What is Codependency?


Codependency with an addicted person is sometimes thought of as an addiction in itself, an addiction to helping that actually makes things worse. There is some truth to this, but it paints the codependent as a sick person, which is not so true.  In fact, healthy people including good bosses and even health care professionals fall into codependent patterns. What I see the most of are normal reactions to someone who is lost but rejects real help.

My most sophisticated definition of codependency: Wishful thinking.

Every instance of codependency involves fooling yourself into thinking you can help when you can’t. Concretely, there are four distinct codependent reactions. They often take place in sequence. Each one, while completely natural and understandable, makes the situation worse. A fifth reaction, which is not natural and must usually be learned, actually helps.  Here are the four codependent reactions and the fifth, healthy one.

1.  Denial.  The first reaction is to look the other way, normalize the situation.  “Everyone drinks a little too much from time to time.” Of course this supports the addict’s denial and helps the illness to progress. The addict gains confidence that everything is OK as is.

2.  Control:  Hoping to influence the situation, you avoid parties, you mark the bottles, you plead and nag. Addicts hate to be controlled but love to play cat and mouse. Guess what, the mouse wins. Addicts are happy to let  you be responsible for the good behavior while the addict handles the bad. Attempts to control the addict will soon fail. What’s worse, since you have become involved, the addict will now hold you responsible for the failure. It is no longer his or her problem, it is yours. “You are always on my back. If you would only stop nagging me, then I wouldn’t use drugs!”

3. Anger/Depression:  When your efforts to control the other person fail, you begin to feel angry. Or, depending on your personality, you might start to question yourself and feel depressed and guilty over your failure. Your expressions of anger will bring self pity, “I drink to escape from your constant criticism.”  Your self-doubt will fuel the disease: “That’s right, I get high because you are so inadequate.” Either way, you have only fueled the fire.

4. Rejection:  Finally, you have had it. You have tried everything, and in your frustration and rage, you are ready to blame your addict and banish him or her from your life. Of course that, too is fuel for the self-pity engine that relieves the addict of any remaining sense of responsibility for his or her fate.

5. Detach with Love. This is the healthy one that most people have to learn. Al-anon, the 12 step program for codependents, teaches that you do best to accept that you can’t control the other person and to recognize that he or she isn’t in control either. We feel angry and rejecting when we think the addict WON’T control the problem, but when we realize the truth that he or she CAN’T control it, then the appropriate emotion is sadness. To make it more understandable, think of being at a sports event where you care very much about the outcome but have no power to control it. It is OK to be vocal about your feelings, but you can’t go onto the field and tell the coach and players what to do.

Sometimes detach with love is interpreted as being completely passive. When you can do something effective, please do. For example, protect yourself, think about doing an intervention, consider applying consequences. Just don’t do things you know will be of no help. I only advocate letting go when it is clear that all genuinely helpful actions have been tried. Then, and only then, it is time to accept reality and stop the wishful thinking.

When you actually let go, interesting things may begin to happen. The addicted person no longer has a cozy, comfy foil to play off. The addict feels alone for the first time. There is a sudden cool breeze that may lead to self reflection. Hitting “rock bottom” is not always when things are absolutely terrible. Sometimes it is the dawning of awareness that something in the world is even more precious than the substance and that one can’t have both. Even if there is no awakening, at least you will know that you have done all you realistically can. When you acknowledge this, you will be cured of wishful thinking and codependency.


  • It must be very tricky living with an alcoholic. I know that It’s not the same but my ex was and still is an hooked gambler. Addictions are tough to deal with for the addicted and those about. What I imagine will be corresponding to living with an alcoholic is that I can remember the anger and unreasonableness that came from him every time that I attempted to even discuss his trouble with him. He knew that what he was doing was misguided so he became really excusatory about it. I can recall the lies as he attempted to screen his addiction and dealing things from the home and taking loans to pay back for it. Respect rusts when someone you love lies to you and finally the love goes with the respect. In the end I gave up on him, his dependence was making me stricken from stress and you hit a point where you can’t manage any more.

  • There are many interpretation of codependency. There are lots of meanings and the actual doing that people get from someone who actually are codependent.

    I have my own experiences with codependency people who seems to dislike when people don’t follow or do exactly what they want people to do.

    I just think that this kind of people should be notify because many of them are sometimes don’t even realize that they codependent to another people which can result a negative relation between them and those around them.

    Codependency can be cured as long as they got all the necessary support from people near to the codependents.

  • Dr. Smith,

    I have been living with an alcoholic for over 35 years and have been through those 4 reactions, although in varying degrees of intensity and not in that order. I am now in Al-Anon (15 months) and am trying the 5th – detachment with love. So far I have not had much success. I like your description of co-dependency as wishful thinking – as that is my life – to the point that if ‘it” does not happen I will just believe it anyway or fantasize it into being in my mind. Since this has not helped me and has actually harmed me I am trying reality now. Not easy after all these years. I am wondering if you could comment on alcoholism, with your definition and description. I have a copy of The Big Book and have read the Doctor’s Opinion but I am curious about your thoughts. Thank You.


  • Thank you for this definition. My sister struggled with codependency addiction for over 8 years, and is still recovering. She eventually ended up in rehab and was then diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. My family attended Al-Anon meetings and did everything we could to support her. And since then we have learned a ton about codependency the hard way. This problem seems epidemic to me, although the word codependency doesn’t seem to be well-known. All the symptoms you mentioned: anger, denial, control, were all prevalent in our experience as well. Thanks for helping educate the public about this addiction.

    William Heart

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  • Dear Dr. Smith,

    I have been fascinated by your blog, particularly your posts on ‘attachment to your therapist’. Thank you so much for what you have written, it helped me stay in therapy through a very painful (but, in hindsight, useful) rupture, and make sense of some of what I was experiencing. It’s generous of you to so much information out here. I have found your website quite difficult to navigate though, and wondered if you might be able to put an archive of posts & their titles at the side please, or a ‘cloud’ of posts tagged under similar themes? It’s just a thought, but I hope it doesn’t come across as critical or demanding, as I’ve said I’m grateful for the time and energy you have put into these posts.
    I had a question related to this post. The ‘detach with love’ idea, as someone with a background of complex trauma and a father who has his own emotional difficulties, I find it very hard to see the line between ‘detaching with love’, and ‘abandonment’, or ‘giving up on’ the person. It’s a real challenge to try to relate with compassion and remain connected but not engage, particularly when I strongly suspect that my father has C-PTSD too, and recognise that I have been fortunate enough to find help (five years of tough but excellent therapy with a clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, and still only just beginning it feels like!) that has never been available to him. How can he ‘be different’ if he has no conception of what different might feel or look like, and how can I be a good, loving, compassionate and caring daughter, without getting caught up in the rage, the chaos, the anxiety, the procrastination, the hoarding, the binge-eating and the self-destructive behaviour?

    That’s a very specific query, and one for me to work out in therapy, but i guess it would be really helpful to hear any thoughts you have on how to ‘detach with love’ without abandoning or giving up on someone very hurt and damaged, but who is still a good person.



    • Dear Pink, Thanks for your comment and question. Getting caught up with the other person’s dysfunctional reactions is not good for either person, so I think the question is, how to disengage in the least hurtful way possible. My post on disengagement offers some thoughts on the subject. I hope they are helpful. There are times when one has to choose the lesser of evils. JS

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