From Dysfunction to Resilience: A Good Road to Travel © Tom Ersin 2023. This is the current installment from the serialized publication of this distinctive self-help book.

Chapter 1: Codependency as a Product of Dysfunctional Families

The definition of family has expanded beyond classic 1960s television sit-com families. This book addresses the effects of substance use disorder and emotional and physical abuse on all types of living situations. Merriam-Webster defines family as “any of various social units” usually “living under one roof.” 1-1 This includes traditional nuclear, blended, or adoptive families (with two parents or guardians and children) as well as other individuals who (usually) live together and are connected by love, commitment, friendship, and/or unhealthy attachment. For our purposes, a family represents any group of people with significant genetic connections and/or an affinity toward each other that purports to maintain the well-being of its members, at least ostensibly.

What a Co-Dependent Is

Codependency is the primary product of family dysfunction.

The term codependency has acquired many connotations since the concept first was written about widely in the 1980s. During that decade, authors such as Janet Woititz and Melody Beattie sold millions of books on the subject, which outlined a framework for the disorder and guidelines for treatment and recovery.

Since then, the term has taken on various nebulous definitions in the self-help field and pop culture, to the point that many clinicians prefer to avoid it. It has not attained an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the definitive reference for psychiatry and psychology professionals). The word co-dependent has become a pejorative in some circles.

In this book, we take a literal semantic view of the word. Consider the prefix co-, defined by Merriam-Webster:

“1. with; together; joint; jointly … 3. one that is associated in an action with another; fellow; partner” 1-2

A co-worker is a person associated with another worker. A co-dependent is a person associated with, or a “partner” to, a dependent.

A dependent is the person in a family who is dependent upon one or more substances of abuse (alcohol or other drugs). This term also has come to include the member who is dependent upon perpetuating mental/physical abuse, hyper rigid household rules, anger and rage, or other antisocial behavior. All these actions produce emotional and relational family disorder.

A co-dependent is a person who lives or grew up with a dependent — and has been affected by the same components of dysfunction manifested by the dependent: denial, repressed feelings, compulsive behavior, and low self-esteem.

It’s that simple.

What Codependency Is

“… a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem-solving … kept in place by a set of rules within certain family systems. These rules make healthy growth and change very difficult.” 1-3

(— Robert Subby, M.A. & John Friel, Ph.D.)

You’ll find many other definitions. The following is a hybrid we’ve compiled that summarizes the basic concepts:

… a dysfunctional set of coping methods and problem-solving techniques learned, developed, and repeated in reaction to emotionally repressive and unhealthy family rules (spoken or implied). These rules cause personal development to stagnate and regress, in childhood and later in adulthood. They can be summed up as: 1-4

      • Don’t talk
      • Don’t feel
      • Don’t trust
      • Don’t be truthful

By not talking (about the problems), by not feeling feelings (good or bad), and by being unable to trust the adults in the home, the family is living a lie. The dependent perpetrates the lie and the other members play along. Deception becomes a way of life, the means by which to function within the emotional sickness.

These components of home life result in what therapists often call a closed, or repressed, family system. Members become isolated from the outside world — emotionally and sometimes literally. Children are discouraged from having friends over because outsiders are not allowed to see the inner workings of the home. Members don’t talk to friends or relatives about their situation because it’s embarrassing and against the “rules.”

Children translate these rules into coping mechanisms, which seem necessary to survive in an emotionally troubled family. But later in adulthood, those learned ways of coping cause many challenges, especially with developing and maintaining close relationships.

One narrow aspect of codependency is the dependence upon another person to fulfill your own needs for self-identity. This is known as enmeshment, e.g., you only feel good if your spouse/partner or parent/guardian feels good. 1-5 On the other hand, many co-dependents are lonely, with few or no meaningful relationships in their lives.

Where It Came From

The term codependency grew out of the study of chemical dependency (alcohol and other drug addiction) treatment starting in the late 1970s.

As mentioned, the dependent is the person who compulsively uses alcohol or other drugs. Additionally as mentioned, later research determined that the characteristics of dependent also apply to those who compulsively perpetuate emotional/physical abuse, rigidity, and other antisocial harm in the family. (In this book, we also refer to this member as the “principal,” a term interchangeable with “dependent.”)

The co-dependent is affected by a family relationship with a dependent and the dependent’s — principal’s — way of life. The psychological stress of this relationship can produce long-term emotional and physical consequences for all family members.

The reason non-alcohol, non-drug-using family members originally drew attention in early treatment research was because they often exhibited many of the same negative emotional characteristics that the chemically dependent person did, even though those members didn’t use chemicals. Researchers found that many family members developed harmful, self-defeating life coping mechanisms simply by being in a close relationship with a person with alcoholism or other drug dependency (aka alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder). We now know that codependency usually affects most members of a dysfunctional home to some extent. 1-6


Dependence on alcohol or other drugs — or perpetuating emotional/physical abuse or other repressive environments — creates predictable unhealthy emotions and behaviors in the principal. Living with these also re-creates many of them in other family members. Codependent characteristics encompass the denial, repressed feelings, compulsive behavior, and low self-esteem that members develop in response to being in a close relationship with a principal.

These families are defined by chronic poor communication, fear of expressing emotions, dishonesty and deception, and lack of trust. Members often develop some or many of the following traits in response.

Codependent Attributes 1-7

  • All-or-nothing thinking and behavior
  • Controlling OR overly submissive personality
  • Difficulty being real or genuine (guesses at what normal is)
  • Difficulty giving AND receiving love
  • Difficulty grieving losses
  • Difficulty identifying and expressing emotions
  • Difficulty resolving disagreements
  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Excessive judgment of others AND/OR excessive fear of being judged
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Feeling overly responsible for others
  • High tolerance for inappropriate behavior
  • Irrational grudges
  • Low self-worth (chronic guilt/shame)
  • Neglecting one’s own needs to accommodate others

Family Rules and Coping Methods

When we talk about rules in a home with a member who is a principal, we’re generally referring to unspoken relationship guidelines. These are learned over time and necessary for functioning and surviving in a repressive family system. As the situation gets worse — for example, as a parent/guardian’s alcohol use disorder or emotional/physical abuse progresses — the guidelines solidify and become stricter.

While these rules seem necessary for survival, they support (enable) the damaging behavior and, therefore, the family’s sickness as a unit. These learned coping methods are harmful to all members when they interact with the outside world, especially after the children become adults.

Unwritten, Unspoken Rules 1-8

(generally related to communication, emotions, and trust) 

  • Do as I say, not as I do.
  • Don’t be “selfish,” that is, never think of yourself or your own needs.
  • Don’t rock the boat.
  • Emotions should not be expressed openly.
  • Indirect communication is best, with one person acting as messenger between two others (triangulation).
  • It’s not OK to be playful.
  • It’s not OK to talk about problems.
  • Unrealistic expectations are the norm, such as always being perfect and always doing the “right” thing.

Other Signs and Symptoms

As stated, family members often develop a set of common negative characteristics when living with a principal. The causes for these are varied. But the key factor is that dysfunction spreads among those who are living with it — and it continues to intensify without intervention.

Principals deny the extent of their damaging actions and accompanying life problems. They increasingly repress their feelings to suppress guilt, which enables them to justify continuing the activities. They often engage in harmful compulsive conduct in addition to their primary compulsive behavior. Family members sharing a roof with this person are highly likely to suffer similar emotional stress, especially children.

The following lists comprise some of the generalized signs and symptoms that people with codependency exhibit, i.e., characteristics developed from growing up with, or being in a current relationship with, a chemically dependent or otherwise dysfunctional person.

The Big 5 Characteristics of Codependency 1-9

  • Denial (of family problems)
  • Repressed feelings
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • Medical problems (often due to chronic stress)

Additional Symptoms Commonly Developing out of The Big 5 1-10

  • Compulsion to judge others AND/OR persistent fear of being judged
  • Constant need for approval to feel good about oneself
  • Difficulty forming or maintaining close relationships
  • Difficulty making decisions and adjusting to change
  • Difficulty with emotions (unfounded depression/anxiety)
  • Excessive people-pleasing behavior (weak self-protective boundaries) OR abuse of other people’s boundaries
  • Feeling overly responsible for others’ behavior or feelings
  • General sense of powerlessness over one’s life
  • General sense of shame and low self-worth over one’s perceived failures in life
  • Grandiosity, narcissism, selfishness (to hide low self-esteem)
  • Lopsided “giver”-“taker” relationships (or controlling relationships)
  • Lying for short- and long-term gain
  • Lying when telling the truth would be just as easy
  • Perfectionism — too many expectations for oneself and others
  • Putting up an emotional “front”
  • Rigid attitudes and behavior
  • Unreasonable resentments
  • Victim mentality (“Woe is me”)

Most of us have experienced many of these characteristics briefly at one time or another, which is wholly normal. For people with codependency, however, several or more of these symptoms have become a way of life. No one will exhibit all of them: Indeed, many of these traits are opposite extremes, such as highly controlling versus overly submissive behavior, or excessive people-pleasing versus chronic “taker” behavior. The key factor is extreme.

Many of these people appear on the outside to be strong, self-sufficient, and in control of their lives. This is because they’ve become expert at one of the previous bullet points: They’re good at putting up a front to the outside world that everything is OK at home and with themselves. This involves denying their (and their family’s) problems to the world, which eventually evolves into denying their problems to themselves. 1-11

Family Roles

In a dysfunctional, codependent family environment, members often take on unique roles, each with accompanying negative characteristics. All these may or may not show up, and members’ roles can change and overlap.

Enabler (often the spouse/partner): The enabler’s main function is to protect the principal from the consequences of poor behavior. Enablers bail the principal out of crises. They lie to cover up and make excuses for damaging activities and broken promises. If the principal is emotionally/physically abusive to the children, the enabling partner can be seen as allowing the abuse, which can lead children to believe it’s their fault. Often the enabler will distort family reality, e.g., convincing children that last night’s raging emotional brawl was a “nice family dinner.” This can cause children to doubt their own perceptions as adults.

Hero (often an older child): Heroes become high achievers and model citizens to make up for the principal’s embarrassing and harmful actions.

Scapegoat (often a middle or older child): Scapegoats seek attention through negative behavior, which takes the focus off the principal. The scapegoat often is the “identified patient”: the member whose symptoms force the group into crisis treatment, though it’s the principal at the core of the family’s sickness.

Lost Child (often a middle child): Lost children stay out of the way and fend for themselves, seemingly requiring little attention. They become one less worry.

Mascot (often a younger child): Mascots draw attention to themselves and away from the family problems by showing off and clowning around, which other members appreciate as occasional relief from their troubles.

Again, all these roles may or may not show up, and members’ roles can change and overlap. For example, a mascot can evolve into a scapegoat over time. And heroes often engage in enabling activities. 1-12 They all are affected by the chronic stress of the home environment.

Attributes Extend to Any Repressive Family

Here we accentuate an earlier point. Since the 1980s, most mental health treatment professionals now agree that it’s not only relationships with people who are chemically dependent that cause dysfunctional behavior (codependency) among other family members. It also extends to families with a principal (usually a parent/guardian or spouse/partner) who perpetuates one or more of the following: 1-13

  • Other addiction/compulsion (gambling, sex, food, etc.)
  • Abandonment or neglect
  • Abuse (mental, physical, sexual)
  • Anger and rage issues
  • Excessive rigidity (strict religious or military-like household rules)
  • Noxious (and/or persistent) criticism and guilt-tripping
  • Lack of boundaries
  • Other emotional abuse
  • Lack of closeness and intimacy
  • Sociopathy (other antisocial behavior or cruelty, including chronic lack of empathy, integrity, veracity, or conscience, or only strategically applying these traits for appearances)
  • Untreated mental illness (other personality disorder, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.)

When obvious emotional or physical abuse is present, often there is an enabling partner who has seemingly allowed it, sometimes prompting children to think the abuse is their fault.

The flip side of this might involve one caring parent trying to do his or her best dealing with the other, malevolent parent. For example, one form of abandonment involves the noncustodial parent intentionally, permanently cutting all ties with his or her preteen children in the aftermath of a divorce. Without treatment, we’ve seen this ruin childs’ lives into middle age and beyond, even with the love and support of the remaining parent. Or it can produce long-term aimless languishing. Conversely, with the decision and commitment to seek help from a competent therapist and/or an applicable support group, we’ve seen these adult children achieve recovery, growth, and resilience. 

Common Denominator: Repressed Emotions

A parent/guardian or other family member who perpetuates any of these damaging situations causes emotional problems in the family because the other members are forced to employ (usually) unhealthy methods of coping with the fallout to survive.

In the case of children, they might learn that, for example, expressing feelings openly and honestly is not welcome in their house, so they learn not to do it for fear of rejection or punishment. What happens is that when they grow up, they involuntarily hold onto these coping mechanisms, which now cause negative issues in adult relationships and other areas of life. If the principal is a parent or guardian, the effects on children can be profound.

The common denominator in all these troubled families is the repression of emotions. If one parent/guardian is abusive or sociopathic (exhibits cruelty or other antisocial characteristics), you, the child, quickly learn to keep your emotions to yourself. This may be necessary to survive in childhood, especially since the other adult’s likely emotional repression allows the damaging conduct to continue. The long-term problem is that the coping mechanisms learned to repress feelings and avoid emotional pain will be harmful to that person as an adult.

Common Numerator: Dishonesty

These children and the enabling adult partner also commonly adopt deception as a way to function in this environment. They often learn to conspire with each other to achieve some semblance of freedom from the principal’s repressive grip on family rules. When dishonesty becomes the culture, you learn not to trust other members, especially the rule-maker. This habit of lying, duplicity, and lack of trust carries over into relationships outside the home and later into adulthood.■

[Tom Ersin holds degrees in communications and counseling. He’s examined long-term dysfunction from both sides of the counselor-client relationship and from within his own nuclear and extended families.] Click here to purchase book. Please leave a rating.