What Is Codependency? Narcissism, Flexibility and The Definition of Modern Codependent Relationships

Friday, January 17, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

Our different versions of the term "codependency" can cause a great deal of confusion. One set of behaviors may be pathologically codependent in one couple, and be healthy and normal in another couple who function differently as a unit. This can be hard to understand when we see things primarily through the lens of our own experience, heightening our tendency to see codependency where it might not actually exist. 

But sometimes, it totally exists. And we should know what it looks like.

Signs of Codependency

Codependency is used as a dirty word, and there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that the term codependency may be misunderstood and misused. While the sympathy and empathy that are often referred to as codependent traits can be a beautiful thing, there is room to get carried away.  

Codependent relationships usually have someone who plays a more dominant role in the controlling--either through trouble with their own emotions or substance abuse problems--and another person (or people) who try to make things better. Codependent behaviors within these relationships involve constant ignoring of personal needs for the sake of someone else. There tends to be higher levels of mental health issues for all parties involved, as well as a tendency to misinterpret consequences of the behaviors. There may also be a drive to give to another in order to control emotions and the environment.

This element of control is discussed by psychologist Daniel Bochner in The Emotional Toolbox1. In some cases, a needy individual--say an alcoholic or someone who has trouble regulating their feelings or calming down--needs the other parter to assist them. That's when their partner gets to enjoy a sense of control over the situation, reinforcing the cycle of struggle and assistance. 

But the sense of pride at being able to help doesn't necessarily mean that you are in a codependent state. Helping someone you love can be a trait of a loving relationship, one that partners are biologically driven to embrace. The difference may be in the way partners function overall, within the relationship as well as outside of it.   

So, what are the symptoms of a codependent relationship?

Here's a run down of what pathological codependency is from researchers Davidhizar and Shearer2:

  • Behaviors that developed in a dysfunctional family where priorities are unbalanced
  • Family or individual focus on making things appear normal, as opposed to fixing problems
  • Individual need for approval from others (This may be detrimental only if the individual's self-worth is dependent on this validation.)
  • Trouble with change and flexibility

This list is consistent with other research, which suggested that early modeling factors play a primary role in the development of pathological generosity4.

The most compelling part of Davidhizar and Shearer's study is teasing apart flexibility from codependency. I have treated men and women alike whose struggle with rightness outweighed the desire to mend a relationship, occasionally mistaking independence for rigidness, codependency for compromise. 

Instead, Davidhizar and Shearer note that the opposite is true: that those who are flexible and are receptive to the ideas of others may enjoy higher rates of self-esteem than those who are more rigid in their independent decision-making. Said another way, those who are able to respond to their partners, and compromise accordingly, are less codependent and more autonomous.

Those who are unable to respond to their partner's needs at all may be showing more than codependent traits; they may have an overlap into another realm as well. 

Narcissism and Codependency

Those who embrace strong control in codependent relationships may be less needy and more narcissistic, according to research published in the "Journal of Additive Disorders"3.

This study, conducted by Dr. Sally Farmer, focused on treatment interventions in those identified as codependent. Farmer noted that while codependents are often seen as needy and overly dependent on others for their own self-worth assessments, some of their behavior patterns may indicate a subtle form of narcissism and entitlement. 

Farmer identified the following as both codependent and narcissistic:

  • Seeing others as an extension of the self as opposed to independent people
  • Unrealistic expectations about relationships based on this self extension

Farmer also reports that the treatment of codependent individuals may hinge on different expectations of their ability to relate. Someone who sees their partner as a part of themselves is hard pressed to understand that they can't exercise their will over them.  


Unhealthy codependent relationships usually have varying levels of the following elements:

  • One-sided relationships that focus only on the needs of one person
  • Narcissistic traits, or self extension onto others, in at least one partner
  • Behaviors that developed within the context of dysfunctional families
  • Disregard for actually fixing issues, focus on outside appearance
  • Self-esteem of individuals based on approval from others
  • Fear of rejection may be prominent, so much so that an individual ignores their own feelings to avoid conflict 
  • Difficulty with independent self-concept/self-worth
  • Obsessive traits in one or both partners due to weak or blurred boundaries
  • Mental health disturbances like anxiety or depression or overall trouble regulating emotions
  • Inability of partners to accept positive changes
  • Inability of partners to be flexible in response to one another's needs

Codependency is not:

  • Codependency is not compromise
  • Codependency is not flexibility
  • Codependency is not a desire to help one's partner
  • Codependency is not actually helping your partner (unless you're sacrificing your own well-being to do so)
  • Codependency is not feeling bad for one you love (sympathy)
  • Codependency is not feeling what your partner is feeling, hurting when they are hurting (empathy)

Codependency can be a difficult thing to identify due to the very human tendency to see things as we want them to be as opposed to how they are. If you suspect you may be in a codependent relationship, it may be beneficial to seek professional assistance to tease apart personal emotions from those of your partner, examine childhood models that may have led to these behaviors, as well as identify coping skills and individual goals to ensure your needs are being met. Examining and reaffirming boundaries may be another way to promote mental health. 

Everyone has a limit to how much they can give.


1. http://www.amazon.com/The-Emotional-Toolbox-Manual-Mental/dp/1456896431
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7974649
3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10507582
4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/23126410/

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Emotional Toolbox
Background on a number of different reasons for psychological unrest and strategies to deal with them

Boundary Issues
Everything you ever wanted to know about boundaries.

Emotional Intelligence (why it can matter more than IQ)
Studies on emotional function, social prowess and their influence on success

Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, & Other Toxic People
A guide to overcoming abusive relationships with narcissistic or psychopathic individuals

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the complex relationships between two people and how personal assessments of situations may lead to better overall functioning within couples...or the drive to separate.

Famished: An Ash Park Novel
Everyone's hungry for something. Some are more famished than others.