Codependency is likely to develop in any situation where someone can’t function on their own — where someone seems to need us, and we need to be needed.


  1. Codependency: What is it?
  2. The Dance That Takes Two: How Codependency Develops
  3. The Personal Costs of Codependency
  4. Codependency: The Importance of Personal Boundaries
  5. Overcoming Codependency
  6. Codependency in a Dysfunctional Marriage: Healing and Hope

David was exhausted from dealing with his wife’s alcoholism. He knew that his pastor’s brother battled drug addiction — and that his pastor understood the desire to see change — so he decided to share everything. The pastor surprised David with his response: “David, I know you love your wife. You’ve tried throwing away her hidden liquor, covering for her when she’s hungover and her boss calls, and threatening legal action. But have you considered whether your actions are enabling her instead of helping?”

Codependency has long been associated with substance abuse. Treatment professionals first noticed that the spouse of an alcoholic could be as dependent on fixing, rescuing, and controlling the alcoholic as the alcoholic was dependent on alcohol. So spouses were described as codependent. The couple was in a destructive dance.

Substance abuse isn’t the only setting for codependency, however. The struggle could be with mental illness, irresponsibility, or any number of issues. Codependency is likely to develop in any situation where someone can’t function on their own — where someone seems to need us, and we need to be needed.

The Need to Be Needed

Being needed feels good. And being able to safely and confidently give and receive help is part of a healthy interdependent relationship (where we are mutually responsible to each other). But for people who struggle with codependency (feeling responsible for someone), the appeal of being needed gets distorted. It usually plays out like this: We meet someone who doesn’t necessarily look needy at first glance; in fact, they may be fun and charismatic. The more we get to know them, though, the more we mistakenly believe that they could do better with our help. Maybe they have a bad habit, a dysfunctional background, seem down on their luck, or have a few rough edges. So we enter into a relationship and ignore signs of trouble. What felt so right in the beginning of the relationship becomes uncomfortable, aggravating, and unpredictable. It deteriorates into a situation that feels unsafe and out of control. One dance partner becomes the whole focus of the relationship — the “problem person.” And the overly-caring person — the codependent person — is back in familiar territory: She feels the need to be needed, and she tries harder and harder to make things right.

The Vicious Cycle of Codependency

Both people play an equal role in the downward spiral of dysfunction. Counsellors call this the vicious cycle.

Each person’s fears and associated behaviours intensify their partner’s fears and behaviours in a continual cycle of conflict, hurt feelings, anger, revenge, and despair.

Picture a circle constantly turning. On one side of the circle is the problem person, and on the other side is the codependent person. Each of them provides energy to power a continuing cycle of hurt.

For example, if the problem person is abusive, old fears he carries (such as fear of being hurt, manipulated, and losing control) fuel new hurtful behaviours. At the same time, the codependent’s old fears (like fear of being unloved, abandoned ,and powerless) create new controlling behaviours toward the abuser.

The codependent’s intent is to help, but the outcome is to enable.

Codependency: A Pattern of Enabling

To enable is to give opportunity or make it easier for something to happen. So in the case of codependency, enabling starts with good intentions: to make life easier for the one who seems to be struggling. But enabling robs people of taking responsibility and facing consequences for their actions.

In David’s case, he’s unintentionally enabled his wife’s alcoholism. He might ignore the drinking, deny its harm, nag his wife, cover for her, throw away her alcohol, bail her out of jail, do things for her that she should do herself, keep her problem a secret, demean her, worry about her, and threaten consequences but not follow through.

Unfortunately, his behaviours, while well-intentioned, make her worse. They also harm him. His efforts to fix, rescue, and control his wife only increase his hurt, fear, resentment, and stress.

What a spouse dependent on alcohol needs is for their partner to provide clear limits and stiff consequences. And what that enabling (codependent) partner needs is the courage and willingness to provide tough love. If she isn’t willing and able to stop drinking, and he’s not willing and able to provide necessary boundaries and consequences, nothing will change — and the cost to both of them will be high.

Next in series: 3. The Personal Costs of Codependency

© 2019 Russ Rainey. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at

Dr. Russ Rainey

Dr. Russ Rainey practiced as a Licensed Professional Christian Counsellor for over 30 years. He has served five churches as Director of Counseling, Support, and Recovery, and he has taught graduate courses in Christian Counselling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and at Dallas Baptist University in Dallas, Texas. He served as Regional Outpatient Director for Rapha (a Christian Psychiatric Hospital Corporation), and was the Vice President of Coaching Services at Matthew 28 Global Ministries.

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