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#3: What happens when Co-Dependency becomes an addiction?


The previous ‘‘thought snippets’ in this series suggests that typical client behaviours are highlighting the underlying condition of co-dependency.

This ‘‘thought snippet’’ considers co-dependency when it crosses from the realm of dysfunctionality into a full blown addiction (in my experience, this is more often than is commonly thought!). Naming and treating the co-dependency as an addiction brings huge benefits for the client as we will see below.

The co-dependency continuum

In my work I have found it very useful to view co-dependency as being on a continuum. The stage at which most people seek help is when their choice in the relationship is gone. This is hugely important because, in my experience, by this stage, the relationship has become a significant illness or full blown addiction. Therefore, progress can best be made by treating the situation as such.

Relationship difficulty or co-dependent addiction?

We've all experienced the client who, though having been badly hurt (either physically or emotionally or both) in a relationship, continues to go back for more. Or we've counselled the client who is repeatedly drawn to the same type of toxic person over and over again - always at a huge cost to themselves.

These are only two examples among the myriad of dysfunctional relationship patterns that are familiar to us. However, with these types of cases it appears that a line has been crossed whereby the client has moved from having commonly experienced relationship difficulties / issues to actually being addicted to such co-dependent relationships.

Sharon Wegscheider Cruse3 says “96% of the population is co-dependent so when we talk about the addictive process we talk about civilisation as we know it”. That’s a high percentage of people!

The most important result of identifying the problem as an addiction, and naming it as such with the client, is that it brings immediate clarity and huge empowerment for the client. With this insight, they can immediately comprehend:

  • how they are handing over their power and contributing to the problem

  • why this is happening

  • what the consequences are for themselves

  • how to take back their power immediately

  • how to apply a framework which helps them understand each situation & make better choices for themselves

  • how to ensure they don’t relapse back into their old behaviours

  • how to start recovery again if they do

  • that they are just like so many other people!

So working with this ‘addiction’ frame of reference brings immediate clarity, transparency, understanding and sense of manageability for the client. By also removing any confusion and sense of powerplay, they can gain immediate hope for a more empowered future.

Best of all, depending on the client, such insights can often be gained in the first session - so naming it as an addiction as early as possible means that recovery can begin immediately!

Examples of relationships addiction

So, what kind of behaviours, or thought processes, indicate that a 'relationship difficulty' has moved into the realm of co-dependency or addiction?


A first example is the client who becomes so obsessed with controlling another’s behaviour that the other person (knowingly or unknowingly) ends up having control over them. For instance, a client once told me that she wasn’t going to the dentist to have essential treatment on her teeth because this would give her husband permission to spend money on himself in the form of drink. When this lady realised how obsessed she had become about her husband’s choices and how she was allowing this to dictate her own behaviour, i.e. when the addiction was named, she was able to start on her own recovery and go from strength to strength.


Poor childhood experiences also make people particularly vulnerable to seeking external approval and to accepting poor behaviour from others. This leaves them at risk of continuously becoming attached to unhealthy/abusive relationships in adulthood without the ability to choose a different path. For example, an excessive need for approval in childhood can result in them continuously tolerating toxic relationships as they seek external validation from ‘undesirable’ sources. One of my co-dependent clients profoundly described it in this way - "before my entry into recovery, people for me were a drink on two legs”.

In both of the above examples, the dynamic of the relationship is totally controlling the client’s choices and, as such, the client can reasonably be described as being in ‘relationship addiction’. My experience is that, for these clients, progress in therapy is optimised when the client fully understands the situation from that perspective and takes action accordingly.

Learning to work with co-dependency and ‘relationship addiction’

My experience of co-dependent relationships as possible sources of addiction, and the huge strides in recovery that are possible when it is named for those clients who are affected, has prompted me to put together a course which deals with this issue. It provides a real and meaningful resource for the helping professional who wants to give his / her clients the best chance of recovery from whatever is their issue or addiction. For further information, click courses

Sharon Wegsheider Cruse3 (1984) Co-Dependency an Emerging Issue

Note: This is one of a series of ‘thought snippets’ through which I am hoping to bring co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, they can ensure that their clients reap the benefit of early identification. To read other ‘snippets’ in this series, click: margaretparkes snippets

For more information about the subjects covered in this blog, contact Margaret Parkes - phone: 086 832 0422 email:

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