How to Deal With an Extremely Codependent Family

Codependency is a disease of the Self, generally passed down through families. A codependent person cannot access his or her innate self for internal cues, and instead organizes thinking around another person, process, or substance.


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    Understand signs of codependency. There are many signs. One of them is dysfunctional boundaries. Like boundaries with personal "physical" space (ie. standing too close to someone in an elevator) people in codependent relationships interfere with others by invading emotional space, allowing others to invade theirs, and having trouble distinguishing their own feelings, needs, and responsibilities from other people. You realize you feel uncomfortable not giving help when asked, or you are the main provider for comfort or any other support for a person close to you, or you feel pulled in many directions by the people closest to you.
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    Explore books about codependency and its effects on the family and relationships. Look for material on the Internet and gain an understanding on the causes of the relationship difficulties.
    • Codependent parents, for example, may have a hard time letting go of parenting and providing for their adult children, or they rely on their grown children to help them in unhealthy ways, reversing the parent-child dynamic. Pulling away from either dynamic is a positive move toward establishing healthy personal boundaries. It does not mean that you're a "bad" son or daughter, even if the parent claims that this is the case.
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    The best way to move out of a codependent relationship is to stop focusing on the other and to focus on yourself and your health. When you put your need to grow, mature, and become a healthier person first, that will create a shift in your codependent relationship.
    • Be aware that doing this work will destabilize the relationship and make things harder before it makes them better. Imagine you and the person with whom you have a codependent relationship are roped together and standing on ladders next to one another. As things are now, you are stabilized--on the same rungs on your ladders and the rope around you both is taut. You understand the unspoken rules of how you interact.

      Now, when you begin to get healthy, begin moving up your ladder, the other person in the relationship will feel the pull of the rope and try to pull you back down, may even move down her / his ladder a rung or two to get you to move back to where things were. This is normal. Continue your work to grow, mature, and become healthier. The rope can stretch.
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    Eventually the other person will have to begin getting healthier as well or will have to rethink the importance of the relationship. (and generally, most folks will choose to get healthier, thus making the whole thing less codependent)
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    If the other person does not come to respect your needs and/or growth, however, the healthiest choice is to maintain your boundaries. Find ways to make choices that are independent of their needs. In worst-case scenarios, curtailing contact may be necessary for personal growth.


  • It will hurt to move up your ladder of health, and it will feel like you are hurting the other person. Think of it more as the pain of healing an old wound, knowing the end result will be better for everyone concerned.
  • Watch out for public attempts at sabotage, which really is a codependent way for the other person in the relationship to embarrass or shame you into moving back down the ladder.
  • Watch out for increased drama as you try to grow and mature, and to defend your healthy personal boundaries.
  • Be honest about what you are doing and why, but know that you will most likely not be understood by the other, who will be so focused on pulling you back into old patterns.
  • It may be helpful to give subtle hints to your partner about your upcoming growth and change. That way your partner can slowly adapt to the changes and not feel blindsided. But if they are still having a hard time accepting the new changes then make a full step forward so they understand you are serious about it.


  • Codependent individuals, particularly partners and family members, may act out, blame you, or be manipulative in order to maintain their power. This is particularly true as you try to pull away and re-define your boundaries. Be prepared and hold firm to your health. Adults are responsible for their own well-being. They may not overcome their Codependency, but they will survive your move toward health.
  • If you are disabled be aware that you have a right to your boundaries anyway, even if you're physically dependent on family members. You have a right to be treated with dignity and respect and to have some say in your life. There is a big difference between controlling others and controlling yourself. Worst case you may have to seek a different living situation and get help from Medicaid or Medicare instead of relying on relations.
  • Real dependence attracts codependents and can create codependence. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between physical needs and emotional needs. With elderly parents, be aware that codependency may be the only way they know how to behave if they need real help because they have become disabled. It can get complicated, but holding your boundaries emotionally does not mean abandoning them when they need real help with self care, food preparation, cleaning and so on. Just don't expect to do it in their way to their standards because you're not them, you don't have their habits of decades or exactly their priorities.
  • If you feel that they truly are acting out in response to your healthful progress in ways that are dangerous, encourage them to seek counseling.

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

Article Info

Categories: Family Life