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Treating the Client Who is Codependent in Their Relationship

3 steps to re-establishing personal autonomy in codependent relationships

In the codependent relationship, the balance of power gets all out of whack.

“Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”

– Robert A. Heinlein

“It’s like we can’t survive without each other, yet we destroy ourselves!”

Tessa and Mike had been married for three years. It was Mike who conspiratorially whispered the above to me during my third visit to their home. Mostly he didn’t say much. She did!

“I didn’t so much as meet Mike after his divorce as rescue him from a downward spiral,” Tessa announced triumphantly.

Mike was silent as stone. I turned to him. “Mike, what do you want from therapy?” He coughed mildly.

“Well, just look at him,” Tessa cut in, “he’s 450 pounds! He can’t even have bariatric surgery until he’s down at least 100!”

Then something strange happened.

I leant forward and said to Mike, “Well, Mike, I’ve helped a lot of people lose a lot of weight and I’m confident if we worked together you could comfortably and sustainably get much slimmer too.” He nodded, and even looked encouraged. But I also took in Tessa’s expression. For the merest second, it was one of pure terror.

Loving the hand that feeds you

A healthy relationship is reciprocal. Both people function independently as well as interdependently. They meet one another’s needs for love, companionship, security, and even challenge, but also for autonomy within the relationship. There is a reasonable balance of ‘power’ or at least influence. Both partners are responsible adults.

But in the codependent relationship, the balance of power gets all out of whack. This doesn’t always mean that one partner completely dominates another. Influence can be exerted by both, but often in different ways. For example, one person may be a ‘saviour’ and the other may become ‘ill’ when they want something.

Mike seemed utterly powerless, with all the decisions about him being determined by Tessa. She, on the other hand, seemed to feel powerless not to exert power over him.

He was dependent on her to the point of infantilism, yet in a way she was just as dependent on him: I intuited she was terrified that if he lost weight she would lose him.

Their relationship was based on an imbalance, and therefore it felt brittle and, on some level, empty to them both. But perhaps they knew no other way.

Codependent relationships exist when one person has a ‘problem’ and the other is a ‘fixer’ or a ‘rescuer’. But if we watch what the ‘rescuers’ do rather than just listen to what they say, we soon see they are enabling the problem and therefore sustaining it.

“Who does the food shopping?” I asked, looking at Mike.

Mike looked uncomfortable and shifted slightly on the couch.

“Me, of course!” Tessa replied. “I mean,” she repeated for the second time, “just look at him! He never even goes out. He can’t!”

Enabling disablement

When I inquired as to what Mike ate, and gently insisted I hear it from Mike, not Tessa, I was given a litany of the most gut-expanding foods you could imagine. Pizzas for breakfast (made by Tessa) washed down with half a litre of sugary soda, chocolate éclairs for a post-breakfast snack, another midmorning snack consisting of a “small” (according to Tessa’s interjection) plate of sugared doughnuts… and so it went on. But it wasn’t Mike buying or preparing any of this.

Codependency happens when one partner, family member, or a friend unwittingly or otherwise encourages:

  • addiction
  • feckless irresponsibility and immaturity
  • emotional problems such as social anxiety or even depression
  • underachievement.1

There is also usually a sense of the ‘carer’ protecting the ‘cared for’ person, which can seem benign but often takes the form of “this is for your own good!” bullying. Tessa seemed not so much a carer as a feeder.

But the question arises: Do codependents know they are codependent?

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Not knowing what the other part knows

To keep oneself feeling needed or secure while keeping someone else down may, for many, entail a form of denial. The enabler either barely registers what’s happening or desperately denies it, continually justifying to themselves and others why they behave as they do towards their partner. The human capacity for self-deception knows few bounds. Yet on some level they do know what they are doing.

Tessa told me flatly that if she didn’t buy Mike all that fattening food he’d get depressed, maybe even kill himself. Yet Mike told me he’d never considered suicide.

Tessa told me if she didn’t get him the food he “needed” he’d start drinking heavily again. Yet he never went out and she didn’t drink, so presumably she’d have to buy him the alcohol for this to come true.

So we had a paradox. She wanted me to help him get slim enough for gastric band surgery… without having him eat differently? We never did get to the bottom of how she expected that to happen.

But there’s another element to codependency.

“After all I’ve done for you!”

In codependent relationships there is often a sense of self-sacrifice, even self-martyrdom, from the enabler as they seek to fix or at least control the other person’s problem.2 They don’t tend to see themselves as part of the problem – unless they reach a point where they can see clearly what’s happening.

The enabler may use emotional blackmail. If they feel their control is slipping, they may even threaten the other person with abandonment, likely accompanied by a promise that “Without me you couldn’t survive!” Or they may become peevish and communicate hurt at the other person’s ‘ingratitude’: “How could you talk to me like that, after all I’ve done for you?!” Feelings of insecurity may start to torture them.

But if all they do for the other person was never requested, we have to wonder about the mechanism behind it. Ultimately, the control-freakery of the enabler is excused and hidden behind the gracious facade of empathy and care.

So, why might the codependent relationship develop in the first place?

To relate or control

The enabler in a codependent relationship may have learned early to be entirely or largely responsible for others, perhaps even a parent. They may have learned that relationships need to be controlled, and this controlling element then colours all their later relationships.

The enabler in a codependent relationship may have learned early to be largely responsible for others. They may have learned that relationships must be controlled, and this controlling element then colours all their later relationships.Click To Tweet

Maybe their only role was to provide, protect, and help others. For them, then, relationships were never about reciprocation or equality. Perhaps they were a parentified child who learned early that relationship dynamics were all about control and emotional neediness, not about mutual respect and independence as well as interdependence.

Maybe through low self-esteem they’ve come to believe that they can’t hold on to someone unless there is strong emotional coercion or the person is physically trapped (as Mike virtually was). But what about the enabled (and disabled) partner?

The other partner may simply have grown (or shrunk?) to the point where they take little to no responsibility for themselves. They may, on some level, enjoy feeling infantile and cared for and therefore not feel motivated to change. As their world perspective diminishes, so does their autonomy. They may, too, have come to fear emotional blackmail.

Or they may be just as, if not more, manipulative.

They may make constant demands, perhaps acting less able than they really are. They may, paradoxically, control the enabler by constantly making demands on them, using guilt or threats, overt or implied. Coercion and manipulation can work both ways.

So, how might we help a couple suffering within a codependent relationship?

Untying the ties that bind

Clients in codependent relationships often don’t seek help for the codependency itself. And, after all, if both are happy to continue as they are, then who are we to disturb their pathology?

But if one partner is effectively being pushed into an early grave by the other through drink, drugs, or unhealthy food, then it is time to help, if we possibly can.

Tessa made all the decisions in their relationship, even the one for Mike to see me about his weight. And yet she displayed a kind of doublethink in which she didn’t want him to lose weight at all. She did, but she didn’t. And she certainly did not see herself as part of the problem, at least not initially.

Mike didn’t know what he wanted, because he was so used to Tessa deciding what was right or wrong for him. So the first thing I did was get real with them.

Step one: Get real

I held Tessa’s eyes and asked her: “How long do the doctors say Mike will live if you continue to feed him like this?”


She looked as though I’d lobbed a grenade at her, in the form of an overwhelming cognitive challenge.

But she couldn’t deny that (a) it was she who fed him, and (b) his weight was threatening to bury him forever – and soon. After all, her whole raison d’être was to ‘look after’ a very sick man.

She stumbled around in the verbal undergrowth searching for words, but at last chose silence. It was now Mike who spoke. “They say I will be dead before I’m 50 if I don’t do something about it.”

So, get real. What will happen if the enabler continues to enable disablement in their partner?

And we can go further.

Step two: Paint a detailed picture of life in the future

Sometimes bluntness is needed. I asked Tessa what life without Mike would be like. Lines of sadness appeared around her eyes. “There would be no life at all,” she said, “because he is my life.”

“What would you do with your time? Without Mike, I mean?” Again, she looked miserable at the thought. “I’d have nothing to do. Nothing would be worth doing!”

I said emphatically, “Well, no one wants Mike to die… do they?” She shook her head and for the first time our communication was congruent.

Perhaps the enabler laments their partner’s irresponsible, immature behaviour but then seems to do everything to encourageit. You might jokingly ask them what they’d do if their partner ‘grew up’. What would the relationship be like then? What will it be like if they continue to be feckless?

Of course, we don’t have total control over how our partners are or what they do, but if we are enabling it then we can at least control that.

Help your client envisage the consequences of the continued pattern, and the benefits of a changed pattern. In this way we can begin to ameliorate their fear of change.

I once asked a woman who had a 35-year-old child for a husband what would happen when their expected genuine child was born.

“Will you have two babies to look after, or will he become a man at that point?” This sounds rude and disrespectful, but the context of the conversation and the rapport we had meant it didn’t seem so.

She laughed and said, “No, he’s got to grow up now, hasn’t he.” His role as baby was about to be usurped, and she was no longer happy to treat him like an infant.

But sometimes just talking it out isn’t enough to tackle fear of change.

Step three: Use hypnosis to help them relax with life beyond codependency

Fear is at the root of so many problems. When we fear something, we do everything we can to avoid looking at it. The more we don’t look, the more we fear it – and so it continues, around and around, as the water of life goes down the plughole of potential.

When we use hypnosis with clients, we help them look at what they fear as they relax. This takes the fear out of the situation, making it seem acceptable – sometimes even desirable.

I worked with Mike and Tessa hypnotically. I helped them see and then live a calm future in which they were more equal, he was slimmer, and she was relaxed with him being more mobile and free. I used the metaphor of a caged bird versus a free bird that comes back to you through free will. She never questioned the metaphor consciously, but I felt it hit home.

Tessa began to feel the urgency of Mike’s need to get slimmer, to take the pressure off his organs, to enjoy a longer and healthier life. As I did trance work with him, she was with us (of course!), so she listened even as I ostensibly spoke to Mike.

Tessa began to encourage Mike’s weight loss. To buy healthier food. To encourage him to buy healthier food.

As she began to loosen her empathic stranglehold, he began to thrive. And what’s more, they began to truly thrive together.

No one should be held captive in a relationship, in any way. Only when the Beast lets Beauty go is she free to truly be with him.

Conversely, a relationship is also a containment of sorts. If there’s total freedom there is, eventually, no relationship. Obligations and loyalty are vital, too.

But ultimately it’s freedom to choose that is the real basis of a relationship. Coercion and manipulation, power plays and domination eventually rot relationships from the inside out.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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