top of page

#7: Ending the Co-dependent / Narcissistic ‘dance’


Through this series of ‘thought snippets’, I am hoping to bring the issue of co-dependency centre stage with caring professionals. By being alert to its pervasiveness, therapists can offer their clients the huge benefit of early identification and, thereby, the prompt implementation of an effective recovery strategy.

This ‘thought snippet’ finishes the series with the hope of recovery through therapy for current and future generations. It also provides a perspective on the realistic, although painful, prospect of relapse. Finally, it encourages therapists to consider their own personal experience and training in this area.

Stepping out of the dance – two brief case studies

Jane*, a 28 year old client acknowledged that she was an addicted co-dependent in a relationship with a narcissist. We traced Jane’s low self-esteem back to her childhood and her parents attended some sessions with her. Over time, Jane began to value herself and her relationship with herself slowly began to change.

She attended co-dependency and Al Anon meetings as my approach to treating her was the same as with any other addiction. Eventually, Jane became free from her addiction to her boyfriend, her addiction to choosing unhealthy male relationships and her general need for everyone else’s approval. When we finished our work together Jane said that there were 4 cornerstones to her recovery:

  • naming the co-dependency

  • identifying it as an addiction

  • owning her role in the ‘dance’

  • taking responsibility for moving forward.

Another co-dependent client, Mary*, is living with a narcissistic and actively alcoholic husband. One day Mary realised that her husband was yet again trying to manipulate her, and get back into her good books, by offering to buy her a new outfit. For the first time in 35 years, Mary clearly saw that he was inviting her back into the ‘dance’ and through therapy, was empowered to respond “No thanks, I can get it myself”. Mary said that it felt so empowering to be able see the invitation so clearly for what it was and to be able to say ‘No, thank you, I can look after myself!’.

How to handle relapse

It is important to note that, until they work through their trauma, childhood conditioning, fear of loneliness, conflict, change, or lack of assertion skills, many clients who are given a chance to get out of the ‘dance’ will actually choose to stay. However, in my experience, through addiction therapy, most clients eventually become strong enough to do whatever they feel is best for them.

If a co-dependent cannot get out of the dance just yet, the caring professional must patiently respect and support them regardless. However, when the client has difficulty recognising the ‘dance’, it is very important that the caring professional does not collude with the client’s denial. Once the co-dependency is recognised by the therapist, they have to keep it to the forefront if they are to help their client to eventually become free. At any rate, if they feel the client is in danger from the narcissist (the latter can be both emotionally and physically threatening), they need to put a safety plan in place with them.

Sometimes the co-dependent does leave the dance before they have worked through a recovery programme. In this case, they are at risk of attaching themselves to someone who is similar to the ‘dance’ partner they’ve just left. This element of relapse forms one of the most challenging parts of the therapist’s work as it is centred around the co-dependent’s denial. Very often the client will come in and out of denial – in and out of the dance’ - just like an alcoholic in recovery from their addiction.

The therapist needs to recognise that such relapse is part of the recovery process. Working this way will enable the therapist to support any trauma work that might need to take place due to experiences in earlier and current relationships. In my experience clients have found it helpful to attend CoDA, Al Anon and AA meetings to support their recoveries and prevent relapse.

As mentioned in the last ‘thought snippet’, helping professionals need to work top down and bottom up with co-dependent clients to help them get back on track after a relapse. It is important that co-dependents do not criticise themselves for the relapse. Rather, they need to show themselves compassion as they learn better ways of engaging with people. It is helpful if the therapist works in both a therapeutic and psychoeducational way to help the client progress through this aspect of their recovery.

The Next Generation

An important area to consider is the next generation and stopping the destructive patterns of behaviour. Typically, someone who has had one or two parents that were narcissistic or co-dependent is at risk of becoming either one or the other. The good news is that, when a client presents for therapy, they can break these patterns for the generations to come. This is because they can now learn to set boundaries, make choices, not look for approval to an unhealthy degree and are free to choose for themselves. Their children then also live with, and experience, this healthy way of living and this sets new patterns for generations to come.

As an aside, pointing out the benefit for future generations often encourages the clients to stay in the therapy work – especially when they are struggling to change.

The importance of therapist’s self-care and personal development

On the subject of the narcissistic/co-dependency ‘dance’, my experience with therapists in courses I have given suggests that many of them have not fully processed their own family of origin issues. In many cases this awareness only came to them through discussions during the course when they realised the impact their family of origin was still having on their availability to work with clients in this area.

I believe that we therapists owe it to ourselves, and to our clients, to:

  • work on our own co-dependent / narcissistic family of origin (past or present) issues

  • acquire the skills necessary to identify and work with our co-dependent clients just as we would any addicted client.

Therapists do not have the luxury of choice regarding the above because, in my experience, co-dependency arrives in some form or other with every client that presents. In fact, research shows that co-dependency is a condition that affects 95% of the population and is on the increase. We, as therapists, need to be able to address it!

Learning to work with ‘relationship addiction’

My experience of dysfunctional 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 to my website courses

*not her real name

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:

7 views0 comments


bottom of page