How to Deal With a Codependent Family Member

Codependency seems to be this generation's bane, yet many people would still have a hard time defining the word "codependency". Long an area left to psychiatry, its prominence today suggests an epidemic status. While many definitions exist, codependency could be considered as "non-matured personal interactions", often passed through generations within families.

While our very nature as social beings means that we are all interdependent, most - or even all of us - can be drawn in to codependent behaviors out of habit or a desire to get along. Unfortunately, this proclivity can reinforce abusive, manipulative, and even destructive behavior. Having personally recognized and escaped codependency, how does one deal with family members who have not?


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    Understand why you can't "cure" family members of codependency. There are as many factors involved here as there are types of people. You may have brought up the subject with one or all of your codependent family members and been surprised that they weren't thrilled by - or even receptive to - an apparent "cure" for what ails them. Part of the answer to that lies in individual psyches and coping methods. While you may have refused to continue using this unsatisfying and ultimately unsuccessful method of relating to people, your family members are in a different place. They may feel or believe that they are getting along just fine – with you and with anyone else.
    • It is simply more codependent behavior to try to drag them into an understanding similar to yours. In fact, it's probably best if you don't even mention the word "codependent". Expecting a family member to see their behavior as a "disorder" can make things worse.
    • Unfortunately, your family member is probably not going to seek a "cure" until they, too, feel that there are no other options. After all, this is their basic way of coping and "living". It works well for them - they manipulate, and you react - so they're not going to want to alter their functioning strategy after a little talk.
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    Recognize that just being your unmovable, unshakable, un-manipulatable self will have an impact on your family. While you may never change a family member's codependency, your choice to get comfortable with that fact will bring about the greatest shift. Mentioning or preaching about codependency, or leaving books on the subject lying around probably won't work. You are dealing with human nature here, and such attempts, while good hearted, are themselves more codependency. It is usually when you give up trying to change someone else that change, for them, begins.
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    Develop less emotionally-charged ways to say "no". A big part of codependent relationships is familiarity, and "button-pushing". As a non-codependent, you are developing boundaries where there were none; it may help to distance yourself from the family member that you are most codependent with (there always seems to be a primary one), or each member in their own way. Then seek to re-establish contact on your terms. And be aware that this distancing and re-engaging could occur with a single family member several times in a day, or even within an hour.
    • While your initial rejections of a family member's manipulative, codependent behavior toward you are apt to be quite emotionally charged, understand that developing an emotionally even-keeled and acceptable response (from yourself, and recognizing that their responses are entirely up to them) is what you're going for. You are in an emotionally superior position now, but have undoubtedly already grasped that displaying your superiority pridefully is not the way to go.
    • Even a response like, "since you put it that way, no", poorly delivered, is possibly effective in the moment, but ultimately just hurtful, and will just slow their process down.
    • The most effective responses seem to be non-emotional, similar to calm responses such as: "Sorry, I just wouldn't be comfortable doing that", or "Yes, I see that you don't have the same point of view; we are not communicating". This can be difficult for the newly non-codependent, but try to see that - as an adult - you don't owe anyone an explanation.
      1. "No" is not a dirty word. It just has negative connotations, especially to a child. To an adult, if it is the appropriate answer, it is the best answer.
      2. Recognize that freedom from co-dependence allows an enormously wide range of honest answers. In contrast, a codependent will invariably follow a narrow path in communicating (based on experience, you can often "write the script", verbatim, beforehand). Responses that may be ineffective in some situation - such as the previously-mentioned, "Since you put it that way, no" - can be perfectly acceptable.
    • Understand that if you come from a codependent family you have been practicing a form of "violent communication" - likely for your whole life. Look into "Non-Violent Communication", and give it a chance; this is how mature people talk to each other, in spirit. Practice-Nonviolent-Communication.
    • If you are a minor, your best path may be to express disagreement without rancor - while still displaying the desire to get along - and without any desire to cause a problem. Since this seems wholly inadequate to some situations, there are possible dramatic changes - such as seeking to stay with a different family member, or even seeking foster homes. But these "cures" can be very disruptive. You're probably better off learning to deflect the codependent behavior than to run away from the place that is also your home. Eventually, your personal skill development by doing so will likely be of greater benefit.
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    Expect change to be slow. Change in codependent behavior comes slowly, but have faith that your attitude is bringing about profound changes. Take care though; sometimes it is even possible that your change in reactions to codependent behavior may incite anger, and verbal or even physical violence toward you from another family member. Understand that often a big component in codependency is fear.
    • The fact that you show yourself prepared for volatile reactions beforehand, ready to take a verbal blow, even, without any substantial change in your demeanor (you are no longer being mentally "blown about by every wind"), will be noted by the codependent and it will have its effect. Most people resort to violent reactions sourced from their own fear, and your displayed lack of fear is frightening to them.
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    Realize that the best way to deal with codependency is to get away from it. A good way to consider another's codependency is to see it as a type of selfish tantrum. While from their perspective it's not necessarily emotionally-charged in that way, for them it has been the habit of years. That can change in the face of your new-found centered-ness, but you are basically dealing with an emotional adolescent; a child, no matter what age.
    • Remaining the adult in the situation - which includes not intentionally displaying any childish "superiority" - is going to prove to be the most effective way to deal with a codependent family member.
    • See that you are being watched in a new way. Don't be afraid to decline invitations that you might have previously accepted for codependent reasons (or vice versa), and have a loving, true answer prepared for if you are declining.
    • You have achieved a pearl of wisdom at great cost to the emotional toll wreaked by codependency. Codependents naturally have little appreciation for such things. The best approach to make them aware of this is actually to not talk too much about it, even when pressed - as strange as that may sound. Being up front about it didn't work. But making it seem "mysterious", or something that you appear to think they would not be interested in (again, without getting "superior" about it), seems to be one good way to influence a family member. This is also simply the choice to act with emotional maturity - respecting others' boundaries regarding their interests.
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    Treat other family members as if they are emotionally mature. Recognize that you have also likely spent most of your life being codependent, manipulative, and so forth. Practicing emotional maturity with members of your family is the best thing for you and for them. You can still "be there" for family members, but in a more mature and mutually fulfilling way.
    • This means just asking for something. Previously you might have felt obligated to manipulate or offer some deal. Note that you are now combating codependent behaviors which were likely your own, as well, with mature ones. While this may be tough for you the first few times, the response is usually so surprising that it quickly becomes easier - the new norm.
    • Be aware that the temptation to let them see you being "the mature one" may be intense at first, and possibly inescapable; recognize that this will be evident anyway and refraining from doing this overtly (to the extent you are able) is the best way to go.
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    Recognize that co-dependence may be an issue where you are the "child" and your parents (often parents who have always felt entitled to everything) are often the immature, codependent ones. Understand that they, like you, are a product of their generation and, like you, they are following their programming.

    It was taught to your parents from their parents, who got it from their parents, and so on. You are in the lucky position of de-programming from codependency. While it can be frustrating, recognize that your parents didn't do anything "wrong", and that mature love for them while still refusing unequivocally to participate in codependent behavior, will slowly move them along.
    • Understand also that in this case, being younger, your mind is more pliable than your parents; you may have learned to reject codependent behavior but they have likely never known anything else. "Children" often violently resist lessons that they need the most. As much as possible, have compassion. Note also that compassion can be interpreted as pity, and codependents are sensitive to this. Ultimately, work toward building mature, loving relationships.

Sources and Citations

  • Partially based upon: Melody Beattie, Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (Publisher: Hazelden, 1986) ISBN 978-0894864025
  • is a link to Stan Katz, who wrote "Codependency Conspiracy" with Aimee Liu; written more with an eye to helping chronic 12 steppers. This book manages to be relevant without hardly being about codependency (as a disease) at all; and that may be the point.

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