Codependency? Control Not Love

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These days we throw the words “narcissist” and “codependent” around like confetti. It is easy to label someone who appears self-centred as the former and one who gives a little bit too much as the latter. Despite the fact that we can easily recognise these traits in people, it is always dangerous to label people with any term that is not officially diagnosed by a specialist. While testing for NPD exists, it becomes more difficult when we delve into the murky waters that lie around the term codependency.

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A formal definition of codependency has escaped psychology as a field for some time. It was originally a term proposed to describe the behavioural traits of partners of the chemically dependent (addicts). To date, there are no official, defined medical diagnostic criteria for the phenomenon we call “codependency”. It has come to mean, among other things, extreme devotion, sacrifice, and attachment to another person, object or even company in an unhealthy manner.

I deal with codependents every day in my practice. Intelligent, sensitive people who cannot see the wood from the trees when it comes to relationships and indeed their view of themselves… How do I know? I have had codependent tendencies myself that I have more or less worked through. I have come to realise that my needs are important and relationships are a transaction if they do have mutual benefit as a major factor. From my own point of view, it is clear where this came from. As the oldest child of four, the role given to me was one of caretaker to my siblings and I was punished if they stepped out of line. I was conditioned to believe that the more I looked after them, the more recognition and validation I received. If I didn’t, punishment followed. I took this mindset into my adult life, believing I had to look after others needs before my own and mine didn’t matter. I am sure this sounds familiar to many people.

We confuse codependency with love. We are taught that we are supposed to give all to the “chosen” one. One or two of my clients have said to me that it is better to be codependent than the alternative. Yes, it is the lesser of two evils but codependency is about insecurity and control… yes, control. As a codependent, we try to make ourselves indispensable in the lives of the object of our codependency. We martyr ourselves, sacrifice all we have to make another person happy… and more often than not, the wrong person. As codependents love to give, they naturally attract people who generally love to take… two pieces of the jigsaw come together and the whirlwind starts. The relationship might be perfectly ok for a short time but cracks will inevitably appear as time goes on. The codependent in this case holds on until the relationship fades away or they stay in relationships longer than they should, hoping to change their partner. It they find the courage to leave, they are often left with a void , suffering the loss of what they perceive was great and facing the fear of being alone… a horror scenario for a codependent who is not programmed to give to self. Many times, a codependent moves quickly into another relationship, hoping to recreate the situation of martyrdom and sacrifice they had before. What they always do is take a major, irrational share of the blame.

The good news is that codependents can be helped once they learn that boundaries and self-esteem are important. Often this realisation only comes after extremely painful experience. In my experience, self-esteem and insecurity are the key factors that drive codependency… the feeling that you are not good enough to move on and find something better. It is easier to hope that a dysfunctional situation changes. Boundaries are especially important. Codependents usually allow these to be knocked over or they don’t exist at all.

No-one is born with boundaries. They are developed and taught to us by our parents. From this experience, we could have no, too rigid or too loose boundaries. How we bond with others is determined by the nature of our bond with our parents. Our boundaries determine how we bond with others.

Setting and Maintaining Boundaries

When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully, and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, get angry, or apologize for the boundary you are setting.

You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for clearly and respectfully communicating your boundary.

At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway.

When you feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.

Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you.

Develop a support system of people who respect your right to set boundaries. Eliminate toxic people from your life—those who want to manipulate, abuse, and control you.

Accept that you cannot set a boundary and take care of someone else’s feelings. Do not send mixed messages.

Accept that toxic people will try to test your boundaries. These people will have been used to controlling and abusive behavior.

Accept that your true SELF will emerge.

Accept that relationships will change and toxic people will leave your life, other relationships will be redefined and some resurrected.


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Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner's approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients' internal "parts," or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.

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