Is It Love Or Codependency? Let's Have A Dialogue

Through the years I have been repeatedly presented with this question from troubled lovers who are seeking to understand themselves, the person they are attempting to build a relationship with and the nature of the relationship they are in. Others do not ask the question but continue to doggedly pursue relationships that make them unhappy.

What is codependency?

The term "codendency" is not in the DSM and is borrowed from the language of drug and alcohol addiction. In actuality, it is a rather vague and difficult to define term, which has resulted in many people having different definitions. I will define it as seeking love based on feelings of inadequacy that one hopes will be repaired by one's lover. In this scenario, the lover cannot be the individual they really are, but must fulfill a role their partner has for them. That role is to provide   unbending love and security. The trouble is that there is never enough love. That is where the codependent come in. Because of low self esteem and deep seated insecurity, the codependent cannot be the person they really are. Instead, they work to please the other person in order to ensure they will be loved. Therefore, a codependent submerges their needs for those of the other person.

In the parlance of alcohol and drug abuse, the codependent makes it easy for the alcoholic to continue to drink because they fear that, if they recover or if they are confronted, they will recover and leave.

Abusive relationships in which one or both partners are beaten verbally, physically, psychologically or all three are characterized by this type of relating. It is sometimes referred to as "sado-masochistic relating." People remain in the relationship because they fear abandonment. The live under the concept that "it is better to be abused than to be alone."

How do you know if you have a loving relationship or one that is codependent? The answer is that if you constantly submerge your wishes for the wishes of another or fear asserting what you may wish, then, you may be in a very self destructive relationship.

One example of the way this works is the following:

1. This can refer to the man or the woman but, in my experience, it is women who most often become embroiled in a self destructive relationship.

2. The woman has a talent for finding men who do not want marriage and say so from the onset. Ignoring this early warning, she sets for herself and for him, the goal of changing his mind and winning his hand in marriage.

3. Having set this goal, she is also sensitive to any type of behavior that feels like rejection. In fact, she even expects it, probably based on past experiences with men, and she asks for reassurance. At first, some reassurance is given. However, the very next time he has either a trip or dinner that is business in nature, she becomes suspicious and expects that he is attempting to avoid or reject her. Then, her demandingness becomes more strident.

4. Because this is a man who is not particularly interested in an exclusive or monogamous relationship, he experiences her nagging as more than he can tolerate and he begins to pull away. She becomes more shrill in her demands and displays of emotion.

It is not unusual for the relationship to come to a disastrous end. Sometimes, the couple manages to find their way through dating and courting and do get married. However, marriage does not relieve her insecurity and need for reassurance that she is loved.

The scenario has many variations and is not limited to the one example just given. There are those times when it is the man who is extremely insecure and dependent. It is not unusual for this type of individual to be an alcoholic. If the woman is equally insecure, she will overlook and enable his drinking so that she can keep the relationship.

There was a very funny book written back during the 1970's by Dan Greenberg, titled "How to Be A Jewish Mother." In the introduction he makes it perfectly clear that, to be a Jewish mother, you need not be Jewish, nor a mother, nor a female. In hysterically funny terms he teaches everyone how to train to be a Jewish mother.

I believe the popularity of the book at the time was based on the fact that it hit certain ethnic truths about American Jews whose roots were in Eastern Europe. However, it also touched something deep in everyone that had to do with growing up in a home that could very well have trained people to be codependent and, therefore, very self destructive. How is this so?

The concept behind the book and behind codependency, is that it is necessary to train children to remain young and dependent the rest of their lives. As Molly Goldberg, a comedian and radio and television actress from decades long gone by, is reputed to have said about how to be a Jewish Mother, "Never let your children know that they can live without you." Yes, this notion, put in terms that are comic, also portrays how one becomes codependent. The individual remains always yearning for approval and never able to assert who they are. Therefore, the "Jewish Mother" trains her children to become the types of people who need to be taken care of.

Continuing with the metaphor of Greenberg's comedy and the issue of codependence, the person is constantly communicating to their lover, "I need to be taken care of. I will die if you do not care for me." The extent to which the "other" in the relationship believes this and "buys" into it is the extent to which they will have to submerge their own desires and wants.

Do you recognize yourself or someone you know in this? Please send your comments and stories so we can continue the dialogue.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

  • Cathy

    Great article! Timely too for me since I have been looking at this issue for a few months now and have become part of 3 forums where this is discussed. I am so, so, so sick of the co-dependent label being used and believe this is nothing more than an attempt to lessen the responsibility for the offending spouse which is in no uncertain terms, the one with a problem that doesn't give a darn about its effects on the other spouse or children! Let's face it, it is usually the man and only sometimes the woman in a relationship. The woman has responsibility for the children and, of course, she can leave with the children and in most cases, live at or below the poverty level and struggle financially and this is not even to mention that those with a spouse with a addiction/psychological issue or anger problems will see the abuse get much worse as she/he tries to leave the relationship and after they are out of the relationship resulting in injury or sometimes death. Sure, call the police, well, they consider it a "domestic" problem even after the divorce. This all looks so easy on paper but when put into action, it is not. I am sick of seeing the problem blamed partly on the other spouse just to make the person with the addiction/psychological problem feel a little better and that is all it is. Unless you have been involved in a relationship like this, you have no idea what a shock it is - you are stunned, totally stunned especially if you are not someone who would enable such a person and be a part of the problem as in you not being any better than the dysfunctional one. I am just sick of the world where personal responsibility no longer exists. Ultimately, because I know for a fact that you reap what you sow, I find peace in that - I have seen it and payback is as they say "hell".

  • Natalia

    Oh my! I just discover myself as codependent in this article, it is an unpleasant surprise but it is at the same time a relief to understand where this feeling of being rejected comes from and makes me remain stuck in the relationship that is so destructive. I dont know how I ended up being a codependant, I am sure I was not like that, I fell in love with a person I thought it was the one I wanted to share my day-to-day, not thinking further as I claim not being interested in marriage....although he said he wants to get married someday. I ended up being the pushy one, feeling completely demanding, expecting a sign of interest from him...and not knowing how I can possibly accept that?? with all the good traits I have, how is it possible that I got into this sick relationship...he is not showing the minimum of what I expect in a relationship how can I put myself so available for him all the time and be so boundaryless with him?

    I had reframed the situation over and over, as I thought all the time it was my I confirm, it is my problem, the relationship is far not fulfilling and some alone time will help to heal. I hope.

  • tommyinhawaii27

    I've been doing some research and alot of sites I have read all the lame quizzes and such, but this site, is by far one of the most intelligent ones I've come across! My fiance and I have been together for a little over two years and I love her with ALL my heart and I have to say... I want the world and everything in it for her, and after reading up on codependency and people calling it everything from an addiction to a disease...? And others a learnt behavior, And then reading comments from other readers of this site, I do agree with the doc on this one. When we first met I was VERY honest of my intentions and have split and (she does know I love her THAT MUCH) so in a way I have been the "enabler" and I've fed into this (process we all call codependency) "which every couple has a little or some have alot of!" Its my job as the male and simply cause I am only healthier at this time, to not enable the "process" so our love can flourish and hopefully continue its path... But on a healthier one!

    I don't even want to ponder about marriage until each of us are giving 50/50 and then and only then kid or kids, will MAYBE become a factor.... But I DO KNOW one thing, I want the vibrant woman whom is very independent and lying right underneath the surface back up and running and its my job to get her going or get going!



  • Adagiomega

    How do I love myself more and need him to love me less?

  • Sara

    going through a divorce that was my idea, but knowing that he is out there bad mouthing me is upseting is this co-dependency?

  • Hebron white

    Very interesting.... I was abandoned by a wife of 40 years 6 children and 22 grand children. I was faithful and never was a Mad Person. One day My wife told me she was leaving me.. and she did she would not make any effort to even lift a finger to work things out. She has not even talked more than 10 min over the last 10 months. We were divorced 3 months ago. I was very unstable for a while after She abandoned me. Now 10 months down the road I am getting better. My X wife was Bipolar and rejected Meds 4 years ago because It would not let her Manic run wild. Also she had a childhood that was bad and no self esteem.. As a result of this she never stood up for herself. I have a strong spirit and she had a solf spirit. It was Like I had a 100w Light bulb and she had a 10 w Bulb. Everything to her was controling. She is in a manic now and has gotten Married to a guy she has only know for 3 weeks... She also is a finatic of sorts with religon... Every month she would loose it for 4 or 5 days and bring me to tears. Month after Month.. I was coming home from the airport about 6 years ago and started crying because I did not want tot go home,,,,,, It was her way or the hiway in a lots of things.. No Drugs or drinking on my part. I was enduring the mariage. No sex for the last 4 years....It was not worth it. She loved to visit our children but would only hang with the Grand children as They would not

  • Hebron white utah

    I just wanted to add a little to my comment just made.. My X was a perfecionist and worked like a slave. She was in her mind putting in 300% and only getting back 5%. She was never happy with me. This was noticable on a low level at first and got worse with age. If I could have understood what was going on I could have Got my mind right and she could have do so also. and I know I could have made it work.. But she did not care about me or my Feelings and put me to death in her mind.. If there is any person reading this and needs a shoulder to cry on Please Email me. Yes I did become cold after years of this. It was like french kissing a rattlesnake with issues. I can see my part in this and would have willingly corrected it... So if you are getting ready to abandon your spouse at least give it a chance 1 time. In my case it would have worked and saved a family. H