I  got interested in control accidentally.   I was giving a talk and suddenly realized I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I was a new social worker, six months out of grad school, working for a clinic attached to a rehab on the end of Long Island.  My new boss decided I was the best one to run the weekly Family Education Series, basically a crash course in alcoholism and how it screws up families.  And tonight the topic was codependency.

I knew the topic well enough.  I’d worked as an alcoholism counselor and treated hundreds of codependents.  I could diagnose one in the first five minutes of a conversation. 

But when it came time to prepare this talk I found I couldn’t define the word.  At work we talked about codependency without ever stopping to explain what we meant.   And when I looked into my half-dozen books on the subject I found each defining it in a different way.  One was:

A specific condition characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence on another person, activity, group, idea, or substance. [1]


An  emotional, psychological, and behavioral condition that develops as a result of an individual’s prolonged exposure to, and practice of, a set of oppressive rules. [2]

A third:

A multidimensional (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual)condition manifested by any suffering and dysfunction that is associated with or due to focusing on the needs and behavior of others. [3]

A fourth:

A recognizable pattern of personality traits, predictably found within most members of chemically dependent families, which are capable of creating sufficient dysfunction to warrant the diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder as outlined in DSM-III [4],

which sent me off to yet another book to learn what the hell that meant.

Finally I came to codependency maven Melody Beattie, who explained that a codependent is simply

a person who has let another person’s behavior affect him or her, and who is obsessed with controlling that person’s behavior. [5]

Fine definition.  Until I noticed it describes just about everyone.

Having no idea which definition would be best to offer my workshop, I cleverly decided to present them all.

So here I am, having just done that.  I’ve distributed a handout with the five definitions on it, and read them aloud, and am now looking at a roomful of confused faces.

A man in a brown corduroy jacket raises his hand.  I nod back.

“So what the hell is codependency?” he asks.

Everyone laughs.

I laugh too.  (Inside I’m thinking Shoot me now.)  Then I shrug and hear myself say, “Addiction to control.”

I am surprised at myself.  I’ve never thought of it this way before. 

But Corduroy starts asking questions, and I find I have answers, and it’s all making a new sort of sense.  I explain that I see codependents as traumatized people convinced their survival depends on controlling the effects of “their” alcoholic’s illness.  So they do things like hide booze and avoid dad at certain times of the day and lie to his boss about why he missed work or to the neighbors about why he fell asleep in the driveway.  From all these experiences they come to depend on control as a way of coping generally, and set about applying it to everything and everyone in their lives, to the point where it makes them sick. 

“Sick how?” Corduroy frowns. 

Mainly anxious and depressed, I tell him.  But also worried, and tense, and irritable, and unable to relax or have fun, or identify and express feelings, or trust anyone, or like themselves.  And self-medicating with food or work or helping other people or whatever else they can think of. 

And now Corduroy is nodding thoughtfully, and so are others in the room, and I know I’m onto something.

(To be continued.)


[1] Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse, ChoiceMaking: For co-dependents, adult children and spirituality seekers (Health Communications, 1985).
[2] Robert Subby, Lost in the shuffle: The co-dependent reality, quoted in Whitfield (see below).
[3] Charles Whitfield, Co-dependence: Healing the human condition (Health Communications, 1991).  
[4] Timmen Cermak, Diagnosing and treating co-dependence (Johnson Institute, 1986).
[5] Melody Beattie, Codependent no more (Harper/Hazelden, 1987).


4 responses to “Corduroy

  • Charles

    I really enjoy reading these posts.

    I find it’s often easy to cross the line from caring to controlling. I think it’s quite natural to want to control the things we care about. Historically, to ensure our survival we had to maintain control over our resources, so it’s a built in response. I suppose the trick is to learn how to not control the things (or people) you most depend on…

  • Yudelki

    Codependency… I guess it is true we all do this to a certain extent. I guess it becomes a problem when we become over focused on others’ behaviors, it becomes a problem when we forget to think about what it is we want in ourselves and who we want to be (not in others). I see it as a big problem when we begin to focus only on the needs and behaviors of others and end up forgetting what our own needs are. But how should one stop performing such a well rehearsed behavior? I am sure there is no short answer to that…

    • fritzfreud

      You’re right, there’s no short answer. But there is an answer, and it starts with noticing exactly what you point out: that you’re more focused on others — their needs, feelings, preferences — than on your own. That’s the essential first step.

  • John

    Well, this is my first blog. You may hear a reeling sound (as in fishing), I may be hooked. Your blog is thought prevoking, and brings me to introspection, a scary consept.

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