Have you or someone you know recently said, “We’re so codependent.” A bunch of folks are using the term, but what exactly is it?

You sense it’s not a good thing, or something you want. But when did we start talking about? And what does it actually mean?

The beginning of codependence…

Before codependency was identified as a psychological condition, we didn’t have a name for it. It was only after the spouses of alcoholics started meeting together for support and understanding that the term sprung to life. Melodie Beattie, author of Codependent No More reminds us: “One fairly common denominator was having a relationship, personally or professionally with troubled, needy or dependent people. But a second, more common denominator seemed to be the unwritten, silent rules…”.

People who found each other in these groups, and recognized that they were all following the same rules, began to realize, “Hey, wait a minute. Maybe our behavior is part of the problem. What we all thought was our own private answer to the very painful problem of a partner’s alcoholism is something a lot of people do. And it actually enables the alcoholic to stay immersed in their illness.”

That’s when the very important support group Alanon was formed and their mantra of “detach with love” has been so helpful to so many.

The meaning of the term has widely broadened since then.

Codependence as relationship addiction…

In 2019 it’s been called “relationship addiction,” and recently, an author defines it as “the feeling that we can’t exist without the other person.” Symptoms include low self-esteem, people pleasing, need for control, and others. There’s CoDA, Co-Dependents Anonymous, a support group for people who have these issues and want to have a healthier relationship with themselves and their partner.

If this is you, and instead of your partner enhancing the life you’ve created for yourself, you feel as if you couldn’t live without them, then that’s a problem. Sure, we all get heady with first love and feel as if our ability to breathe will vanish if we don’t get to see them soon. I’m not talking about falling in love. I’m talking about every day, put your boots on and live life kind of love. What your current “codependent” relationship can start to look like is two people, not supporting one another’s individuality and instead, holding one another back from their potential. “I need you so you can’t have your own life or interests or choices or….”. It can grow in similarity to a victim/savior relationship, which is very difficult and paralyzing for both.

The vital difference between “dependence” and “interdependence”…

And yet, maybe the word “depend” is getting a bad rap. Some are shouting that we’re all supposed to take care of our own needs and wants, without depending on anyone.

No one can make you happy but yourself.

I don’t want to be dependent on anyone.

Whatever happened to, “No man is an island, unto himself…?

These are not what makes relationships or intimacy work.

A while back, my husband was out of town for three or four days. Every time that happens, I notice what I count on him to do around the house. We, like most of us, have separate responsibilities. I don’t retrieve the dead mouse from behind the trash, or reset the trap. He has practically forgotten how to turn on the stove. If something happened to one of us, either the house would be overridden with rodents or fast food wrappers would abound in said trash.

Yes, I could learn about mouse traps and he could google how to boil an egg. We would learn to survive alone, like many people do every day.

But we’ve become interdependent. I count on his strengths, he counts on mine.

That happens in an emotional realm as well. I count on his patience, because I need reminding every now and then that good things come to those who wait. He counts on something about me…probably my energy. I’ll have to ask him, but I know he does.

Interdependence. Being there for each other. Having the others’ back. Keeping your partner in your head when you make decisions, whether it’s buying their favorite piece of fruit at the grocery store, or deciding not to flirt back with someone at a party.

Interdependence doesn’t mean you lose yourself, or become less of a strong individual. It means life isn’t quite so hard, because you’ve got a partner. It means you have expectations that aren’t rigid, but that you’ve got someone to count on. It means you’re aware of how they’re different from you, and you rely on that difference at times.

Interdependence builds trust.

The loss of being able to depend…

One woman years ago came in to see me after her husband had died. He was well-known internationally, and she had spent the months after his death flying around the world, accepting honors on his behalf.

I thought I was doing great with my grief. I cried some, missed him terribly. But I thought I was fine.

She was walking up her back steps one day, fell, and broke her arm. He wasn’t there to hear her call for help. That was the moment the totality of her grief hit her.

People who are living life alone can miss having someone they can depend on. It’s reassuring and comforting. And you miss it when it’s gone.

Don’t be afraid of depending on someone — if it’s the right one.

Be dependable in return, and you’re that much closer to having a great relationship. Be supportive of their own life as an individual and they will do the same for you. Make choices that bring you happiness and know that their presence and their love for you only enhance what you’re creating. 

If you struggle with codependence, as described above, the classic book to read for help is Codependent No More. You can also look for a local CoDA group for support and more information.


You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!

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Originally published on July 2, 2016 and updated on January 4, 2019.

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