Many of us have heard the term “codependence” used a great deal in the past few years. As our society has become more aware of mental health issues, words like codependence have become standard in our vocabulary. But do we really understand what that word means? How do experts define codependent relationships?

Experts define codependent relationships as a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself dependent on approval from someone else for your self-worth and identity.

One key sign of codependence is when there is a level of difficulty in understanding and setting boundaries with another person or persons.  “Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy,” says Scott Wetzler, PhD, psychology division chief at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “One or both parties depend on their loved ones for fulfillment.”

Pia Mellody, in her book “Facing Codependence,” says that “there are two areas of a person’s life that reflect codependence: the relationship with the self and relationships with others.” The most important one is the relationship with ourselves. If we are not taught as children to establish healthy boundaries, we don’t know how to do it as adults.

We may have had no choice as children growing up in an unsafe and abusive family or household. As children, we are dependent on our parents. In most cases in which the family is functional, this dependence is healthy and normal. But in order to survive in dysfunctional families, we learned to depend on others and sublimate ourselves and our needs to others to keep ourselves safe. Fortunately, with the right guidance and therapy, codependence is only a temporary label. As we learn about ourselves and that we can meet our own needs in a healthy way, we also learn healthier ways of relating and adapting to others.

So how do we define codependence? On pages 8-9 of his book, “Co-dependence – Healing the Human Condition,” Charles Whitfield has listed several definitions of codependence that have become maladaptive as defined by experts in the field:


  • It is a dependence on others outside of ourselves, and a neglect of self
  • It is preoccupation and extreme dependence on someone or something else. We see this in sex and love addiction. We also see this in people who have grown up in families where alcohol or drugs play a primary role – an aura of secrecy grows around a parent who is alcoholic or addicted, making everyone complicit in protecting the family secrets.
  • Someone who has let another’s behavior affect his relationship to others, and seeks to control others.
  • Pia Mellody says that it is a disease that creates problems in:
    1. Experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem
    2. Setting functional boundaries
    3. Owning and expressing their own reality
    4. Taking care of their adult needs and wants
    5. Experiencing and expressing their reality moderately
  • It is also described as a maladaptive bonding within a family system. To survive psychologically and socially, the child adopts patterns of thinking, acting, and feeling that at first dull the pain but finally are self-negating in themselves. As these patterns become internalized, they become self-destructive ways of relating in adulthood, leading to recreating the same destructive patterns that they learned in childhood. (James A. Kitchens 1990)
  • It has been described as a dysfunctional pattern of symptoms of adult children which emerges from our family of origin as well as our culture, producing arrested identity development and resulting in an over-reaction to things outside of us and an under-reaction to things inside of us. Left untreated, it can deteriorate into an addiction. (Paraphrased from Friel and Friel 1988)
  • In her book, “Awakening in Time,” Jacqueline Small describes codependence as “a spiritual condition, the shadow side of our live nature … a “dis-ease” of unequal relationship being acted out, of giving our power away.
  • A pattern of painful dependence on compulsive behaviors and on approval from others in an attempt to find safety, self-worth and a sense of identity. (S. Journal preconference forum 1989)

As you can see, there are many ways to define codependent relationships, all of them discussing the maladaptive ways we relate to the world and each other when we have been raised in dysfunctional families.

However, there is good news in all of this.  People can recover from codependency and become the people they were meant to be – not the person they were forced to become because of their dysfunctional families.


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