‘What is Co-dependency?’ Angela explained that ‘in a co-dependent relationship one person allows another person’s behaviour to seriously affect him or her and they become obsessed with controlling that person’s behaviour’. It is a relationship which is excessive to an unhealthy and unhelpful degree. We all sadly recognised that we had at times been somewhere on the continuum of co-dependency and so were very keen to learn more.

A tendency to an unhealthy dynamic is further highlighted by one partner’s needs always being paramount and the other’s needs rarely ever put first. A classic example is one partner being alcoholic or abusive and the other enabling them in this whilst trying to control the situation. Narcissistic relationships are another form of this way of being. Being healthily empathic and supportive of some-one who is ill or suffers addictions is underpinned by choice, but when co-dependency is involved the actions are compulsive and compel that person to make extreme sacrifices in order to satisfy the needs of the other. The characteristics can include ‘low self-esteem, people pleasing, difficulty with boundaries, reactive behaviour, clinginess, caretaking, control and martyrdom’.

A co-dependent relationship may also include ‘dishonesty, manipulation, obsessive behaviour, dependency, denial, bullying, issues with intimacy and painful emotions’. One person feels over-responsible for the other which is often seen as a positive value gone awry. A healthy feeling of responsibility for some-one’s needs has to be balanced with a responsibility to one’s own. In co-dependency, one person’s behaviour is often abusive and over controlling and sometimes consciously or unconsciously enabling of the other’s addictions, mental health issues, irresponsibility or lack of emotional/psychological growth to continue. No-one really wins here. There is a lack of autonomy and held boundaries and a feeling that any fulfilment can only come from the other. The ‘giver’ is taking all the responsibility and until they accept that the responsibility is not theirs, the cycle will  continue. The other person will not heal either unless full responsibility is accepted so that positive change may begin.

It is sometimes thought that such relationships always involve romantic partnerships, but not so, they can also be between friends, work colleagues, family members or social groups. It may involve addictions, abuse (sexual, physical or mental), neglect and misuse of power.

Through experiential work we looked at the potential causes of co-dependency and focused on: ‘traumatic bonding breaks at the time of birth or during the first six months of life, intergenerational factors, role reversal, genetics, contact with alcoholics, not learning ways to manage conflict healthily or incidents when a child grows up in an environment where feelings should not be talked about and kept to oneself’. We learned that particularly difficult pairings involving co-dependency include those with Borderline Personality Disorders, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, ADHD, OCD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and others.

One exercise many found revealing involved the use of hula-hoops! Angela laid five spaced out around the room,  divided us into small groups and asked one person from each group step into the centre of a hoop. Then in each group, we were invited to step nearer to the person in the hoop. We had to stop immediately the central person said or indicated they were feeling uncomfortable. Some just wanted others to stay away, others found they could tolerate the rest somewhat closer and we discovered quite quickly that if an existing friendship, for example, existed between colleagues they could even stand within the same hoop. Personal space and personal choice were seen to be important as was the holding of respectful boundaries. In co-dependency such boundaries are often missing.

Angela stressed that recovery is possible, and people can break free! Through ongoing help, such as counselling or psychotherapy, the client can recognise what is actually happening, unravel the co-dependent relationship, address any denial, eliminate power games, manipulation and self hate, give voice to their feelings and, most importantly, put the responsibility back to where it belongs!

One helpful method is the Iceberg Model mentioned in ‘Breaking Free of the Co-dependency Trap’. Three stages of recovery are identified. Stage One is stopping the co-dependent behaviour, whilst not addressing underlying childhood traumas or dysfunctional relational patterns. Stage Two involves rebuilding your relationships and life, becoming self-aware of childhood traumas and addressing dysfunctional attitudes and behaviours with healthier ways of living and thinking. Stage Three focuses on completing the process of healing unresolved childhood issues and relational patterns.

The way a therapist may use the model will depend on their methodology whilst including the holding of professional boundaries, understanding and working with any counter transference and transference and making use other useful interventions. In all models/methodologies, it is the quality of the relationship that is cornerstone of any work. Therapists model healthy and helpful behaviours and empower self-responsibility and choice, at the client’s pace, within a safe environment. For a client who has endured co-dependency it could offer a change-filled and healing experience

Thank you, Angela, for your support on the day and for such a worthwhile Workshop.

Jacqueline Holloway

Angela recommended the following which she thought you may find helpful:

‘Co-dependent No More’ 1992, Beattie M. Hazleden, Minnesota .‘Breakthrough’ 2012, Clinton T & Springle P. Worthy Publishing, Tennessee.

‘Co-dependent No More. Life can be better when you overcome Co-Dependency’ 2015, Coulter M.  Committee of the American Bar Assoc. USA.

‘Fairy Tales and Script Drama Analysis’. 1968, Karpman S. Transactional Analysis Bulletin 7 (26) 39  43.

‘Symptoms of Co-dependency’ 2016, Lancer C. (Online UK) http://psychocentral.com/tib/symptoms of co-dependency//.

‘Co-dependency, Loves, Loves me Not’ 2014, Lindstrom S. Committee of the American Bar Assoc. USA.

‘Facing Co-dependence. What it is. Where it Comes From. How it sabotages Our lives’. 2003, Mellody P. Harper Collins, New York.

‘Breaking Free of the Co-dependency Trap’ 2008, Weinfield B & J, Stillpoint Pub. California.


For you interest here is a summary of the feedback given by those who attended:

Useful models to support working with Co-dependency;

Hula hoop work to understand the impact of boundaries;

Clear presentation and helpful references;

It was helpful to learn the many forms this takes; use of different skills and strategies to help clients;

The understanding we are all on the spectrum at some point;

Learning about the wide range of causes and the use of a gentle approach to naming and working towards independence;

Everything was helpful especially learning from more experienced counsellors;

Lots of participant discussion encouraged– diverse and welcome; Well-paced, sufficient information – great speaker; sharing of techniques.