Mel Schwartz, LCSW

#135 What in the Hell Do We Mean by the Term Codependence?

The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz 135 looks at the term “codependence.” Can we agree on a meaning of that word?

“Codependence” is a made-up word, as are all terms related to psychology and mental health. But “codependence,” in particular, has entered the vernacular to such a degree it may have drifted from its originally intended meaning.

So, what do we mean by “codependence?” Can we reclaim the word and associate it with positive, balanced interpersonal relationships?

All this and more in this episode! I’d love to hear what you think! Be sure to leave a comment with your own thoughts and questions!

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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #135

Hello everybody and welcome to the Possibility Podcast. I’m your host Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.

Hello everyone. This episode is entitled, What in the hell do we mean by the term codependence? What triggered my thoughts, perspectives on this term codependence came from reading an article in The Atlantic Magazine recently called “The Myth of Codependence” by Elisa Strauss. I do recommend reading the article.

Codependence is a term no different than narcissistic is a term. We tend to use these terms in generalized, nonspecific, and wrong-minded ways. The term just takes on a life unto itself. It enters as a meme, a regular piece of our capillary, and it loses all meaning. Remember my position always is we make these words and terms up to start with. It’s really essential that we ask each other and ourselves, what do I mean by this term? Otherwise we’re just throwing around labels, creating more confusion and more disorientation.

So let’s begin. Codependence is not a diagnostic term in the DSM, the psychiatric Bible of diagnosis. Does not appear. Narcissism does appear in many different forms. Codependence, let’s look at the term at its basis. Aren’t we all codependent? We are dependent on any number of things, but we’re talking here about relationships with each other.

What does codependent mean? Well, love is codependence, isn’t it? If you love one another, you kind of beat as one, at least to an extent or a healthy extent. You’re not okay if the other one isn’t okay. Is that a healthy codependence? Well, love wouldn’t exist with that healthy degree of entanglement or engagement with each other. Otherwise we’d be separate objects. There wouldn’t be love.

Now, the way we use the term codependent varies. I believe at the heart of the term codependence is the notion that you may be too dependent. And if you’re too dependent, you’re out of balance. You don’t have a sufficient sense of your own self, or there’s been a loss of your own self or a marginalizing of your own self. So people who see themselves as being in a codependent relationship often see the other, their partner, their spouse, as too controlling, too manipulative. So it requires a balancing.

By the way, codependence doesn’t require a romantic relationship. There can be friendships that are out of balance and they’re codependent. Familial relationships, the whole aspect of codependence may have had its roots in our sense of attachment or lack of attachment in childhood. A baby, a child, a young child is of course codependent. That’s an attachment, a healthy attachment. And only through a healthy attachment and progression through it do we move on to the place that Carl Jung referred to as individuation, which is as young adults, we may love and care for our family and our parents, but we move out into the world okay on our own. It’s a sense of being autonomous.

But in relationships, romantic relationships in particular, there’s this sense of my other half. We’ve talked about this. I’m a half moon. I meet with another half moon to complete myself. Well, that certainly is a codependence. I’m not okay on my own.

I wrote an article many, many years ago entitled, Are You Independent, Dependent, or Autonomous? I made these terms up in relation to one another. An independent person isn’t sufficiently vulnerable or present to engage in a really intimate relationship, an emotionally intimate relationship. A dependent individual will of course be codependent. They’re only okay if they feel loved, appreciated, and liked by the other, which means you’re sabotaging your own sense of self to elicit the feelings you need from the other.

At the heart, that speaks to me of codependence. The goal is to reach the third category, autonomous. I’m good with me. I’m working on me. I am an evolving human being, and I am fully available and prepared to relate deeply and intimately with another. Two autonomous people are safe from concerns of being codependent.

But ask yourself this, do I try to fix other people’s problems? Why do I do that? Well, with all things, it’s the measure and the degree. If I care for people and try to help them with their problems, that sounds healthy. But if I need with a capital N to fix other people’s problems, I’ve set up a kind of reverse codependence. I’m only okay with me if I’m helping you. People in relationships with or who have family members who have addiction may suffer in a codependence. How are they doing with their addiction? Are they doing better? Does it look like there’s success on the way? Of course, that’s going to impact you. You see, it’s all about balance between self and other. Again, go back to that visual of being on a seesaw. It’s okay to be slightly higher or slightly lower as long as we’re vacillating and there’s a middle ground.

But relationships are enmeshed. They are about a shared energy. We should be impacted by each other, but not to the extent that the impact knocks us out of balance with our own self and that we’re trying to elicit or solicit certain feelings who make us okay with our own self.

Don’t use the term codependent. Instead, explain how you feel. I’m feeling unloved or I’m feeling needy of your love. Don’t label yourself or the other person. Labels turn everything into a dumbing down conversation. Remember, love is a feeling of oneness. But in that oneness, you are two autonomous individuals who have emerged and merged into this feeling of love and oneness. Don’t confuse oneness with a lack of self, with a lack of individuation. A healthy loving relationship requires two individuals who have individuated successfully so they feel at one with themselves.

Now, there is an aspect of codependence, the term codependence, which has very much to do with the traditional role of the woman in our culture, which feminism brings to light. You see, if you don’t love me and I want to feel loved, am I then codependent? And do I need to look at the relationship through that filter? Or is there a fear of abandonment? And at the heart of that is also the question of, am I lovable? Now, the shift in the feminist archetype has been that a woman is no longer solely responsible for the children and the home. The feminist mystique has moved into the archetype of autonomy. And this has created a shift in the traditional roles between partners.

Another way of looking at codependence is the term mutual reliance. What do we mean by mutual reliance? Well, we are reliant on each other for different things. But how deeply reliant, reliance can slip into dependency. I’m reliant. I have an expectation that you’re going to be honest and truthful and supportive and available for me in a reasonable way. And you of me as well. That’s a mutual reliance.

But again, the word reliance can slip into dependence. So ultimately, the question is, are we healthy, autonomous individuals? And if we are, that sets up an interdependence. I am okay with me. You are okay with you. And we impact each other. There’s a shared energy. There is an interdependence. If something happens to our relationship, that may cause grief, fear, upset, but we will both be okay.

So again, the takeaway for this conversation around codependence, let’s be cautious about using these terms. Let’s not use them in a literal way. Are you codependent? Where there’s an objective reality. Instead ask yourself, do I feel codependent? Do I hesitate to share how I feel out of a concern for how I’m going to be seen by my partner, my lover, my daughter, my father? Do I feel free to express myself notwithstanding how the other person may respond to me? That’s a healthy autonomy. And that is very, very different than feeling codependent. Careful with these labels. Try to express yourself through subjective feelings and let go of the diagnostic terminology.

Well, until next time, be well, wishing you enlightenment and reaching all those possibilities that you deserve in your life. Bye for now.

I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at mel at or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show and it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts and that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again and please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.

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