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The Co-Dependent Relationship: A Proposal of Recovery

Updated on March 29, 2013

Co-dependency in relationships is the fuel by which maladaptive cognition and subsequent behavior are enabled. Regardless of an individual’s use of alcohol/substances in the relationship, simply the presence of this disorder is indicative of both individuals in the relationship exhibiting maladaptive communication and a lack of recognition, inclusion and validation of the feelings being experienced by both individuals. The most detrimental aspect of a co-dependent relationship is the enabling that is created for both parties to continue their dysfunctional behavior. In addition to this both individuals (the abuser and the partner), create a relationship dynamic in which both individuals repress and/or ignore their respective feelings for the sake of the relationship. As a result the individual’s feelings of self-worth and value in the relationship become dependent on the other. The addict generally tries to protect their loved ones from “what’s inside them” for fear of losing them just as the enabler in the family tries to manage their partner’s addiction and feelings for fear of feeling inadequate themselves. We are all symbiotic in our relationships in that for them to be maintained there must be reciprocation. However, at what point does this reciprocation cross over into the realm of dependency? What characteristics of an individual’s personality have the prevalence to creating a co-dependent relationship dynamic? This paper attempts to address common personality traits indicative of dependency and co-dependency and their subsequent effect on the healthy development of the relationship. In addition to this, therapeutic techniques such as feeling-awareness, grief work, second-order changes and group psychotherapy, will be examined with regards to their potential benefit to both the recovering individual and their families.

When a Man Loves a Woman is a film that portraits the relationship between a husband and wife in which the wife suffers from alcoholism and the respective struggle of co-dependency between them. This film depicts not only the struggle between an individual suffering from alcoholism and its effect on the family but also the struggle that the family, in particularly the husbands, must embark on to recognize and change their contribution to the relationship with regards to its dysfunction. There are many characteristics of co-dependent personalities and behavior in the film.

These characteristics are inclusive of “A tendency to confuse love and pity, and to “love” people they can pity and rescue”, “A tendency to feel hurt when people don’t recognize their efforts”, “Poor communication”,” An unhealthy dependence on relationships”, “Difficulty identifying feelings” and “Rigidity or difficulty adjusting to change” (Field, R., 2010). All of these characteristics are indicative of an individual finding acceptance and self-worth at the behest of another and the subsequent fears that arise when this dynamic is or could be threatened. For the purposes of raising awareness the husband will be the subject of evaluation as he is the chief enabler to the wife’s alcohol use.

The husband, although not suffering from alcoholism or substance dependence does however exhibit several personality traits and resulting behaviors characteristic of co-dependency. The first and most prominent characteristic is that of confusing love and pity. This can be related as an individual doing things under the guise of “taking care of” or “trying to help” the other person in the relationship. Often this type of help, especially with regards to their being a substance abuser as the recipient, not only enables the substance abuser to continue their behavior but also creates a paradigm in which the substance abuser is regarded as incapable of succeeding without the others help. This dependency is exemplified in the film by the husbands continual undermining of his wife’s parenting style when disciplining her daughter, speaking for her during their marriage counseling session and continually approaching her alcohol abuse with the contextualization of his wife being helpless and him being the one who will “fix” everything.

This type of dependent behavior can lead to the a development of distorted family system in which the mixed messages become common place and the family members have limited, if any, similarities of perception when evaluating situations and interactions with one another (Fields, R., 2010). Another effect manifested by this behavior is the confusion of the individual roles of each family member. In the film this is manifested when the husband over-rules his wife’s condition that their daughter finishes her homework before going to her friend’s party. A boundary had already been established by the mother. When her husband enters the situation and changes the limits of this boundary without including his wife he has created confusion for the child whereas she is unsure as to what her boundaries are. The boundary set by the mother however characteristic of being inflexible and rigid in its dynamic, and her husband’s interjection of a more flexible boundary creates ambiguity for both the husband and wife and their children as well.

This leads to a breakdown in communication. Both parties are no longer working as a cohesive unit but are attempting to manage the relationship and situations independent of each other and as a result often without consideration for the effect it will have on the individuals involved. The general inconsiderate nature of this behavior can lead to both individuals feeling under appreciated by the other. For example, the film depicts a scene in which both the husband and wife are attending a counseling session together and the wife reveals that her husband makes her feel inadequate and incapable. He in turn feels unappreciated because from his perspective he is only trying to help. This revelation in therapy created an opportunity to witness whether the drive behind the husband wanting to help was for his wife’s benefit or his own. The husband’s reactions to the wife’s statements of discontent were not compassionate or empathetic in nature but rather ego based in that he felt “angry and frustrated”.

This scenario also is representative of another characteristic of a dependent personality; that of tending to feel hurt when his wife doesn’t recognize his efforts as he perceives them to be helpful. This characteristic is indicative of and individual basing their self-worth and/or value in the relationship on the approval and validation of the other. (Fields, R., 2010). By itself this dynamic can place an immense amount of pressure on the relationship in that one individual is habitually being invasive and the other is habitually trying to accommodate and validate. As a result both individuals lose their ability to be aware of and honor their own situational feelings and thoughts eventually escalating to the point their respective individuality has been consumed by trying to control and manage their relationship. As a result both individuals develop an unhealthy dependence on the perpetuation of this dynamic of the relationship and a heightened reactivity to interpersonal control as presented in the conceptualization of codependent relationships by James Morgan in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (Morgan, J., 1991).

In the film this is characterized best by the wife’s perpetual increase in her consumption and rebellious behavior when under the influence and the husband’s subsequent increase in attempts to control and fix the situation. Points of reference in the film are particular to her being so incapacitated as a result of consuming alcohol that she fell of the boat they were in. His subsequent reaction the next day after addressing her increased drinking was to vow to her that he would get the best treatment for her available when she did not ask for it. This co-dependent behavior eventually escalates to the wife washing down some aspirin with almost a whole fifth of vodka, slapping her daughter and falling through the glass shower door as she fell unconscious.

At this point in the film the wife has what she called “hit rock bottom”. Her perceptions of reality, herself control and her ability to function as a wife, a mother and in her occupation has become severely impaired. The husband on the other hand in turn responds to the situation by enrolling her in a rehab facility. He then tries to control the situation through deception with regards to his children’s perception on the situation. By creating falsehoods he is causing his children, which will undoubtedly discover or deduce the truth, to feel that they cannot rely on the answers given them. The result of this was presented when the daughter asked her father what an alcoholic was and he responded with a much softer version of reality and she subsequently asked her mother the same question. This could be witnessed as the child, unable to rely on communication, seeking to discern the truth of what is being communicated to her.

This is the point in the film in which the husband, after having his provider of being needed is removed, becomes rigid in that he resists the changes not only in his wife but in own life as well. His apprehension, distrust, distain and disinterest towards the members of his wife’s support group when in rehab and afterwards is indicative of him feeling less needed by his wife and therefore less valued in the relationship and as such he is dependent on this an incongruence is created in the relationship for him (Fields, R., 2010). In addition to this the husband experiences feelings of helplessness in that he is not the one affecting or facilitating change for his wife. Simply put, he is no longer the one taking care of her and therefore does not need him. The continuance of this is evidenced by his wife’s inability to maintain focus on her recovery in the face of her husband’s needs for validation and control.

Eventually the husband starts to attend meetings of people suffering from the addictions of their partners. Although resistant to talking and exploring his feelings the husband eventually concedes to share and begins the process of recognizing his own feelings and behavior in the relationship and its effect on his wife. Though the journey was long and by most estimates would have longer yet to go the husband through recognition of his codependent behavior gained the self-awareness and humility to change independent of his wife, thus allowing the possibility of them eventually reconnecting.

The therapeutic methods presented in the film were not very detailed in their representation in that they were limited to her stay in rehab and her Alcohol Anonymous (AA) meetings. It did not present any specific therapeutic methods used in treatment outside of a period of detox and regular attendance to AA meetings and her husband’s attendance to AA meetings for family members. However it is my personal belief that a mixture of several therapeutic techniques could be used to effectively break the co-dependent behaviors manifested in a relationship involving substance/alcohol abuse.

First and foremost the individuals would benefit most from group psychotherapy so as to bring attention to the behaviors and subsequent feelings and perceptions of the individuals in the relationship. This will allow for the clarification of boundaries and help open and improve communication between then. Taking part in this type of therapy can also help reestablish trust between the individuals in that their communication is more congruent with their behavior. In addition to this individual cognitive behavioral therapy would benefit the relationship in that it can help the individuals identify their thought patterns and subsequent behavior that perpetuate the imbalance in the relationship and the effect this has on them individually. Socially each individual should attend meetings of their peers such as with AA so as to be able to identify and connect with others experiencing the same. This can create a support system in which the individuals can find clarity and tools by way of presented experiences to better handle themselves in the relationship.

There are many means of therapy that could benefit individuals suffering from codependent personality disorder, however, the main points of focus presented through research is that of acknowledging the individual and their feelings in the relationship and recognizing and addressing maladaptive behaviors present that contribute to the imbalance in the relationship. In particular to codependence in a substance/alcohol abusing family is the need for both individuals to attain their independence from one another so they can rebuild their perception of themselves as sustainable independent of their relationship and its units.


Fields, R. (2010). Drugs in Perspective 7th edition, McGraw-Hill Inc. pp. 154-191

Morgan, J. (1991). What is codependency? Journal of Clinical Psychology Vol. 47: pp. 720-729.


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