Breaking Free from the Co-Dependency Trap

Breaking Free from the Co-Dependency Trap

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by Janae B. Weinhold PhD, Barry K. Weinhold PhD

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This bestselling book, now in a revised edition, radically challenges the prevailing medical definition of co-dependency as a permanent, progressive, and incurable addiction. Rather, the authors identify it as the result of developmental traumas that interfered with the infant-parent bonding relationship during the first year of life. Drawing on decades of clinical


This bestselling book, now in a revised edition, radically challenges the prevailing medical definition of co-dependency as a permanent, progressive, and incurable addiction. Rather, the authors identify it as the result of developmental traumas that interfered with the infant-parent bonding relationship during the first year of life. Drawing on decades of clinical experience, Barry and Janae Weinhold correlate the developmental causes of co-dependency with relationship problems later in life, such as establishing and maintaining boundaries, clinging and dependent behaviors, people pleasing, and difficulty achieving success in the world. Then they focus on healing co-dependency, providing compelling case histories and practical activities to help readers heal early trauma and transform themselves and their primary relationships.

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Breaking Free of the Co-dependency Trap

By Barry K. Weinhold, Janae B. Weinhold

New World Library

Copyright © 2008 Barry K. Weinhold and Janae B. Weinhold
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-838-5


1. Co-dependency

Getting Stuck in Infancy

We estimate that approximately 98 percent of all Americans suffer from symptoms of co-dependency. We believe that fewer than 1 percent of these people are fully aware of the impact of co-dependency on their lives, and even fewer are taking steps to change themselves.


The following is a list of some of the major symptoms of co-dependency:

• being "addicted" to people
• feeling trapped in abusive, controlling relationships
• having low self-esteem
• needing constant approval and support from others in order to feel good about yourself
• feeling powerless to change destructive relationships
• needing alcohol, food, work, sex, or some other outside stimulation to distract you from your feelings
• having undefined psychological boundaries
• feeling like a martyr
• being a people-pleaser
• being unable to experience true intimacy and love

To make matters worse — if that's possible — co-dependency is perceived by the medical community and many medically oriented therapists as a disease. If you are diagnosed as having "caught" co-dependency, like one catches a cold, your doctor or therapist likely sees co-dependency as similar to other illnesses — as permanent, pervasive, progressive, and even terminal.

According to much of the literature on co-dependency, you will never recover from it. The best you can hope for is to "hang out" with others who are recovering from co-dependency. If you attend support meetings regularly and work on yourself, you will not get worse and you might not be as bad off as you were before you started treatment.

This sounds depressing, doesn't it? Well, this book will not depress you. It can help you lift your heavy burden. It presents a positive developmental approach to the treatment and healing of co-dependency that is based on more than thirty years of research and experience in successfully helping people heal their co-dependency.


Our approach assumes the following about the cause and treatment of co-dependency:

• It is not a primary illness. It's a disorder caused by unidentified developmental trauma during the first six months of life. Developmental trauma involves energetic disconnections between children and their mothers that are either too long or too frequent. Adult caregivers who are unaware of children's social and emotional needs cause this trauma in infants and children unconsciously and without malicious intent. Developmental trauma prevents the completion of secure bonding and other essential developmental processes during infancy. The lack of secure bonding delays another major developmental process of early childhood, one often referred to as the psychological birth, which, ideally, should be completed between ages two and three. Because it is not possible to become psychologically separate unless secure bonding occurs first, we believe that at least 98 percent of the population is still struggling with both co-dependency and counter-dependency issues. And because parents typically haven't completed their own bonding and separation processes, they can't help their children complete them. They may even subconsciously resist their children's attempts to become securely bonded and psychologically separate.

• It is a cultural phenomenon. Because of the pervasive nature of the problem, our whole culture might be described as co-dependent. Our American social structure may actually depend on the perpetuation of this behavior. Seen from a cultural perspective, major institutions in our society inadvertently support co-dependent behavior. In fact, throughout history, most societies have been structured so that some groups rank above others, such as men over women and management over labor. With one group more powerful and in control of the resources, it is easy to create and sustain co-dependent relationships. Today, as people change their co-dependent behaviors, they are changing the larger social structure.

• Co-dependent patterns continue to recycle. When a person doesn't complete a developmental process, such as secure bonding, within the first six months of life, the need for completing it is carried along as excess baggage into the next stage of development. As a result, it's almost impossible for this person to successfully separate from his or her parents during the next stage of development. If bonding and separation are not completed during the developmental replay that occurs between ages twelve and sixteen, these uncompleted processes are carried on into adulthood and continue to disrupt the person's relationships and families. Co-dependent patterns repeat because they contain early developmental trauma that is unidentified and unhealed.

• It is a healing in progress. Adult co-dependency, with all its painful symptoms, is, in reality, an attempt to heal. There is a natural drive in all of us to heal and experience wholeness. We simply need to cooperate in this healing process to make it work. By forming co-dependent relationships, we are attempting to complete the secure bonding process we were unable to complete in early childhood.

• Recovery requires specific tools and understanding. When people understand the causes of co-dependency and are given the tools and support they need, they can and will heal themselves and eliminate the disruptive effects of co-dependency from their lives.

• Recovery requires a systematic approach. Because all parts of our culture support co-dependency, it's necessary to use a systemic approach as well as an individual approach to healing co-dependency. Therapy for couples, families, and groups is an effective way to help individuals break their habits of co-dependency and to consciously work to heal their co- dependency with their partners in committed relationships.

• There is no blame. It takes two or more people to create co-dependent relationships. Therefore, one person cannot be blamed for causing co-dependency in a relationship. Once you understand why you acquired co-dependent behaviors, you will have more compassion for yourself and your partner.


Drawing on the above assumptions, we define co-dependency as a failure to complete the essential developmental process of secure bonding and the developmental tasks associated with it. Developmental psychologist Margaret Mahler and her associates did extensive research to help identify the process of moving from psychological oneness with the mother at birth to psychological autonomy at about age two or three.

Mahler found that people who have successfully completed the essential developmental processes of the co-dependent and counter-dependent stages of development are no longer dependent on people or things outside themselves. They have a solid inner sense of uniqueness and of who they are. They can get close to others without fearing they will lose themselves. They can effectively meet their needs by asking others directly when they need help. And finally, they can maintain positive self-esteem even when criticized by others. Mahler also discovered that a failure to complete this vital developmental process can rob people of their full humanness and force them to live severely limited lives dominated by fears, compulsive behaviors, and addictions.

The successful development of psychological autonomy during the counter-dependent stage, according to Mahler, requires having two conscious parents who have dealt with enough of their own psychological hang-ups to be able to help their child. The following list tells you what you, as a parent, can do to assist your children in successfully completing this process of developing autonomy, or the psychological birth:

• Meet your children's needs for nurturing, protection, and emotional attunement in order to securely bond with them.

• Help your children learn how to reregulate their emotions when they've become dysregulated.

• Accept your children as they are, not as you would like them to be.

• Allow for the full expression of emotions, and accept and respond to your children's needs for eye-to-eye, ear-to-ear, skin-to-skin, and brain-to-brain contact.

• Support and encourage your children in the healthy exploration of their world by saying yes to them twice as often as you say no to them.

• "Kid proof" the immediate environment so your children can safely explore their world.

• Encourage the expression of independent thoughts, feelings, and actions appropriate for your children's ages.

• Provide understanding, support, and nurturing when your children need it.

• Model effective psychological independence by directly asking for what you want, expressing your own feelings effectively, setting appropriate limits, and negotiating directly to meet your needs, rather than using power plays and games. Research indicates that young children learn appropriate behaviors by modeling the behaviors of others around them.


When you look closely at the characteristics of people with co-dependent behaviors, you usually find behavior patterns more typical of infants than of fully functioning adults. This is because they are still trying to complete what they failed to complete as infants. We've listed the common characteristics of co-dependency. As you read the following list, place a check mark next to those you recognize in yourself:

_____ You're unable to distinguish your own thoughts and feelings from those of others (you think about and feel responsible for other people and their problems).

_____ You seek the approval and attention of others in order to feel good.

_____ You feel anxious or guilty when others have a problem.

_____ You do things to please others even when you don't want to.

_____ You don't know what you want or need.

_____ You rely on others to define and take care of your wants or needs.

_____ You believe that others better understand what is best for you.

_____ You collapse when things don't work out the way you expect them to.

_____ You focus all your energy on other people and on their happiness.

_____ You try to prove to others that you are good enough to be loved.

_____ You don't believe you can take care of yourself.

_____ You believe that everyone else is trustworthy.

_____ You idealize others and are disappointed when they don't live up to your expectations.

_____ You whine or pout to get what you want.

_____ You feel unappreciated and unseen by others.

_____ You blame yourself when things go wrong.

_____ You think you are not good enough.

_____ You fear rejection by others.

_____ You live your life as if you are a victim of circumstances.

_____ You're afraid to make mistakes.

_____ You wish others would like or love you more.

_____ You don't make demands on others.

_____ You're afraid to express your true feelings for fear that people will reject you.

_____ You let others hurt you without trying to protect yourself.

_____ You don't trust yourself and your own decisions.

_____ You find it hard to be alone with yourself.

_____ You pretend that bad things are not happening to you, even when they are.

_____ You keep busy so you don't have to think about things.

_____ You act as though you don't need anything from anyone.

_____ You experience people and life as either all good or all bad.

_____ You lie to protect and cover up for people you love.

_____ You feel scared, hurt, and angry but try not to let it show.

_____ You find it difficult to sustain intimacy with others.

_____ You find it difficult to have fun and be spontaneous.

_____ You feel anxious most of the time and don't know why.

_____ You feel compelled to work, eat, drink, or have sex even when you don't seem to get much enjoyment from the activity.

_____ You worry that other people will leave you.

_____ You feel trapped in relationships.

_____ You feel you have to coerce, manipulate, beg, or bribe others to get what you want.

_____ You cry to get what you want.

_____ You feel controlled by the feelings of others.

_____ You're afraid of your own anger.

_____ You feel helpless and powerless to change yourself or your situation.

_____ You feel like someone else ought to change in order for you to feel better.

If you checked more than half the items above, you know you have co-dependency issues to resolve. Someone once joked, "You know you are co-dependent if you are dying and someone else's life flashes in front of you." The characteristics of co-dependency reflect an outer-directed focus in life — you expect others to direct your life in some important area. Co-dependency in a relationship occurs when two people, both seeking from the other the symbiosis they experienced during their unfinished, early-childhood bonding process with their mothers, come together to form one complete person. Each feels he or she cannot function well without the help of the other person. This prevents personal growth and the maturation of the relationship until it is made conscious and worked on cooperatively. Eventually one of the two partners grows tired of the unholy alliance and strives to change things. This person may even end the relationship and start another, blaming his or her co-dependency problems on the partner in the earlier relationship. Lacking information about the causes of co-dependency, and lacking the tools and support necessary to break the pattern, this person will likely fail to change and will soon be embroiled in yet another co-dependent relationship.

A Comparison of Co-dependent and Counter-dependent Behaviors

By looking at a brief comparison between co-dependent and counter-dependent behaviors, you can see that they are truly opposite sides of the same coin. In relationships, one person typically shows more co-dependent behaviors and the other exhibits counter-dependent behaviors. However, it's not unusual to see the two reverse their roles. We've seen this happen many times while counseling couples. When this flip happens, couples often believe they have experienced some great healing. Not so!

Behavioral differences between co-dependency and counter-dependency include the following:

Behaviors of a Co-dependent PersonBehaviors of a Counter-dependent Person

• clings to others • pushes others away

• acts weak and vulnerable • acts strong and invulnerable

• is overwhelmed by his or her feelings • is cut off from his or her feelings

• is other-centered • acts self-centered

• is addicted to people • is addicted to activities or substances

• is easily invaded by others • is "armored" against others' attempts to get close

• has low self-esteem • has falsely inflated self-esteem

• acts incompetent • tries to "look good"

• has depressed energy • has manic energy

• is insecure • acts secure

• feels guilty • blames others

• craves intimacy and closeness • avoids intimacy and closeness

• acts self-effacing • acts grandiose

• displays victim behaviors • tries to victimize others before they can victimize him or her

• is a people-pleaser • is a people-controller

• was neglected as a child • was abused as a child

A New Twelve-Step Program for Recovering from Co-dependency

The following list briefly describes our self-directed method of recovery from co-dependency, which expands the traditional twelve-step process:

1. Recognize co-dependent patterns. Admit there is a problem you cannot solve with your current information and resources.

2. Understand the causes of the problem. Learn how to identify the effects of unhealed developmental traumas in your relationships.

3. Unravel co-dependent relationships. Learn to identify the symptoms of the problem as they exist in your current relationships and take steps to heal them.

4. Reclaim your projections. Stop blaming your problems on others.

5. Eliminate self-hate. Stop blaming and criticizing yourself for your mistakes and imperfections.

6. Eliminate power plays and manipulation. Stop manipulating others to get what you want.

7. Ask for what you want. Be willing to ask for what you want all the time, rather than expecting others to know what you want.

8. Learn to feel again. Learn to fully feel and express all your feelings.

9. Heal your inner child. Begin developing a stronger inner awareness of your thoughts, feelings, values, needs, wants, and desires.

10. Define your own boundaries. Learn to define the psychological boundaries between yourself and others.

11. Learn to be intimate. Healing yourself involves learning how to be close to others so that you can get the necessary information, nurturing, mirroring, and secure bonding you need. Mirroring is especially important. It involves others seeing you at a "being," or soul, level and appreciating your inner qualities, such as compassion and empathy, rather than praising you for what you do or possess.

12. Learn new forms of relationship. Learn to live in a fluid state of relationship with your True Self and with others, which will allow the development of your fullest potential.


Excerpted from Breaking Free of the Co-dependency Trap by Barry K. Weinhold, Janae B. Weinhold. Copyright © 2008 Barry K. Weinhold and Janae B. Weinhold. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. Janae Weinhold is a professional counselor and a former adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She and her husband, Dr. Barry Weinhold, founded the Carolina Institute for Conflict Resolution&Creative Leadership (CICRCL). In addition to almost sixty years combined teaching experience, the Weinholds have served for over five decades as licensed mental health professionals, specializing in the areas of developmental psychology, trauma, violence prevention, conflict resolution, cosmologies, and consciousness studies. They live in Asheville, North Carolina.
A licensed psychologist, Dr. Barry Weinhold is professor emeritus and former chair of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Counseling and Human Services Program. He and his wife, Dr. Janae Weinhold, founded the Carolina Institute for Conflict Resolution&Creative Leadership (CICRCL). In addition to almost sixty years combined teaching experience, the Weinholds have served for over five decades as licensed mental health professionals, specializing in the areas of developmental psychology, trauma, violence prevention, conflict resolution, cosmologies, and consciousness studies. They live in Asheville, North Carolina.

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