Dave is his son Jack’s biggest soccer fan — you can tell by his boisterous presence around the sidelines. A former player, Dave knows what it takes to perform well, and he makes sure Jack never misses a practice. He runs drills with him on nonpractice days and monitors his diet to ensure he’s avoiding junk. After a bad game, Dave points out missed opportunities and revisits problem plays. Jack is really a decent player, but his dad worries he won’t win a university scholarship if he doesn’t knuckle down.

If you ask Dave why he’s so involved with Jack’s soccer career, he’ll tell you it’s because he loves his son and is willing to do anything to help him succeed. What Dave doesn’t realize is that his sense of self-worth, his very identity, has become linked to Jack’s success on the soccer field. Worse, Jack’s own sense of self-worth is slipping, becoming tied less to their own performance than to how his dad sees himself in him.

Dave and Jack are fictional, but their stress-inducing dynamic is all too real. Experts call this type of relationship “enmeshed,” “fused,” “poorly differentiated,” or “codependent.” No matter what role a person plays, it’s as confusing as it is common.

What Is Codependency?

The oft-loaded term “codependence” originated in recovery circles, where it’s accustomed to describe enabling and other maladaptive behaviors people use to cope with emotional pain, such as a loved one’s alcoholism. But it isn’t just an issue for individuals involved with addicts. You can have a codependent relationship too.

“Emotional fusion fits everyone to greater or lesser degrees,” says Ruth Morehouse, PhD, codirector from the Marriage & Family Health Center in Evergreen, Colo. And these dynamics pervade all kinds of interactions, from casual encounters to long-term professional and family connections. Sooner or later, however, they can lead to relationships that are unfulfilling and dishonest — even, and often especially, with the people who are most important to us.

“People treat you ways you teach them to treat you,” says Julie Sullivan, LCMFT, founder of Looking Glass Therapy and Mediation Center in Leawood, Kan. “You’ve place yourself in a certain role in a relationship, and when you’ve had enough, you’re stuck in this role.”

Codependency is tricky to identify, however, because it’s often disguised like a willingness to adapt to others’ needs or perhaps a selfless desire to help. We all see ourselves through the eyes of others occasionally, but trouble starts when we overidentify with how we’re seen (“I’m trustworthy one!”) or become overly invested in how we see others (“List of positive actions is . . .”). We get confused about where we stop and other people begin.

And when we haven’t developed a strong sense of self — our place in the world, our boundaries, our values — and haven’t learned the skills to communicate wants and needs directly, we’re more prone to bend and fold ourselves to support what we think others want. In order to manipulate situations and people to obtain what we want from them.

People consciously or unconsciously assign everybody else in their lives a role, explains Lauren Zander, cofounder and chairman from the Handel Group, a corporate consulting and private coaching company. They then devise techniques for dealing with people based on their presumptions about what these people want from them.

“You are conducting a puppet show in your life with the people around you,” Zander says. “You don’t realize that you are the director, manipulating people and situations according to your opinion of them in your head.”

The specific roles we play in this “puppet show” or codependent relationship are typically passed down from generation to generation, says Jamie Huysman, PsyD, LCSW, a certified addictions professional based in Orlando, Fla. The roles we undertake as children are replayed when we’re adults, and rare may be the family that is immune to less-than-healthy dynamics.

“On a single end of the continuum, you see the families of enmeshment where most people have their spoon in your soup,” says Huysman. “Alternatively are the families of total detachment.”

Meanwhile, lots of us land somewhere in the middle, neither smothered nor ignored, but having nonetheless acquired a set of self-limiting beliefs about our place in the world and our expectations of others. All of us fall somewhere, as Huysman puts it, “along the bell curve of codependence.”

The point is, the majority of us could learn a thing or two about setting healthy boundaries. Therefore, here are some of the most common codependent roles (don’t be amazed if you see yourself in more than a single) — and some suggestions for how to change the script.

The Martyr

Illustrations by Gracia LamTo suffer is virtuous, especially when you put others’ needs ahead of your personal. At least that’s the message you may have received from your family, religious institution, or cultural heritage. At the office, you’re always the first to get an extra project and the last to depart the office, deciding to skip a fitness center when a friend wants company. You pick up the tab, unasked, even when you’re broke.

The Problem: When sacrifice is really a way of being, you neglect your personal need to receive love and care. Yet, paradoxically, that’s just what you are trying to get by jockeying for others’ appreciation or indebtedness. The approach usually backfires: Not only do you begin to resent those you’ve helped (who never seem to return the favor), however your so-called beneficiaries either take your suffering as a given (you’ve trained them well!) or begin to resent you right back.

A Healthier Choice: Self-Care

Understand the main difference between selfishness and self-care. It’s not selfish to leave work on time, or to meet your friend after your exercise routine. It’s not rude to separate the check if you can’t manage to foot the bill. In almost every case, no one will go without should you tend to your own needs.

“It’s exactly the same concept of the oxygen mask in the airplane,” says Sullivan. “If you don’t put your emotional oxygen mask on first, you can’t help anyone. You’ll be given out in the aisle.”

The Savior

Illustrations by Gracia LamThe world is really a dangerous place! Fortunately, you're here to save the day. W

hen your child includes a conflict or faces a consequence at school, you are at the principal’s office first thing the next morning to negotiate an answer. When your friend is short of rent money (again), you float her a little cash (again) so she can make ends meet.

The Problem: Everyone needs help sometimes. But when you feel personally responsible for another person’s comfort and well-being, you strip her from the opportunity to create her own comfort and well-being. You enable self-limiting behavior and effectively tell someone she's helpless without you. In time, she may even come to believe this.

A Healthier Choice: Empowerment

Ask yourself what you really want for your loved ones. Do self-reliance and competence appear anywhere on the list? If so, you have to step back and make the space for them — and occasionally refuse to step in.

Or maybe you realize that what you really want is to feel needed and valued in your relationships. Once you acknowledge this underlying motivation, do something toward finding a more direct method of feeling valued. An outside perspective can help, especially when it’s hard to imagine yourself away from savior role.

“When you’ve discovered that you’ve forgotten yourself in this whole process, transformation might be about getting yourself a therapist,” suggests Huysman.

The Adviser

Illustrations by Gracia LamIf you were a character in a Peanuts comic strip, it might be Lucy, sitting behind her makeshift desk offering advice about anything for a nickel. Indeed, you might have an uncanny ability to see directly into another person’s problems and offer clear counsel. Or you may just think you have great insight. Listening might not be your greatest strength.

The Problem: This is really a case where it truly takes two to tango: We might think of the person who constantly seeks advice because the one who lacks self-esteem. But people who feel compelled to perpetually advise and control others are equally insecure.“We call this ‘borrowed functioning,’” Morehouse explains. “The main one who’s taking charge or telling someone what to do — that person is just as needy. They require someone who will let them be in charge to artificially bolster their self-esteem. The dependency is equal.”

A Healthier Choice: Better Boundaries

What should you let your partner decide how to handle an argument with his parents? What if a colleague comes to you with a problem, and instead of giving her advice, you simply listen?

In Facing Codependence (Harper & Row, 2003), author and recovery expert Pia Mellody, RN, CSAC, describes boundaries as “invisible and symbolic ‘force fields’” that “give everyone a way to embody our sense of ‘who we are.’” If you are overly invested and active in the decisions another person makes, you've breached his force field (and that he has allowed you to do so). By setting and respecting healthy boundaries, perhaps with the help of a therapist, you can reframe your relationships around mutual respect.

The People Pleaser

Illustrations by Gracia LamYou enjoy volunteering at the neighborhood school and helping your neighbors with their fixer-upper. You don’t mind making the Friday coffee run for the colleagues. It’s especially nice when you feel the love, basking in the attention and praise that include your generosity. But being nice may have a dark side.

The Problem: You know you’ve discovered that dark side when you feel that your gifts aren’t adequately appreciated, or once the thought of hosting another dinner party seems more chore than joy. You actually know you’ve found it when you use your people-pleasing skills to control others, believing they will like you for the favors you need to do rather than for who you are. “People pleasing is an extremely passive form of manipulation,” says Marc Hertz, a St. Paul, Minn.–based consultant in the addiction and recovery field. “We often do things for others to get what we want or need from their store.”

A Healthier Choice: Say No

When you are about to volunteer all over again, ask yourself some questions: Does this choice feed me or deplete me? Will these folks really reject me if I don’t do what I think they need me to do? How does my body feel when I imagine committing to this — and when I imagine saying no thanks?

“Every time you say yes to the small things, it prohibits you from saying yes to the big things,” Sullivan says, suggesting that more-conscious choice-making frees you to do the things that truly energize you.

“Learn how to say no,” she says. “Take action. Learn it.”

The Yes-Person

Illustrations by Gracia LamYou say yes to a colleague when you mean no, then resent it. You smile in faux agreement together with your friend rather than say that which you feel. You maintain détente together with your partner, but you never admit when you’re upset.

The Problem: “[Couples] tell me ‘We never fight’ and look at me like they need my approval,” says Sullivan. In her opinion, a total absence of conflict means an erosion of honesty.

Zander requires a similar view of artificial peace. “After i go into a corporation, the reason half the folks don’t tell the boss what they’re thinking happens because they’re worried about their jobs,” she says. Still, stuffing your honest feelings — rather than finding a gracious way to express them — can cost you over time.

A Healthier Choice: Speak Your Truth

If you don’t speak directly about problems since you believe your directness would cause trouble, Zander suggests rethinking your motives: “You don’t want to do damage, but all you’re doing is damage. The reality gets to the underlying problem. If you don’t express the truth, the problem or situation will never be resolved.”

It takes courage to speak truthfully and risk contradicting someone else’s viewpoint, when you are honest doesn’t have to mean being confrontational. Let an aversion to conflict motivate you to obtain the most gracious, open-minded way to bring up thorny issues. As Sullivan asserts, “Conflict does not equal fighting. There are healthy methods to bring issues up and talk about what you’re feeling.”

If you see yourself in any of these roles, a hearty congratulations. Awareness is really a critical first step to growth. “We think these are normal struggles,” says Morehouse. “You need to go through them and recognize them and find out if you can develop a better method of relating.”

In her view, it is by the gradual process of differentiation — learning to hold on to yourself while maintaining relationships with other people — that all human beings evolve and grow. Whenever you set boundaries and acknowledge your own thoughts and needs, relationships be honest, exploratory, and, ultimately, much more fulfilling.

Changing enmeshed relationships won’t happen overnight. When one person changes his or her role, others will shift accordingly — but not always willingly. As you start to shed codependent behaviors, expect some pushback. Learning to handle it gracefully is simply another step toward more-satisfying relationships.

Or as Hertz succinctly puts it, “Would you like to pay the price for a bad relationship, or the price to maintain a good one?”

Illustrations by Gracia Lam

This article has been updated. It was originally published in the November 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Where to locate Help


Codependent No More, by Melody Beattie (Hazelden, 1986)

Voices of Caregiving, The Healing Companion: Stories for Courage, Comfort and Strength, by The Healing Project (LaChance, 2008)

Facing Codependence, by Pia Mellody (Harper & Row, 2003)

Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery, by William Cope Moyers (Hazelden, 2012)

Online Resources and Support

Al-Anon: www.al-anon.org

Co-Dependents Anonymous: www.coda.org

Family Caregiver Alliance: www.caregiver.org

U.S. Administration on Aging's Eldercare Locator: www.eldercare.gov

When You Need More Help

Codependent thinking and behavior can sidetrack otherwise healthy relationships, however they can be life depleting – even life-threatening – in cases when a family member is battling addiction. Whether or not the addicted friend or family member is receiving treatment, caregivers have their own critical recovery journeys to make.

“Our natural inclination is to keep your addict in our lives comfortable and solve her problems, unintentionally enabling her to continue on a destructive path,” says Marc Hertz, a St. Paul, Minn. -based consultant within the addiction and recovery field. “The worst mistake is thinking that everything will be okay once the addict is in treatment. Wait until she comes home and you're still walking on eggshells and people-pleasing. You need to be prepared to deal with someone who is midchange. You have to be prepared to be genuine, to both appropriately support someone midchange and to find comfort for yourself within the situation.”

Codependency can also reach an emergency point if you are responsible for a maturing or chronically ill member of the family and lose yourself in your caregiver role. Addictions expert Jamie Huysman notes that individuals caring for chronically ill or aging family members often fall into the same behaviors as members of the family of addicts. “We tend to be a martyr and put their health and healing first. Self-care is key, otherwise we get sick.”