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Codependency is a set of maladaptive, compulsive behaviors learned by family members in order to survive in a family that is experiencing great emotional pain and stress. It is a dependency on people – on their moods, behaviors, sickness or well-being, and their love. Codependents look strong but feel helpless. They appear controlling but in reality are controlled themselves.

Codependent Behavior in Families

Addiction always occurs in a context. Just like animals and plants require particular atmospheres to survive, there needs to be sufficient interior and/or external support for an addiction to grow. The contextual issues supporting addiction occur both within the person developing the addiction and in the surrounding atmosphere.

Inside, addiction is affected by one’s personality traits and attitude, as well as beliefs, genetic inheritance, history of distress and tolerance for coping with life’s challenges. Outside, addiction is affected by important relationships such as family and friends, along with cultural beliefs and social influences. The relational context of addiction is the focus of Promises Family Program.

The family is not just a group of people but instead it is a system with each individual affecting the other; it is a system just as the human body is a system. All the parts are linked together and react and interact with each other. For example, if an individual were to fracture a bone, the other parts of their body would have to adjust to prevent putting pressure on the hurt limb and so the system is then organized around the injury and adjustments. In the case of alcoholism and addiction, the family system organizes itself around the disease and all members are profoundly effected in their new roles.

Any system is made up of three components:

  1. individual parts
  2. somehow linked together
  3. to accomplish something that no individual part could accomplish on its own

In a family, the parts are the family members. They are linked together by rules and boundaries. The primary goal is to maintain balance within the system in order to survive.


Systems have rules governing how the parts of the system interact with each other, roles that different parts of the system assume in contributing to the whole, and many other features. Family systems may function in healthy or unhealthy ways, support adaptive or maladaptive behavior, and support or not support the development of addiction. The rules and boundaries dictate how close people may get to one another, how they relate, what topics can be openly discussed, and what feelings may be expressed. All families have unwritten rules that are instinctively known. Some rules are spoken like “The children go to bed at 8pm,” and some are unspoken like “unpleasant feelings should not be felt or shared.” The rules of the family strive to keep the status quo. A system will always seek homeostasis or maintaining the status quo even if that is painful due to the nature of systems. That is why so many of the symptoms of addiction are the same systems in codependency, the same obsessions and compulsions and getting locked in doing something that is causing us pain.

The boundaries have to do with how “connected” we are with each other. If the boundaries are not clear we become enmeshed, and family members have no clear identity of their own. If members are not connected enough, we are disengaged from one another and there is no feeling of closeness. It takes a major catastrophe to get anyone to react or do anything in a disengaged family. Families fall on a continuum that ranges from nurturing to dysfunctional. Most fall in between on this continuum. No family is perfect.


Controlling behavior, distrust, perfectionism, avoidance of feelings, intimacy problems, care-taking behavior, hyper vigilance, denial, physical illness related to stress. It is believed that we become codependent through living in systems (families) with rules that hinder development, flexibility and spontaneity. Some general rules in families that may contribute to codependency are:

  • It’s not okay to talk about problems
  • Dont trust your instincts or other people
  • Unpleasant feelings should not be openly expressed
  • Keep your feelings to yourself
  • Communication is best when it is indirect
  • Use another family member as a messenger between two others
  • Always be good, strong, right and perfect – or at least act it
  • Make us proud beyond realistic expectations
  • Don’t be selfish
  • Do as I say, not as I do
  • It’s not okay to be playful
  • It’s not okay to shine or excel too much
  • Do not rock the boat
  • Disaster is always lurking just around the corner, so tread lightly
  • Guard the family secrets
  • You should feel guilty or scared to say “no”
  • Pretend there are no problems
  • Nice people are boring
  • If we disagree with each other, we are attacking or abandoning each other
  • Control others by manipulating with threats, fear, guilt or pity
  • If you need attention, be overly dramatic to get it
  • Set off others’ emotional temperatures to see how it is you feel
  • If you control things and people you will be safe

The Unhealthy Family System

The following factors are characteristic of an unhealthy family system. Sometimes the addictive behavior can cause these factors to develop or strengthen; other times, these factors unintentionally influence the development of the addiction. Either way, the cycle must be broken for the family system to be supportive of a lasting recovery.

Rigid: The system does not allow for people to function outside of their respective roles. Therefore individuals are reinforced for “acting out” their unresolved conflict and unexpressed emotions.

Inconsistent: Due to the nature of addiction, sporadic and erratic behavior on the part of the “addicted person” results in instability within the entire system.

Unpredictable: As the disease progresses, it may become increasingly difficult to predict behavior, outcomes, etc. other than chaos and turmoil. This lifestyle often propels other family members into “crisis living.”

Impulsive: Decisions are made whimsically or based on a reaction rather than a proactive course of
rational action.

Closed The unexpressed message is that no one enters or leaves from “Our Inner Circle.” Therefore, families are isolated from resources that may intervene or provide support. family members choosing not to operate in the mode of dependency are maligned with judgment, guilt, alienation and/or rejection.

The Healthy Family System

A key goal in recovery is to change an unhealthy family system into a healthy one. This is not only supportive of the addict’s recovery, but is also much more fulfilling for all family members. Characteristics of healthy family systems include:

Respectful: Family rules are explicit, clear, well defined, reasonable and consistently enforced. Boundaries support healthy respectful behavior.

Flexible: The system is able to accommodate changes and role diversity without becoming rigid or intolerant. In other words, people are allowed to express their unique self and adjust/move through roles accordingly. In unhealthy family systems, roles are inflexible and people are only supported while functioning in their respective roles.

Predictable: Family behavior, interactions, and customs/traditions are consistent and predictable while allowing for spontaneity. As the disease of addiction progresses, behavior may grow increasingly difficult to predict. This lifestyle often propels family members into “crisis living,” resulting in a lack of safety.

Open Communication: Communication is open rather than closed. Individuals are allowed to express feelings and needs without fear of reprisal, ridicule or retaliation from other family members. Family members are allowed to need help and support and communicate problems and conflicts openly. Unhealthy family systems often disallow communication within the family and support family isolation from the community and other resources. The message in these families is don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel. Individuals are supported in their differences and in their separation/individuation process.

The changes that adaptations that occur when addiction is present in a family are normal but unhealthy. This unhealthy pattern that emerges is commonly called codependency.

Codependency Exercise

Ask yourself the following questions. Keep in mind, the answers cannot be contingent on what any other person in your life needs or does not need or what any other person in your life wants or does not want.

  • What makes me happy?
  • What makes me angry?
  • What makes me sad?
  • Who am I?
  • What are my needs?
  • What do I want?

Can you answer questions 1 to 3 without the answers being based on what someone else in your life is feeling or not feeling, doing or not doing?

Can you answer the questions 4 to 6 without considering the needs or someone else?

Do you draw a complete blank for the question of defining who you are without defining it in relationship to other people?

It is hard to answer these questions with honesty and self-introspection?

Addiction and codependency create numbing self-knowledge. The hope lies in recovery, education, therapy and fellowship among other things in changing codependent behavior.No family is perfect but a nurturing accepting family or relationship is something to strive for because it tends to produce individuals that have self-worth and are in touch with their feelings and are able to communicate and achieve intimacy in a healthy way with other people. We move between dysfunction and nurturing in recovery but healthy families have a degree of flexibility, consistency, predictability, spontaneity, free speech and openness about them.

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