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Co-Dependency: A Silent Killer

Co-dependency is a behavior pattern that develops as a result of prolonged exposure to, and the practice of, rules that prevent open expression of feelings and direct discussion of issues or conflicts.1

There are several types of family histories, other than addiction, that can produce co-dependency.

Violence – To do physical, emotional, psychological harm, the use of force.1

Incest – A sexual relationship between persons too close to marry.1

Trauma – A physical, emotional, psychological injury or shock that has a lasting effect.1

Rigidity – Unwilling to compromise or consider another’s opinion or feelings.1

Work Addiction – Self worth is based on what we do rather than who we are. Work defines our identity.

Co-dependency is a progressive disease in its own right. It has an ONSET (a point at which the person’s life is just not working, usually as a result of an addiction). Co-dependency has a DEFINABLE COURSE (the person continues to deteriorate mentally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually) and untreated, has a PREDICTABLE OUTCOME (death).2

Co-dependency is a learned behavior with a set of certain beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that over time become destructive to the person. Co-dependency is not limited to only the interaction within the family; but also is a coping mechanism in the workplace and other areas in the person’s life.

The co-dependent has a powerful need to take care of others to the point of self destruction. Rigidity and perfectionism are the two themes that go hand-in-hand with the behavioral style of co-dependency. The co-dependent person finds times of change extremely difficult and experiences the need to control situations and others. Denial and distortion of anger and other intense emotions are usually maintained internally at all cost. The person also has the need to keep secrets, thus giving the false sense of power over other people. Often there is a dependency upon others for approval and the need for acceptance is the prime motivation for the co-dependent’s behavior. The co-dependent operates on a sense of internal shame, never feeling good enough and always feeling “broken.”

When a person enters treatment for addiction, it is imperative that each family member receives education regarding addiction as a family disease as well as identification of coping skills that over time have been personally destructive. If the family does not engage in the treatment process, it is extremely difficult for the addicted person to continue a solid recovery program. The addiction dramatically affects the entire family and each person deserves their own personal time for education, therapy, and healing.

The consequences for the co-dependent are many. The progression is:

Early Stage:

  • Denial/excuse making of the co-dependent’s stress.
  • Pre-occupation with the dependent person to the point of loss of self.
  • Tolerance to inappropriate behavior. Allowing and accepting behavior that is abusive and painful over time without holding the person accountable.
  • Taking on another’s responsibility that is not yours. Always doing tasks for the other person hoping the person will become responsible.

Late Stage:

  • Loss of tolerance to inappropriate behavior. Reserves and energy are exhausted; therefore, nothing is tolerated.
  • Love shift: the person takes all of his/her feelings and will focus on something else to avoid emotional pain. A common shift is focusing all energy and attention into work   or other compulsive behaviors (such as Internet, shopping/spending, sex, food, etc.).
  • Medical problems:

1. Compromised immune system
2. Depression
3. Chronic fatigue
4. Insomnia/over-sleeping
5. Aches, pains, headaches
6. Anxiety / panic attacks

  • Frozen feelings-emotionally numb

The premise of this article is to demonstrate the absolute need for all members of the family to receive education/therapy. When one member of the family changes, the whole family is in a state of trying to adjust. The whole family experiences the disease of addiction and the whole family can recover.

When co-dependency enters the workplace, there are characteristics that can prevent productivity and a sense of well-being. The following characteristics may identify co-dependency in the work place.3

  • Compulsive tendencies to prove selfworth and value
  • Assuming the responsibility for meeting the emotional needs of others to the point of the inability to meet personal needs.
  • Inability to distinguish healthy boundaries at work with co-workers and supervisors. Fear of threats of separation and abandonment are prime motivators for constant approval and acceptance from others.
  • Negative relationships with others suffering from personality or impulsive disorders or self-centeredness are sought out in order to feel needed.
  • Denial of self-defeating behavior and the selection of others to re-enforce the behavior.
  • Suppression of personal feelings is necessary in order to be viewed as someone to come to for problem resolution and major issues. While appearing fearless, the person is drained of vital, life-giving energy.
  • Appearing as depressed and moody, one may act upon these feelings in personal and professional relationships.
  • Acutely aware of the surroundings and every inflection of voice, behavioral change, and moods of others. The attitude is often negative and highly critical of others.
  • High baseline of anxiety and internal feeling of worthlessness.
  • Use of alcohol or drugs and/or other addictive behaviors in order to mask the pain of childhood victimization.

It is very important as a clinician to identify these traits and address those issues as a treatment team in order to provide the appropriate plan of therapy. Many suffering from chemical dependency and other addictions suffer from co-dependency as well. This can be a powerful relapse trigger, jeopardizing one’s recovery.

If you or another lawyer you know has concerns regarding co-dependency, please contact the Lawyer’s Assistance Program at 800-720-7257 or visit the website at

Mundie Merrill joined the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery in September 2003, but has been in the health care industry since 1971. This article first appeared in the spring of 2006 Paradigm and is gratefully used with permission of its author, Mundie Merrill and Paradigm.


1. Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary Revised Edition, 1996.

2. Schaef, Ann W. Co-dependence, Misunderstood, Mistreated. San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1986.

3. Subby, Robert. Inside the Chemically Dependency Marriage: Denial and Manipulation-Dependency: An Emerging Issue (Pompano Beach, Fla. Health Communications, 1984).

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