the other person’s needs and feelings so that that other person will love, approve or somehow validate the client. In the process the client loses awareness of, and becomes disconnected from, their own feelings and needs.

Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in Ireland. Very often co-dependent clients come from a family background, often reinforced by a school environment, where they were not heard and generally not validated. They did what they could to get their parents attention and, hopefully, approval (even if it meant being disruptive at times).

Eventually, never really being validated, they came to believe that there was something wrong with them. Thus, they entered adult life seeking external approval because they could not validate themselves internally. They just did not feel they were good enough! These are the clients who so often present for counselling.

Learning to work with co-dependency and ‘relationship addiction’

My experience of co-dependent relationships as possible sources of addiction, and the huge strides in recovery that are possible when it is named for those clients who are affected, has prompted me to put together a course which deals with this issue. It provides a real and meaningful resource for the helping professional who wants to give his / her clients the best chance of recovery from whatever is their issue or addiction. For further information, click through to margaretparkes.ie courses


Robert Subby1 (1984) Co Dependency, An Emerging Issue
Melody Beattie2 (1982) Co-Dependent No More

Note: This is one of a series of ‘thought snippets’ through which I am hoping to bring co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, they can ensure that their clients reap the benefit of early identification. To read other ‘snippets’ in this series, click: margaretparkes snippets

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I found your insight helpful. It brought new awareness to me as a therapist. It helped in identifying that my client had ADHD which allowed me to alter how I worked with him. To slow the work down, to not get frustrated and to help him understand himself. I am more aware of the signs and inde...

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