Popular definitions of codependence are so broad that Jesus would be classified as codependent. The meaning (and usefulness) of the codependence concept is diluted by these broad definitions. Since beginning my study of dysfunctional helping, I have tried to nail down the co-dependence concept.

I prefer to think of codependent relationships as a specific type of dysfunctional helping relationship. Broadly speaking, in dysfunctional helping relationships, one person’s help supports (enables) the other’s underachievement, irresponsibility, immaturity, addiction, procrastination, or poor mental or physical health.

The helper does this by doing such things as rescuing the other from self-imposed predicaments, bearing their negative consequences for them, accommodating their unhealthy or irresponsible behaviors, and taking care of them such that they don’t develop or exhibit competencies normal for those of their age or abilities. Although these unbalanced relationships can go on for some time, they are ultimately unsustainable due their consumption of the helper’s physical, emotional, or financial resources, and because they lead to resentment and relationship strain.

Dysfunctional helping relationships don’t necessarily involve codependence, but they may. Codependent relationships are close relationships where much of the love and intimacy in the relationship is experienced in the context of one person’s distress and the other’s rescuing or enabling. The helper shows love primarily through the provision of assistance and the other feels loved primarily when they receive assistance. The intense shared experiences of the other’s struggles and disasters and the helper’s rescues deepen the emotional connection and feelings of intimacy.

In the codependent relationship, the helper’s emotional enmeshment leads them to keenly feel the other’s struggles and to feel guilt at the thought of limiting their help or terminating the relationship. This motivates them to reduce the other’s suffering (and their own) by continued helping and makes them quick to back off of any limits they set.

Helpers prone to codependent relationships often find intimacy in relationships where their primary role is that of rescuer, supporter, and confidante. These helpers are often dependent on the other’s poor functioning to satisfy emotional needs such as the need to feel needed, and the need to keep the other close due to fears of abandonment. Feeling competent (relative to the other) also boosts the low self-esteem of some helpers.

In the codependent relationship, the other’s dependence on the helper is also profound. The other is bound to the helper because the helper’s lengthy aid has impeded their maturity, life skills, or confidence, or enabled their addiction, or poor mental or physical health, making them dependent on the helper’s assistance. Their poor functioning brings them needed love, care, and concern from the helper, further reducing their motivation to change.

Due to their below average functioning, these others may have few relationships as close as their relationship with the helper. This makes them highly dependent on the helper to satisfy many of the needs met by close relationships (such as the need to matter to someone and the need for care). It is this high degree of mutual, unhealthy dependence on the part of both the helper and the other that makes the relationship “codependent” and resistant to change.

While it’s true that some dysfunctional helping relationships are indeed codependent, and it’s also true that codependence may arise from some of your personality traits, be cautious in your adoption of the co-dependent moniker. Or at least don’t wave it around like a flag of fate (“I’m codependent and I can’t help myself because that’s just what I do!”). And keep in mind that dysfunctional helping is complex. It’s motivated by a variety of factors and shouldn’t be reduced to simple notions of codependence.

Based on ideas from the upcoming book “The Psychology of Dysfunctional Helping: Understanding and Recovering From Codependence, Enabling, and Over-Helping” by Shawn Meghan Burn, PhD

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