These letters concern codependent dynamics with lovers, friends and relatives. Codependency is defined by an unequal/unbalanced distribution of power in a relationship; one person is dependent (often, on a substance or activity) and has little or no empowerment--the other is The Co-dependent (or enabler) who needs to feel needed. Codependency is not the disease--it's only a symptom of deeper issues, like enmeshment, fear of abandonment, attachment difficulties, lack of self-worth and need for control. To learn more about this issue and how it's resolved, you can find my book, DO YOU LOVE TO BE NEEDED, OR NEED TO BE LOVED? on Amazon.



A. Both you and your husband have moved on after many years together, but it sounds like you don't want to let go. Second choices may not work out the way we fantasize, because we bring personal traits and unresolved issues into each new relationship, assuming "it'll be different this time." Your ex-husband may require a mother more than a wife--but men always leave their moms if/when they finally grow up. In listening to his complaints, you're helping him remain in that marriage; he now has both of you (it's called, triangulation) which could be what he actually wanted, before your separation. Bitching about that relationship relieves his tension and dissatisfaction. You thrive on this, or you wouldn't keep allowing it! Get on with your life; try talking with your current love about the "little things" that trouble you, and work them out in couple's therapy if necessary. Grab any happiness that's waiting for you there, and stop playing phone therapist with your ex! He made his bed; it's time to let him lie in it.

Q. Shari, do others get worse when the codependent gets better?

A. If you're using this term correctlyno. I'm sensing the real question here is; "does the codependent get worse, when the dependent partner, relative or friend gets better?" There's a heavy risk in not having someone nearby who's 'less-than' for the codependent--as he/she thrives on being needed--which forms the basis of their self-esteem. Whenever the codependent can't maintain a one-up position with another, he/she's confronted with their own inner emptiness, disempowerment, self-loathing, etc., which has driven their addiction to rescuing/fixing others, in the first place!

Q. My baby brother keeps dating psychotherapists, and being disappointed. His relationships are great for the first couple months, but then deteriorate pretty rapidly. For many years now, I've been urging him to get involved with women in other professions, but he seems almost compulsively drawn to this type. He's very bright and intuitive, so I assume therapists are attracted to him--but he continues to get hurt in these relationships, and isn't looking elsewhere! I'm getting really tired of picking up the pieces, every time his heart is broken. Can I reason with him in a way that will help him make better choices?

A. In my view, individuals who consistently date therapists are looking for the perks of a therapeutic relationship, without the price tag. They might presume that their needs for understanding and emotional support will be met by one who's supposed to be adept at navigating relationships and providing these resources--but this is seldom the case. First, the playing field isn't balanced (the therapist is always in the one-up position), and second, a healthy coupling is where the needs of both people are being met. Psychotherapists are human, fallible and wounded, just like everyone else; many have never done any inner work to resolve their most troubling issues, which leaves them susceptible to conflictual relationships and codependent dynamics. The way you relate to your "baby" brother, makes me suspect that you struggle with these concerns, as well. Emotionally sound relationships are mutually supportive, nourishing and growth enhancing. Quit being your brother's Emotional Emergency Room if/when he signs up for another 'heart surgery,' and he'll learn to avoid making pain-producing choices!

Q. Isn't marriage a codependency?

A. This term is frequently misunderstood and misused. A healthy marriage, friendship or partnership is one that's interdependent; these partners are mutually dependent on each other for need satisfaction. Codependency is defined by an unequal/unbalanced distribution of power in a relationship; one person is dependent (usually, on a substance or behavior) and has little or no empowerment--the other's The Co-dependent (or enabler) who needs to be needed, to ease his/her abandonment concerns, and maintain control.

Q. Shari, I was in a codependent marriage for 18 years, but got involved with another man who catalyzed my leaving. We've been in a balanced, supportive relationship for over a year. I've maintained my independence & autonomy, am feeling inspired and have a new lease on life. The problem is, we both drink too much, and have some baggage. Our individual issues and anxieties keep re-igniting these in each other! He has a very controlling mother, and has major commitment/engulfment issues. He's now depressed, and has pulled back sexually. Meanwhile, I'm dealing with my abandonment anxiety, and have an ongoing, nagging feeling that I can't count on him (or any man), and that I'll never truly be loved. It often makes me clingy, which pushes him further away. We've talked about all this--but we're both so frustrated, we've separated to break up the tension. We both admit to needing time to stop drinking and sort ourselves out. We want to work this out, but don't know where to start. We've each been in therapy before, but don't want more treatment at this time. Sometimes, I feel therapy's a bottomless pit; I could dig endlessly and find reasons for everything, but am not sure I need to unearth it all. My question is, can we make our own progress through understanding and self-awareness?

A. How's that worked for you, so far? It appears the two of you have formed a steady relationship with alcohol; it's the common denominator you share, but it's undermined your ability as a couple to monitor your feelings, and resolve problems. Addictions are driven by (core) emptiness and pain. A solid, meaningful therapeutic endeavor goes beyond insight, and promotes healing.A 12-step program (AA) would be a positive adjunct to doing some deeper inner work. You're obviously bright, and it seems you've already got the answers you're seeking--even if they don't match what you think you need. Perhaps the real question is, are you willing to do whatever it takes to follow your own best advice, or continue to struggle?

Q. Hi Shari, I totally identified with your "NEED TO BE LOVED" article. Unfortunately, it came too late to rescue my 25 year marriage and most recent 4 year relationship; I was the "caregiver." I've shared and discussed your article in great detail with my therapist. It awakened the most profound formative experiences in my life. Regrettably, although I'm now acutely aware of my codependent issues, I still experience that emotional loss when I'm not in a relationship. Consequently, I was wondering if there was an online chat forum where individuals could discuss such issues, and gain support in their efforts to improve.

A. Core emptiness drives codependency issues, and requires deep, sensitive therapeutic support. Accomplishment (in almost any arena) will help you build self-esteem, which is crucial for being with Yourself in the absence of another. Your therapist might help you explore activities that will stretch or challenge you; working/creating with your hands is especially beneficial, and think about taking classes in your areas of interest. An internet search could yield the "chat forums" you seek--but at this juncture, I sense you may be tempted to revert to your 'default' settings with the other members. CODA (Codependents Anomymous) meetings would probably be very helpful.

Q. Dear Shari, are People Pleasers capable of feeling loved?

A. Generally, no. Entitlement issues have impaired People Pleasers' capacity to believe they're lovable, so it's very difficult to accept and trust genuine expressions of love or caring from others. Givers/pleasers lacked crucial emotional supplies in childhood; these early deficits prompted a need to control their relationships (the one who needs the least, is always the one in power). Receiving is experienced as "taking" (away from someone) and feels "selfish." This triggers anxiety, as it invokes a sense of obligation that makes adequate reciprocation a seemingly impossible task. The tragic irony in all this, is that a pleaser's giving gestures are driven by deep needs for admiration and affection, which they're unable to welcome/embrace, because at their core they feel undeserving and unworthy.

Q. My boyfriend's a great guy who's very nurturing and considerate, and I love him very much--but during the two years we've been living together, I've had to support both of us. When I try to talk to him about the strain this puts on me, he's extremely apologetic, and promises he'll find work--but nothing ever changes. Dinner's usually waiting for me when I get home at night, and he does handle some of the household chores. I appreciate these things, but I've started to resent being the one responsible for all our finances. I'm wanting us to take vacations and travel a bit, but this is out of the question, given our present situation. We're not making love nearly as often as we used to, and I'm getting concerned about this! I'm not sure how to go about fixing either issue, and would be grateful for guidance.

A. It sounds to me as if each of you is trying to heal childhood deficits; he's taken care of you in ways that are comforting and nourishing--and in carrying the adult responsibilities for the relationship, you've basically done the same for him! Unmet primal needs (those of infancy and early childhood) always take precedence over adult needs, and your boyfriend may be supplying some "nurturing" resources you missed out on, growing up. This would make it seem dangerous for you to rock the boat, or consider making him 'step-up' to being an equal partner in the relationship, for fear of abandonment. Your sex life may be suffering for a number of reasons, but here are just a few: 1. He's begun seeing you as the "Mom" who will love and take care of him, no matter what2. You've been feeling resentment, and a loss of respect for him (which inhibits anyone's sex drive). 3. This is an enmeshed, codependent relationship that cannot function in a healthy way, and your love life is (finally) reflecting it.People don't change, until what they've been doing doesn't work for them anymore. Assure him of your love, but make it less comfortable to maintain his non-working status, by continuing to confront it in a quiet, but direct manner. Be prepared to cancel your cable service, or anything else that makes his stay-at-home lifestyle appealing, and state that you need him to be a contributing financial partner by a specific deadline, or he'll have to find other lodgings.

Q. Shari - I found your website after doing a search for "abandonment anxiety." As far back as I can remember, I've always searched for a mother figure. My own mother was great, but after much therapy I can now admit that I had a need that was not getting met by her. I can't pinpoint the exact need, but I sought love and attention from (mostly older) female friends. It's become a cycle I've tried hard to stop. I read your article about needing love and attention and while a lot of that does apply to my situation, I've never been the "caregiver" type. I'm usually the needy, hurt one seeking approval and acceptance. I am completely out of touch with my own emotions and have become numb. Unlike one of the descriptions in your article, I am not someone who moved far away; instead, my mother has enmeshed me into her life, and I have taken on the role of surrogate husband, due to my father's inability to be an equal partner with her. I have also never had a relationship with anybody. I'm not sure if it's really a fear of commitment or my fear of being hurt and abandoned. I began therapy over a year ago because my current "mother figure" situation was causing me much grief. I hated that I've needed these people in my life, and knew it had to stop. My therapist was very helpful and I did learn a lot. But I became frustrated when she'd tell me that I needed to do my "feeling work." To this day, I'm not even sure what "feeling work" is, or how to go about doing it! Recently, my therapist had to stop seeing me due to a job promotion. Again, I felt terribly abandoned, and as I walked out of her office for the last time, I realized I'd kept the cycle going... she became another mother figure for me. I guess I'm needing advice on my next step. Should I find another therapist and continue? How can I stop feeling this way?

A. Given you've tried to get your needs met with surrogate mothers your entire life, I'm not sure I'd agree that your own was/is "great." It seems that her inability to take good enough care of you, stems from her unwillingness to care for herself. Adopting your father's role, means you're relieving him of responsibility, while enabling Mom to remain in a marriage that doesn't meet her needs. In allowing this enmeshment, you're fulfilling your caregiver compulsion with both of them! Your mother has parentified you, which is an undermining/toxic dynamic that probably began when you were very small (and might explain why you couldn't get your needs met). A true friendship is reciprocal, which means that both parties are responsive to the needs of the other. Effective therapy assists you in learning how to identify and respond to your feelings. You should be supported and re-parented, which facilitates and encourages a bond of trust. Attachment or transference toward your therapist is natural/normal, within context of healing childhood wounds. These elements are critical to your ability to enter into a gratifying "relationship" one day, and your self-protective instincts in this regard have served you very well. Your seemingly endless search for a "mother figure" is heartbreaking, but not a bad or shameful issue! Applaud yourself for trying to gain a sense of what it feels like, to actually have one.

Q. Hi Shari, I really like your article, "Do you love to be needed, or need to be loved?" I think I'm a caregiver, as I have a strong desire to give rather than receive. I'm in an unfulfilling marriage, but keep my frustration to myself. I met a divorced man online, and bonded with him for a year and a half. We chatted almost daily, and got very close. He has a lot of issues (I guess that's why we bonded), but we never talked about our future, except when he said he wanted our relationship to grow. This scared me a little, but deep inside I knew it wouldn't get more serious, and encouraged him to socialize with others. He shared a lot about his personal life, like being a "serial womanizer" during his marriage, his wife withholding sex when she was angry, and his insecurities--he feels unattractive and worthless. He told me he'd taken care of his mom, after his parents divorced when he was young. I was prepared for his departure, but didn't expect it to end with his (online) sexual liaison with a divorced woman. I confronted him, saying that I'd seriously thought about our future together. He said he'd sensed it, and asked if I was as frightened as he was--and that he couldn't help himself, but he always sabotages his relationships. I said he should learn to control himself, so he doesn't repeat what he did in his marriage. He's assured me the new woman's not special, but she wrote (in her blog) that he wants to marry her, and mentioned the things we'd talked about! I was angry he lied to me, and asked to meet for a proper closure, so I could get him out of my life (at that point, I'd decided to leave my husband and felt this would help me to move on). He refused, and emailed that he loves the other woman and wants to be loyal (even though he's been cheating all this time, with me)! They got engaged and I didn't talk to him for awhile, as I didn't want to intrude--but later, I apologized for being angry, and he flirted with me again! I'm now feeling I need to rescue him from the other relationship, as I think she's screwed up--and it's destructive for him to marry her (should he have the guts to do it). I need help so that I don't do this; I've already started advising him about loving himself and getting his priorities right, but I think I should just leave him alone and let him learn the hard way. I've thought of sending him your article, so he can understand his situation better...should I? He tends to listen, especially when I tell him I care about his welfare--but when that woman tempts him with sex and family, he caves in to her! R. in Singapore

A. I agree that you should stay out of this guy's life. We connect and remain with people who match our level of emotional development. It seems your fear of closeness, is echoed by his impulse to "sabotage" his relationships. Online romances breed emotional insulation; 'intimacy' that's shared is often false, as you never have to risk meeting or forming a genuine relationship. Engage a solid couple's therapist for your marriage--but be willing to forfeit the relationship if it's determined that you can't meet each other's needs. Stop trying to rescue your online friend, and work on your own healing and growth.

Q. I have People Pleaser Disorder. I'm always taking care of other's needs, and can't seem to say "no" to anyone! I'm finally recognizing I have a real problem, and want help with it. Do you know of any books or CD programs that can heal this disorder? I'm exhausted a lot of the time, and tired of it!

A. There's no such thing as "People Pleaser Disorder." You're describing a pattern of behavior that's symptomatic of deeper issues, which can prompt health problems, like Anxiety/Panic or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders, but doesn't exist in any diagnostic manual. Always putting another's needs before your own, is a learned reflex that began in childhood. You may need professional help to break this habit--which is impossible, without triggering anxiety and self-esteem concerns. Check the two (highlighted) links above, for more insight.

Q. Shari, my dad and I have always shared a very special bond. He's always said that I "get" him better than anyone else does. We've talked about many issues my mom never seemed to connect with or understand. After many years of marriage, they separated about 18 months ago. The trouble is, he's recently met a new woman, and is suddenly acting like he's in love! I barely hear from him anymore, and he's much slower in returning my phone calls. I'm deeply hurt by this, and am furious he's gotten involved with this other woman so quickly. Each time I've tried to talk with him about these things, he assures me his love for me (his "best girl") hasn't changed, but it sure doesn't feel that way! We've been arguing a lot about this. What can I say to make him know how difficult this is, and get him to pay more attention to me? "Fatherless"

A. Dear Fatherless, when a parent connects with his/her child in a way they can't (or won't) with their spouse, it's often referred to as emotional incest. Sadly, you may have learned to associate your sense of self-worth with your father's need for you, and as your needs were consistently put aside in order to be available/responsive to his, this became an enmeshed bond. As a child and young adult, it sounds like you got 'triangled' into your parent's marriage, and may have been used to compensate for deficits in closeness between them. These dynamics would have given you a sense of importance and value (and might have extended their union), but essentially placed you in the role of the "other woman." As a consequence, you could be struggling with far more than inadequate attention from your paternal relationship! The real trouble is, aside from feeling abandoned right now, these experiences can inhibit your ability to form healthy/reciprocal adult attachments of your own, and prompt future partner selections that are codependent in nature. Tell your father you miss the interactions you've always shared, state how much this hurts you, and (for now) try to leave it at that. Seek therapeutic support from someone who can assist you in coming to terms with this current sense of loss, as well as the deficits and difficulties it appears you've experienced, in your relationship with your mother.

Q. I have this friend who always seems to be struggling. I've tried to provide helpful feedback and have even loaned him money, but it seems he's still in the same position, which never gets any better. I'm sensing I need to step back from this friendship, but I don't want to abandon him. What should I do?

A. Your heart's in the right place, but it needs to be in balance with your perceptions! Some people are damaged in ways that keep them choosing to stay in survival mode, as this is what's familiar (and comfortable). Under these circumstances, no amount of help you offer will be utilized for growth or good. Maintaining the victim role may allow your friend to feel a sense of control, and could be part of a borderline (waif) issue. Encourage him to seek help from a free clinic and Debtors Anonymous meetings. Trust your instincts to "step back" from this relationship, as continuing to give doesn't appear to serve either of you!

Q. I read your article; DO YOU LOVE TO BE NEEDED, OR NEED TO BE LOVED? It hit home for me, and I was amazed at the profound power of knowledge. But how do you change all those "familiar" patterns and stop rejecting good people who could be loving/giving to you? What is the recovery or hope of changing all that early programming, as who had a chance when they were an infant? Thanks for your help. JS

A. Trust is (ideally) established in the first year of life with our mothers. As an infant, you may have sensed you couldn't depend on her to respond sufficiently to your needs, and began moving toward emotional self-reliance in order to survive. This has served you in some ways, but not in others, as it's kept you from getting help with forming healthier, more gratifying attachments! Effective therapeutic support assists you in healing early deficits, by providing corrective emotional experiences that are qualitatively different than what you've been exposed to in the past. These therapeutic opportunities allow you to receive nurturing, attentive (re)parenting, and assist you in feeling more worthy (and desirous) of nourishing/loving experiences in your interpersonal world. Early emotional trauma can be overcome with the help of someone who understands how profoundly these wounds have affected you, and hindered your capacity to accept and trust a supportive, caring, ongoing relationship. Most 'therapy' doesn't tap into this material. Seek help from someone well-versed in treating narcissistic injury or core issues. Additional insights can be gained via the writings of Alice Miller; some of her book titles are mentioned farther down on this page, or search for this author on Google.

Q. I'm in a 6 month relationship and things were good until I noticed alot of control issues. My boyfriend's very cheap, and on a recent vacation we fought over petty things. I paid for my entire half of the trip and we stayed at my uncle's place. One morning we argued over his cheap pettiness; my uncle had put us up, taken us out for dinner, and my boyfriend had not even thanked him! He wouldn't join us for lunch (saying I'd made him feel uncomfortable), so he had me drop him off at a camera store. After lunch I looked in the store and didn't see him. When I finally did, he accused me of abandoning him and that he "felt like a motherless child!" He said he was given up by his sick mum, went to foster homes and was raised by his grandparents. He felt I laughed at him (which I did not!) and then he blew up. Since the vacation, he blames me for everything. We had another fight when we returned, and he called the cops on ME because I was trying to reason with him and he "did not want it to escallate." In this last fight he insisted everything's still my fault! When I try to speak with him he confuses me, as he doesn't see anything as how it really happened! Walking up and down the street, he yelled at the top of his lungs at me. I was scared, so I went to get my stuff from his room and he snatched my backpack and emptied all my belongings onto his front lawn. He then began throwing them into the street; clothes, shoes, makeup, all my personal things, and kept yelling at me. His perceptions are not connected to reality. Does he have some major issues, and a warped way of blaming another to justify his feelings? Please help!!!!!!!

A. Sounds like you're with a pretty wounded/troubled guy. The issues you've uncovered within these first 6 months will probably get worse, not better. It appears that his rage is (displaced) anger toward his abandoning mother, which is being projected onto you. It's important to know, that when you're spending time with someone who consistently makes you question yourself or feel off-center and crazy, you may be involved with an individual who on some level, is! You're obviously having difficulty relating to this man, and you should not expect to change him. So here's the real question: Are you ready to move on, and look for someone who's better equipped to meet your needs?

Q. Shari, my partner and I are expecting a baby. I'm not the father of this child (her brief affair with the biological dad ended badly), but we've been friends for a few years and have recently become lovers. The thing is, I really care about this woman, but I'm not sure I'm ready to raise a kid! When we talk about getting married before the baby's born (this July), I feel so overwhelmed I can barely stand it. I feel guilty and want to do the right thing, but this isn't the way I saw my life unfolding before all this happened. I feel trapped. I don't want to be a jerk and leave, but I'm so depressed and anxious all the time, I've thought of running my car off the side of a mountain. Please help, as I see no way out of this.

A. First, seek immediate professional help for your depression and anxiety. Second, stop holding yourself hostage for a crime you haven't committed, and let yourself off this hook! Your friend apparently had options regarding this pregnancy back in October/November of last year, and chose to keep this baby. Whether you decide to stay in this relationship or not, you have no obligation to marry, and no legal responsibility to take care of this woman or her unborn child. Something tells me this isn't the first time you've tried to 'rescue' this friend from her troubles, and nothing in your letter suggests that you're in love. Is it possible you're being used to compensate for her prior lack of judgement? Can this be a loving/stable foundation for raising an emotionally healthy child? State your feelings as clearly and sensitively as possible. If your friend cares about you, she'll admire your courage and honesty, and accept responsibility for having placed herself in this position. If she becomes abusive or hysterical, read BLACKMAILED INTO FATHERHOOD; Borderline women, and men who love them, and then listen to what your gut tells you!

Q. Shari, I have a good friend who's very generous with her time and energy, and always rushes to help others. Problem is, she drinks alot and is often depressed, and HER life seems pretty screwed up. I know she's a good person and means well, but she takes much better care of everyone else than she does herself. I've urged her to get help for her own issues, but she insists she's "just fine." Hanging out with her usually means listening to complaints about men who've disappointed her or treated her badly, and it's getting old. I want to back away, but I'm afraid of hurting her feelings. What the heck should I do? "Trapped"

A. Dear Trapped, your friend sounds like a classic codependent personality, which means she's dependent on feeling needed by others. This is what (temporarily) bolsters her fragile sense of identity and self-worth, while easing abandonment anxiety she acquired in childhood. Basically, in order to feel stronger and more 'in control' of her own life, she needs to be with someone weaker or more needful, but this can never provide authentic self-esteem. Sadly, she re-creates this relational dynamic over and over, hoping (each time) to construct a more positive self-image, because taking care of someone elseis the only way she derived a sense of value as a child. Distancing yourself in a gentle and caring manner can be the first step toward enabling her to seek the professional help she needs! Try passing along my piece; DO YOU LOVE TO BE NEEDED, OR NEED TO BE LOVED? (now available in an expanded book version on Amazon) and then listen to what your inner voice advises about taking better care of you.

Q. Hello, Shari Schreiber! I am very pleased with your article, "DO YOU LOVE TO BE NEEDED, OR NEED TO BE LOVED?" Thank You! I was trying to find books on "parent/child" relationships, what they imply and how to break the cycle. Perhaps I am referencing this type of relationship incorrectly, but what I mean is: 2 GROWN people in a romantic relationship, where one takes on the parental, responsible role, and the other takes on the childish, needing-to-be-raised role. I was the "child" in my past relationship with an older giver. I destroyed this relationship with an infidelity (I "grew up" and away from her), and now find myself being the giver to a person who is 7 years my junior. ...It's like a weird recycling. I would like to read about any applicable how-to healing, as to avoid choosing such unequal partners. I would also like to pass these books onto the older giver on whom I cheated, as an attempt to mend us - she is not talking to me. The closest I could get to a topic resembling this "parent/child" thing is your article, and I referenced this as "The Mother Figure." Any advice would be most appreciated. "J."

A. You're welcome, J. Typically, we (subconsciously) choose relationships in order to heal wounds or deficits from our past, and we're most likely to select a partner who replicates characteristics (or relational dynamics) that are closest to our experiences with the parent we had our most troubling issues with. My article deals mostly with elements of codependency and narcissism that are inherent in a caregiver or 'rescuer' type's personality structure based on their childhood experiences, and one's age is fairly inconsequential. For someone with codependent and/or narcissistic traits, feeling needed promotes a sense of safety and comfort, because it calms an underlying abandonment anxiety that many of us developed in childhood; "if you NEED me, you won't leave me." As for your choice of "unequal partners," when the playing field of a relationship is unbalanced (one partner having considerably more power than the other) it can signal intimacy and/or attachment issues. Sounds like you've managed to separate/individuate from your "older woman" (mother figure), which may have completed something that was difficult to accomplish during your 'launching phase' in adolescence, but you went about this poorly and lost her trust. We all have parent, child and adult aspects in our makeup. Transactional Analysis views this from a human interaction model, and reveals how conflict can erupt when one's "parent" part engages the other's "child" part, etc. Intense reactivity is usually the outcome. The internet offers a lot of material on various clinical and relationship issues (like codependency) and a 'keyword' search will usually take you where you want to go. 

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