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CODEPENDENCE– do you know anyone who suffers from this disorder?

CODEPENDENCE– do you know anyone who suffers from this disorder?


Someone once jokingly said that the difference between human beings and animals is not so much to do with being rational, but rather to do with the fact that humans have relatives. Perhaps due to the fact of being born “semi-prepared” and having a long childhood in the care of someone who has helped them survive, human beings are animals who engage longer and more in-depth with their predecessors and successors.

Father, mother, brothers and sisters, grandparents, parents-in-law, uncles, aunties and cousins…….. this makes us completely unique and is also the source of our biggest problems!

This is the case of codependence, a type of emotional and bonding pathology, described by human behaviour experts in the USA.   The first studies date back to 1983, and despite not yet being classified in the DSM-IV, various books1 have been written on this topic including one already translated into Portuguese.

At first, the description of this disorder included only families of alcoholic patients, but over time its meaning has been understood in a broader context and currently the term “codependence” also refers to the conduct of families and relatives of people who have some kind of serious, chronic, physical or emotional problem.

“A codependent person is someone who lets the behavior of another person control his/hers and who is, in turn obsessed with controlling the behavior of the other person.”

Everything begins with the fact of finding ourselves connected (because of love, obligation or duty) to someone who is very complicated, physically or emotionally ill, and owing to this illness self destroys or no longer wants to live, and apparently needs our support and constant care.

This person could be a child who was born handicap , an adult suffering from depression, a wife or lover who has anorexia, a brother who did not do well in life, a sister who is always getting into trouble and seems to be too fragile to solve her own problems or an alcoholic father. To sum up, the important thing is not who this person is or what illness they have.

The core of the issue is in ourselves, in how we let this person affect our behavior and the ways we try to influence their behavior or “help them”.

I am talking about a reaction to someone else´s self destruction who ends up destroying us. We become victims of other people´s illnesses and the more we try to make this person give up their addiction or change their attitude to life, the less they get better and the more devastated we become.

It seems like our life revolves around them. We do not act on our own accord, but rather we react to how the patient is: if they are well, we are well, we make plans, we are hopeful; when they turn to drinking or get depressed, we put off going to the cinema, doing things and we feel terrible.

I know that many of you already know what I am talking about because you have probably experienced this or attend people who have experienced similar situations. Perhaps what you are not aware of is that some scientists consider this behaviour of chronic help to the other in itself an emotional, serious and progressive disorder. They even say that the codependent wants and looks for complicated people to connect with and can only be happy this way.

I do not think exactly the same way, as many codependents that I have attended were people who were tired of suffering and who really wanted to change, but whether due to upbringing, religion, guilt…. every case is a case -, they were not able to disconnect.

Some common characteristics codependents have called my attention: they are usually people who have a generous nature, they come from emotionally disturbed families and ever since their childhood have wanted to fix things that were wrong; they tend to make themselves responsible and guilty for everything; they very much depend on love, praising, and other people´s evaluations; they think they know best and can deal with certain situations better than others; they lie to themselves saying that “things will get better tomorrow”; “this is the last time” …; they doubt whether they will be happy in the future or if one day they will find true love; they find it difficult to get close to people, have fun and be spontaneous; they alternate over-affectionate care for a person who is ill with aggressive and rude ways of dealing with them; as time passes they feel ever increasingly unhappy, depressed, isolated and violent; they have eating disorders (either eating too much or too little); they end up having some kind of addiction: cigarettes, alcohol, tranquilizers, etc.

Generically, this illness is associated to various forms of child sexual abuse and codependents basically have difficulties in five areas: 1 – low self esteem;  2 – difficulty in setting boundaries; 3 – difficulty in recognizing and assuming their own reality; 4 – difficulty in taking care of their needs as an adult; 5 – difficulty in expressing their emotions moderately.

Is there any cure for codependence? There is no simple answer to this question. In the USA, self-help groups have been set up, such as alcoholics anonymous groups for families, where they try to discuss and offer support to codependents.

My own experience has shown that  psychotherapy, especially psychodrama which is an approach that favors the study of bonding, is often very useful in cases where the codependent is disillusioned by their own potential to change the other person´s life and begins to really want to change their own life. The treatment helps and encourages the patient to undertake the necessary changes, to face their abusive past and to change their attitude concerning their ill relative so that they can live more healthily again, even if  the relative still wants to die.


  • Beattie,Mellody ( 1994) – Codependência nunca mais! – Editora Best Sellers, São Paulo.
  • Rosa Cukier (1998)- Emotional Survival: from the child wound to the adult drama, 2007, Lulu publisher.
  • Cermak,T.L (1986) .- Diagnostic criteria for Codependency- Journal Of Psychoactive Drugs. 18(1):15-20 citado por Mellody , Pia.- Facing Codependence, Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco ,1989.
  • Mellody , Pia ( 1989)- Facing Codependence, Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco .

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