On Co-dependency

Author: Dr John Clarke

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about co-dependency. I’ve come to the conclusion that the traditional view of co-dependency is far too narrow as it generally focuses upon a negative relationship between two persons: Ie. where one of the parties relies upon the other for emotional and/or psychological support. Traditionally co-dependency implies a less than healthy association where one person is dependent upon his or her partner to the degree that he or she is unable to break this negative and non-beneficial bond and move on to a more complete and fulfilling lifestyle.

My thoughts and discussions with a colleague about co-dependency have led me to the [I think obvious] conclusion that co-dependency is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, and whilst it is agreed that co-dependency as we traditionally know it is non-beneficial, co-dependency can also be mutually beneficial and rewarding for the persons involved in the relationship.

Let me give a couple of examples to explain my position. Firstly a ‘traditional’ example of non-beneficial co-dependency, and then an example of a relationship that I would describe as representing ‘good or positive co-dependency’.

Traditional [or Negative] Co-dependency

Case 1

Maggie and Fred are both in their early sixties and have been married for 30 years. They have seven children, live a moderate lifestyle and Fred is due to retire in a couple of years time. Maggie has devoted her married life to managing the home and caring for the children. She is known to be a hard working and good mother.

Fred is the oldest of eight children and left school early to help support the family. His four younger brothers were able to remain longer at school and, unlike Fred who is a labourer, have white-collar jobs teaching and in the bank. This has troubled Fred for many years and has caused him to isolate himself and his immediate family from their relatives. Fred is not a very happy or fulfilled person and for many years has tended to take his feelings of inadequacy out on Maggie.

Now that her children have grown up and have homes of their own, Maggie, who has very little money to spend on herself, has little in her life other than her garden which she truly enjoys. She certainly does not look forward to Fred coming home from work and she is so upset by his complaining and negativity that often she can’t finish her evening meal.

A couple of times Maggie has tried to speak with Fred about the hurt she feels but her efforts have proven fruitless and resulted in angry outbursts from Fred. Friends and even her daughters have suggested she get professional help. More recently they had begun a campaign to get her to leave Fred. The problem is that even though Maggie is unhappy and unfulfilled in her life with Fred, she has no other means of support. Maggie believes that leaving would mean losing her home, financial support and a secure life style. She therefore has decided to remain where she is.

On the other hand, and whilst Fred is aware that he treats Maggie harshly and unfairly, he is not aware of the basic reasons for his feelings. Whilst Fred is conscious of the fact that he takes his feelings out on his wife, it doesn’t really bother him that he does so. Fred has no intention of making any effort to change.

In this example we have a case of traditional co-dependency represented by the situation where one partner Maggie, is dependent upon her husband Fred, for an essential part of her wellbeing [in this case food, clothing, shelter etc.]. Her husband Fred, on the other hand, is unconcerned with his wife’s emotional and mental wellbeing, and regardless of her requests, continues to treat her shabbily.

Case 2

Michael and Ellen have been married for almost twenty years and to all intent and purposes, for much of their marriage, live separate lives. The one thing they share is entertaining, something they do lavishly and often.

Michael is a very successful and high profile specialist who has many male and female friends. During the past ten or so years Michael has had a number of affairs, some of which Ellen is aware. Whilst Michael is polite to and supporting of his wife, and is discrete in his extra marital affairs, he becomes cold and extremely angry when she hints at his indiscretions. The one time she did attempt to speak with him about this matter he told her she could leave the home and he would pay for a flat elsewhere if she wished.

Whilst Ellen did not come from a wealthy family as did Michael, it did not take her too long to settle into a very comfortable life style. When she first found out about her husband’s affairs she was deeply hurt and almost left him. However, the more she thought about leaving the more she thought about the life style she would be giving up. Eventually Ellen decided to suffer in silence and put up with Michael’s affairs rather than leave and give up the life style she had come to enjoy. After all, she told a close friend, ‘why should I give up my life style for some …. bimbo.’

In some ways Ellen is happy, confident and fulfilled. She has several friends and leads an active social life. For many years she and Michael have not shared the same bed nor enjoyed the normal intimacy of marriage. Ellen well understands the meaning of loneliness, but has made the decision to remain where she is rather than give up the life style and social benefits she has.

Here again we have an example of traditional co-dependency where one of the parties in a relationship is dependent upon the other for apparently the wrong reasons. We see a form of co-dependency that represents negative bonding where neither of the partners is benefited, and one is bound to the other for essential support. Whether the support be primary in form of food and shelter etc., or psychological or emotional, it is clear that at least one of the bonded parties is unable [or unwilling] to do without that support.

Mutually Beneficial Co-dependency

Case 3

John and Margaret are both in their mid-fifties and are as happy and comfortable together today as they were twenty five years ago. John is an engineer with the local authority and enjoys the challenge and rewards of his career. Whilst Margaret worked as a nursing sister for the first few years of their marriage she gave that up many years ago to manage the home and be there for their three children.

In the years since their youngest left home Margaret has created a balanced life for herself combining weekday social bowls, volunteer work at a local hospital, and looking after John. Margaret believes that she is as fulfilled and in love with her husband now as she ever was. Margaret knows much of her happiness is due to the love she shares with John.

John holds a senior management position with the local government authority and enjoys his work immensely. Sometimes during the working day when John thinks of Margaret he telephones for a brief chat. Outside of his work John enjoys working on an old car that he has been restoring for the past three years. John appreciates going home in the afternoons and relaxing with his wife while they chat about their shared interests and days. John and Margaret are not particularly social people and while they have special friends whose company they enjoy, they tend to spend the greater amount of their time together and with their children.

John’s and Margaret’s lives are closely bound together and whilst they each have personal interests, neither could imagine being without the other. Their lives are intertwined and there is a high degree of emotional, mental and physical bonding. Each of their lives is enriched by the relationship they share and by their mutual attachment. John and Margaret share that special affinity born of marriage that we would generally regard as ideal.

Here we have an example of a co-dependent relationship that is as common as those traditional examples above, but with the difference that it is mutually rewarding and beneficial. In this example neither of the parties is dependent upon the other for the wrong reasons and neither is unhappy or unfilled in their relationship. It is a wholesome marriage where each person contributes to a favourable outcome. It is not the kind of example that we are used to reading about, but it is clearly an example of co-dependency.

Identifying and Describing of Co-dependency

Not for one moment are we suggesting that co-dependency should be measured in absolute terms. What we think would be a good idea however, would be if we kept it in mind that not all co-dependency is bad or adversely affects one of the parties. Perhaps we could develop for ourselves some sort of abstract measurement of the co-dependent state that could be represented on a simple line graph.

For example;

1 ==== 2 ==== 3 ==== 4 ==== 5 ==== 6 ==== 7

and where;

1 = traditional co-dependency where one party is bound to the other [or believes/chooses him/her self to be] for the wrong reasons and where there is limited emotional and/or mental fulfilment.

7 = mutually rewarding and beneficial co-dependency where each of the parties is fulfilled and where neither is dependent upon the other for the wrong reasons.


When considering the subject of interpersonal relations or relationship counselling together with that of co-dependency it is impossible to avoid the thought that there is most likely an element of bonding in all relationships. Whether the nature of the bonding is positive and mutually beneficial or unrewarding and unfulfilling to at least one of the partners, the fact remains that co-dependency exists.

Taking this thought further, and then it seems that we should not be concerned with co-dependency as only a negative form of attachment, but recognise that co-dependency is attachment itself. Furthermore, and because co-dependency ranges from the extremes of positive to negative bonding, we should give some conscious thought to the nature of things and the possible degree to which the parties are affected.