Shrink Rap: Family Systems & Codependency

Shrink Rap: Family Systems & Codependency

I wrote previously about the codependent and dependent personalities. We find that codependency is created by the family system.

Codependency is a set of behaviors and attitudes that form a diagnosable complex: codependent people are overly responsible; they want and try to please everyone; they are extremely upset if anyone criticizes them; they usually feel a lot of guilt, and are easily manipulated by someone tapping into their guilt. Codependent people are exceptionally hard workers in general and they often get taken advantage of because they work so hard and want to make sure they please everyone. And they are often hooked up with dependent personality types.

You can observe the codependent coming up with ideas, solutions, explanations, helpful suggestions, books, articles… always giving them to their dependent person/partner to help them “see the light.” Bu, in reality, the more they provide, the less the other partner or family member has to figure out or decide.. Also, it’s easy to let the codependent make all the decisions and then get angry when something doesn’t work. Codependent people are much more concerned with whether or not they are liked and doing everything right, than they are with whether or not the other person is a good person and doing the right thing. They often fail to judge the integrity and motivation of others.

Codependency and dependency go hand in hand. We were not born this way. We develop the behaviors and attitudes due to the family system of origin. Also, we can develop these patterns as an adult, by joining up with a dependent/abusive person. When people are locked into these patterns, they create “systems” in the family.

For brevity, I am going to refer to this type of family system as the “alcoholic system.” But the same dynamics apply to the various types of dysfunctional family systems too. This sort of family system is known to be  “closed.”What happens here stays here: no one airs their family problems (“we don’t air our dirty laundry”) to the public. People in the family are not allowed to discuss concerns openly: these families keep secrets; they rationalize behavior. Mom didn’t fall down the stairs because she was drunk, she just wasn’t feeling well. Dad isn’t passed out on the lawn because he’s impaired; he got sleepy and isn’t that funny. Everyone in the family is participates in the secrets. The family operates one way behind closed doors and another way to the general public. Children growing up in these systems learn to doubt their own perceptions about things and carry the behavior into adulthood.

Living within these families, one never knows what “mood” you are going to walk into with one or more of the members. It can change drastically from one day to the next, or even from one hour to the next. As a result, people living with these unpredictable, often verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive and volatile people begin to change themselves. They in turn develop fairly predictable behaviors, which they carry into other relationships as adults and pass down to their children. Children growing up in these families carry these learned roles into adulthood and future relationships. They also develop anxiety because adults are not in control and often, children have to be the parents. When children are not protected appropriately by adults, they develop anxiety, which they carry into adulthood.

If you want to learn more about this subject, I suggest reading several of the books I mentioned in my last article, for starters, to begin to get an idea of what these terms mean.  They are easy reading and should evoke memories of your own childhood and create awareness of what you, your children, or friends might be going through today.

Awareness, education, and working on how those issues affect you as an adult will help stop the cycles that get passed on from generation to generation. Look for books on Codependency, and ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), or email me for a bibliography.



Dr. Susannah Smith

Dr. Susannah Smith is a licensed practicing clinical psychologist and organizational development consultant, with offices in Telluride and Ridgway. If you would like to contact her, she can be reached at;; or 970-728-5234.  

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