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February 16, 2015
by Joan Childs,LCSW

The Catastrophic Cost of Codependency

February 16, 2015 11:58 by Joan Childs,LCSW  [About the Author]

Defining Terms

Codependency has been around since time memoriam.  In the early 19th century Rabbi Mendel was quoted saying, “If I am because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But, if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you”. ~ R’Mendel of Kotzk.  (Buber, 2002)

We finally gave it a name sometime back in the 80’s when Melodie Beattie wrote a book called Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (Beattie, 1986) Since then others have attempted to define it (Morgan, 1991). The syndrome was originally coined and named when she was working at Hanley Hazelton with recovering addicts and alcoholics.  She identified the significant others to the addicts as co-dependent, implying that the addict was addicted to a substance, but the significant other was addicted to the addict.  Hence the concept now had an official title. 

A Historical Perspective

The birth of “codependency” traveled many roads since that time.  It became infiltrated into the psyche of individuals who did not feel whole without another.  Many people could not connect to themself. They needed another to survive and were now the recipients of receiving the title of being “codependent”.  As the years passed, the word became part of our everyday vernacular.  We would hear things like, “She is so codependent”, or” they are so codependent on each other.  They don’t know where one ends and the other begins.”  It seems that eventually everyone was codependent to a greater or lesser degree.  It’s the greater degree that defines the syndrome.  Everyone needs someone.  What we know about neuro-biology is that the brain is the only organ in the body that needs another brain to be regulated. (Tatkin, Stan PsyD.MFT Wired for Love (2011) New Harbinger Publishing Co.)  Martin Buber, the famous Jewish philosopher tells us that we are hard wired for connection; that when we disconnect, we go into crisis. 

Dependency in Our Culture

Our culture has marinated the concept of codependency with songs like, I can’t live, if living is without you, or I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the woods and needs someone to watch over me, or you’re nobody till somebody loves you!  I am sure if you reflect on the lyrics of these songs whether you lived in the 50’s  or grew up in the 80’s, you will be able to think of several songs that imply the need to have someone in your life to fulfill your needs and make you whole.  

Movies like Sleepless in Seattle, Pretty Woman, Jerry Mcquire (Arch, 1993; Lawton, 1990;Crowe, 1996)   and so many of the Disney Princess stories we grew up on like Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty , and especially Ariel from The little Mermaid, who changes her species to be with a human (Peralta, 1950; Grimm, 1937;Penner, 1959; Andersen, 1937 ).  These stories all reinforce the old belief that “someday my prince will come” and we will live “happily ever after”, implying that we just need to meet the right man who will become our prince, save us and secure our happiness.  

Men and Women

The truth is that codependency features both men and women in real life who play out those Disney roles very well. There are men who seek out damsels in distress in order to feel self worth and there are women who always seem to need rescuing.  They invariably find each other.  It is true that “people need people” as Barbra Streisand belts out, however when it becomes excessive and you lose yourself in another, then it is defined as pathology.

It has been discovered when working with addicts that after the behavior was modified, the disease of the disease emerged: codependency.  It seemed that every recovering addict exhibited codependent behaviors that were acted out and covered up with some sort of addiction.  The basis of this disease was childhood neglect, abandonment or abuse.  Somewhere in the family of origin there was a disconnect, thus a crisis that led many to self medicate.  This was accomplished either by choosing a substance, behavior or person as their drug of choice.  Many were cross-addicted.  

Once uncovered and discovered, recovery was possible.  Growing up in dysfunctional families where a child could not have his/her feelings, or there were “no talk” rules and family secrets, children were rendered powerless over the behaviors and control of their parents.  The child had to adapt in order to survive.  In the process of adaptation, the child creates a false self or an “adapted self” to survive.  When this occurs, the authentic self-retreats and a survival mode is installed.  The child becomes hyper-vigilant because there is little or no predictability in the family dynamics. Living in a state of hyper-vigilance causes further separation from the true self.  As the child continues to grow and develop he/she seeks pleasure as a way of avoiding the chronic state of tension and fear that so often accompanies this state.  The longer this goes on, the more separation from the true self occurs.  This is systemic so everyone in the family has to adapt to live in the system.  It’s a system that creates “crazy making” and ensures codependency!

As the child grows into maturation, the false self matures along leaving the authentic self further behind creating the expression, “the lost or wounded child.”   This separation between the two selves creates turmoil, stress and an intra-personal disconnect.  One literally loses oneself.  Human beings forge towards pleasure and retreat from pain.  By the time the child is grown he/she needs to find ways to manage these negative feelings.  That’s when addiction is born.

 Addiction is a way of managing feelings.  The drug of choice can be different in each individual.  Some will use a substance to manage their feelings; others gambling, sex, love, eating disorders, work, shopping, excessive exercise and so on. The content is irrelevant.  It’s the structure that matters.  Whatever the drug of choice, addiction is addiction.  It’s simply something you can’t stop! In more psychological terminology, addiction is a pathological relationship with a substance, behavior or person that has mood altering effects and life threatening consequences.

The Cost

So what’s the cost of codependency?  It’s not only substances that kill.  Codependency may be a killer too.  When you make choices out of a need to please or not to rock the boat, you may be putting your own life at risk, both emotionally and physically.  The price of nice can be the demise of one’s own life. One of the best illustrations I can offer you is what happened to me when I put other’s wishes and interests before my own, so not to disappoint them.  I’ll present a case study depicting how it nearly cost a life. 

A Case Study: Lost at Sea

This story takes place in Cancun when Joan was not yet forty years old.  Her husband, George an architect was designing a property for a developer.  The developer was an experienced diver who had previously been an oceanographer.  Neither she nor her husband had ever dived. They traveled to Cancun frequently and were invited to dive with both the developer and his partner.  Joan suggested to take diving instructions and become certified before venturing into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico where Frederick, the developer would often go diving. 

 Upon completing the certification, the couple joined the others on dives.  On one particular day when the men wanted to go out, Joan assessed the weather and water and saw that the conditions were everything they were taught not to go diving in.  The swells were too high, the water was murky and the wind was rapidly rising.  When Joan refused to join them, she was shamed and judged for “spoiling their good time”. “Don’t be a party pooper, Frederick said in a disparaging tone.  “Come on, it will be fine”, said the partner, Miguel although admittedly anxious about the conditions as well.  “Don’t worry.  They know what they’re doing.” George said with confidence.  So as not to displease them and be the “good girl”, Joan subjugated her own feelings and will, and capitulated to their wishes, intuitively knowing that she was making a poor choice, but reluctantly followed along with them. 

 The water was too choppy to jump backwards off the boat as was usual and customary, so they went down an anchor line.  Joan was last to go down the line and by the time she found her way down, she could not see anything except the flippers on Miguel.  Her husband George and Frederick were nowhere in sight.  So her only option was to follow the flippers on Miguel’s feet.  After about half an hour, unable to see anything of interest, she signaled to Miguel to surface.  When they rose to the top there was no sound or sight of the boat.  They were in twelve feet swells struggling to spit out the water that rushed into their mouths.  Miguel swiftly handed Joan the end of his spear so they would not get separated.  They doggie paddled for more than an hour until she began to feel weak.

Joan knew she was in trouble so she suggested that they dive to the bottom together, where they had learned from the diving instructor that the first foot of water from the bottom of the ocean floor had no current.  Miguel tried to convince her that they would be found, but she knew differently.  They had been in a current that brought them from where they first began, close to four or five miles out to sea.  They were now literally between Cancun and Isle Mujeres.  She could see the coast of Cancun.  Learning that they should never dive without a buddy, she chose to drop her diving gear except for her goggles, BC (buoyancy compensator), snorkel and her flippers.  She began swimming diagonally as had been taught by her diving instructor in case of such an incident, back to Cancun, leaving Miguel behind as was his choice.  

Joan swam exchanging positions from back to front for five and one half hours while encountering a school of barracuda, some lemon sharks and a few stingrays until the boat, making its last round to search for them, finally picked her up.  She was exhausted, fearful but mostly enraged that she allowed herself to join them on this dangerous expedition against her own better judgment.  She had given up her own sense and sensibilities to accommodate and please the others.  This was a hard lesson for her to learn, but one that she has never forgotten.  It became transformational in her behavior.  Hard lessons are often necessary for change to occur.

Yes, they found Miguel; only God knows how. Codependency can be catastrophic.  Codependency can kill!


Andersen, H. C. (1837). The Little Mermaid, C. A. Reitzel, Walt Disney Pictures, Box Office Mojo. retrieved February 25, 2015

Arch, J. (1993). Sleepless in Seattle, Box Office Mojo, retrieved February 25, 2015.

Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, Hazelden Foundation, MI

Buber, M. Biemann, Asher, D. (2002). The Martin Buber reader: essential writings. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 7. *

Crowe, C.,(1996) ,Jerry Mcquire, Box Office Mojo, retrieved February 25, 2015.

Gershwin, I., & Gershwin, G. (1926) Someone to Watch Over Me,

released as Victor 20331, matrix 36654-

Grimm, B. (1937). Snow White, Walt Disney Pictures, Box Office Mojo. retrieved February 25, 2015.

Lawton, J. F.  (1990). Pretty Woman, Box Office Mojo, retrieved February 25, 2015.

Morgan, J. P. (1999). What is codependency?  J.  clinic., psychol., DOI: 10.1002/1097-4679(199109)47:5<720::AID-JCLP2270470515>3.0.CO;

Nillson, H. (1990). I Can't Live if Living is Without You, Warner/Chappell Music Denmark, Apple Publishing Ltd., Sunshine Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Tunes LLC,

Penne, E.  (1959). Sleeping Beauty, Walt Disney Pictures, Box Office Mojo. retrieved February 25, 2015

Peralta, C.  (1950). Cinderella, Walt Disney Pictures, Box Office Mojo, retrieved February 15, 2015.

Tatkin, Stan PsyD.MFT Wired for Love (2011) New Harbinger Publishing Co.

* As Quoted in Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters (1948) by Martin Buber as translated by Olga Marx

About the Author

Joan Childs Joan Childs, LCSW

Joan E. Childs has been a licensed clinical social worker since 1978 specializing in change work for human potentiality, personal growth and self actualization. She was chosen to be the first affiliate of the John Bradshaw Center in the United States and is a consultant to many corporations, hospitals, universities and academic institutions.

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Phone: (954) 568-1004
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